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The Presleying of Abstract Art


Elvis Presley borrowed so much from James Brown that when James Brown saw him perform he said, “That’s me up there.”  Like music critics who give credit to Elvis Presley for the creation of rock ‘n roll, ignoring Ike Turner or Chuck Berry, the same kind of chauvinism happens in the art world, when complete credit is given to white European and American artists for the creation of Modern Art.  Are curators and critics deliberately ignoring the full picture, even if they know better?  Or do they cling to their version of the facts like Tea Party people denying global warming?

Case in point: New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently opened an exhibition of art practices in Eastern and Western Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century titled “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.” On view from December 23, 2012 through April 15, 2013, their promotional materials proclaim:

“Abstraction may be modernism’s greatest innovation.  Today it is so central to the conception of artmaking that the time when an abstract artwork was unimaginable has become hard to imagine.”

I have yet to visit this show, so am not questioning if the works are worthy of being considered of great importance to the development of modernism. What I am reacting to is the fact that this show’s title and premise deliberately ignores the full picture, refuting mountains of evidence found over centuries of human history.

Facts such as the fossilized engravings found in the South African Blomos Cave, proven to be about 77,000 years old, which provide the earliest known evidence humans were creating abstract images since at least the Middle Stone Age era.  This find was first reported in January 2002 in the well respected journals Science and Scientific American.  Facts such as the well documented abstract images found in cave paintings, as figurines, and decorative detailing on utilitarian objects made during the Upper Paleolithic era, 40,000 ago, and the huge influence of monuments of archaic cultures such as Stonehenge, and the pictographs over 50 miles of Peruvian desert, thought to have been created between 200 BC and 700 AD by the Nazca Indians, a United Nations World Heritage site since 1994. Closer to home, explorers, adventurers and archeologists have uncovered abstract images in the altered landscapes of earth mounds, scattered throughout the Midwest and Southern United States, some dating as early as 250 BCE, including artifacts such as copper figures, shards of pottery and bits of fabrics, which demonstrate abstraction was a widely popular form of representation long before the twentieth century.

More facta such as, by the second half of the 19th century, European and American interest in accumulating humanity’s “artifacts” was so strong that public moneys were spent on housing ethnographic collections in grand buildings, including an anthropology museum built in Berlin in 1873, and in New York, the Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1877 and began loading rooms full of arts from peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and Alaska, Oceania, the Far East, Mesoamerica, South America and elsewhere around the globe, where they still reside.  Also, ground shaking expositions and world fairs brought American and European artists in direct contact with ethnographic materials and actual practitioners who demonstrated their traditional art forms, from Asia, African, Pacific and Native American cultures.  Crowds numbered in the millions at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition (1876), Paris’ Exposition Universelle (1889 and 1900), the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (1893), Brussels’ Exposition Universelle in 1897, Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition (1901), and the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis (1904). Around the turn of the twentieth century, vanguard Paris-based artists are said to have “discovered” African masks and figure sculptures at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (now Musée de l’Homme).  By then they could easily collect inexpensive curios in flea markets, brought by sailors, missionaries, and other travelers returning from colonized territories, and many gallery dealers offered quality examples of ancient African and Oceanic arts.

This led to the fact that Alfred Stieglitz  (one of the artists featured in the current MoMa show) claimed his New York City gallery, commonly known as “291” for its Fifth Avenue address, in 1914 mounted the first U.S. exhibit of Central and West African sculpture where it was called “art” rather than “ethnography.”  Much of Stieglitz’s exhibition could easily be described as “abstract.”

The fact that Surrealism’s philosopher André Breton famously displayed a “wall of objects,” behind his desk in his Paris atelier where he lived from 1922 to 1966. This collection easily fulfills standard definitions of abstraction.  There were sculptures from the South Pacific islands of Easter Island, New Guinea and New Ireland, besides other artworks including Native American, pre-Hispanic Mexican and Inuit objects, along with paintings and engravings by his friends and associates, including Francis Picabia, Roberto Matta, Wassily Kandinsky and various famous others. Breton’s wall was transferred and installed at the Centre Pompidou’s show, “La Révolution Surréaliste” (2002), and was featured in critic Alan Riding’s article for The New York Times (December 17, 2002) when everything in Breton’s estate except the wall was being prepared for a 2003 auction. Riding says Breton was especially inspired by Oceanic art, considering it “one of the great lock-keepers of our heart.”  Ishmael Reed, after viewing Breton’s collection in Paris commented that “instead of being called a Surrealist, Breton should be called an Africanist.”

In fact New York MoMA’s current exhibit’s claim of “inventing abstraction” is even more audacious because it even refutes documentation available in the museum’s own exhibition history. Since its founding in 1929, MoMA mounted various shows intended to heighten awareness of connections between contemporary arts and non-Western and indigenous traditional arts, largely because many of them employ “abstraction.” The aesthetics of Aztec, Maya, and Inca art were featured in “American Sources of Modern Art (1933).”  Major exhibits of African and Oceanic art were assembled in 1935 and 1946. “Indian Art of the United States (1941)” acknowledged the huge revival and popular reinventions of Native American arts by the early twentieth century, such as the prized plates and bowls by the Hopi master potter Nampeyo, and the Kwakiutl blankets, carved masks and boats, and ceremonial songs and dances documented in Edward Curtis’s 1914 film, Land of the Headhunters.  Including over one thousand examples of ancient, historic and contemporary arts and crafts made by American Indians living in the present continental United States, Alaska and Canada,  Newsweek magazine said this show set Indian art “among American fine arts.”  By 1985, when then Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture William Rubin curated MOMA’s famously controversial show, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art,” he placed quotation marks around the title word “Primitivism,” to acknowledge difficulties inherent in using this prevailing term. Mr. Rubin also noted the word’s embodiment of Western Europeans’ ambivalence when considering objects and cultures based in traditional communities of Africa, Oceania, Native America, Mesoamerica, and other non-Western locales in his two-volume publication that accompanied the show. The volumes included many photographs of white European and American artists’ studios and homes, revealing significant collections of abstract “primitive art.”  In the exhibit and two volumes, individual works, similar to or the actual traditional objects owned or viewed in museums by various icons of Modernism, were juxtaposed with the modern works they influenced.  These European artists, soon to be considered the vanguard of abstraction, included philosopher and poet Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Constantin Brancusi, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Max Ernst, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Jean Miró, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso.  Many of these artists are included in this current show.

So it is well known, certainly in art world circles, that many modern artists experimenting with new forms have been avaricious collectors of images and objects made for everyday home or ceremonial use in non-European cultures, be they ceramics, basketry, textiles, hide paintings, beading and quillwork, masks and other sculptures made of wood, carved stone, wrought iron, and so forth.  So many artists, of all ethnicities, have used these pre-existing objects, ancient or not, to create new works that the art world accepted and defined the practice with terms such as “borrowed,”  “appropriated,” and “found.”

Then there is  question of which twentieth century artists’ work was chosen included in this MoMA show, whose ambition is to survey a “broad range of mediums—including paintings, drawings, prints, books, sculptures, films, photographs, recordings, and dance pieces—that represent a radical moment when the rules of art making were fundamentally transformed.”  Jerry Saltz, writing “MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction is Illuminating—Although It Shines That Light Mighty Selectively,” on the website www., confirms that the selections focus on white practicioners of Abstraction: “There’s an empty gallery devoted to music by Stravinsky, Debussy and others: Fine. But there’s no Scott Joplin! No Dixieland, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton. All are as original and as ‘abstract’ as these Europeans.”

Buried in the second paragraph of MoMA’s “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925” press release is the far more accurate term, “reinvented,” which could easily have been chosen for use in the show’s title and point of view. So why pretend only white European and American artists practiced abstract art in the early 20th century and are the first in history to do so?

Journalist Ron Suskind reported a George W. Bush administration insider told him:  “We are an empire now and when we act we create our own reality.” Can it be that in areas of art and culture, museums also believe they are entitled to create their own “facts”?

Carla Blank is currently writing Storming the Old Boys Citadel—Pioneer Women Architects of 19th Century North America.  Also a director and choreographer, she collaborated with Robert Wilson on KOOL-Dancing in My Mind, which premiered at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009.


Carla Blank’s most recent book is “Storming the Old Boys’ Citadel: two Pioneer Women Architects of Nineteenth Century North America,” co-authored with Tania Martin. She collaborated with Robert Wilson on “KOOL, Dancing in My Mind,” which premiered at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 2009. In May 2015 she directed a production of Ishmael Reed’s play, “Mother Hubbard” in Xiangtan, China, and in September 2015 she directed Yuri Kageyama’s “News From Fukushima” at New York’s LaMama Café Theater.

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