A collaboration between MoMA curators and the Columbia Business School depicts early modernism as a vast social network. It’s the latest in a long line of charts showing that no ism is an island.
Abstraction was about relationships. In a sense, that’s the theme of the major exhibition coming this winter to the Museum of Modern Art, “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925.” It chronicles a moment when figures across the United States and Eastern and Western Europe—not only visual artists but poets, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and more—participated, collectively, in the “greatest rewriting of rules of artistic production since the Renaissance,” producing a radical new modern language.
Just how to visualize this collective creativity provided a challenge for curator Leah Dickerman, who organized the show with curatorial assistant Masha Chlenova. Dickerman found the answer in a cross-disciplinary collaboration of her own. At the Center for Curatorial Leadership, a program that teaches art historians skills in management and administration, Dickerman met Paul Ingram, a Columbia Business School professor who specializes in network analysis. Dickerman’s team worked with Ingram’s student Mitali Banerjee to plot the name of each artist in the show on an Excel spreadsheet. Then they started mapping the connections. “We were asking ourselves, does so-and-so know so-and-so,” Dickerman says.
As they added lines linking friends and collaborators, their map became a cross-section of what their social network would have looked like—as if Facebook or LinkedIn had existed a century ago. The map, which will be reproduced on the endpapers of the exhibition catalogue, will appear on a special website with links illuminating how the artists knew each other.
Ingram has started using the diagram when teaching networks to MBAs and executives. He explains that the quality of “between-ness” in the network—being on multiple paths between others—is associated with creativity. According to this measure, he says, Kandinsky is the most central figure in MoMA’s history of abstraction.
But the most influential of these is the chart conceived by Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of MoMA, in the mid ’30s. The museum owns six permutations of the chart, which appeared on the dust jacket of the catalogue for the landmark 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.” In a concluding, reductive flourish, the chart ends with only two categories: non-geometrical abstract art and geometrical abstract art.
The Writing on the Wall
At 77 years old, Barr’s chart continues to be not only a model, but also a template and a challenge. So when New York-based writer and curator Daniel Feral was co-organizing a history of street art and graffiti for Pantheon Projects last year, he decided to make a new flowchart adapting Barr’s original medium to his own message.
Beginning in 1940, right after Barr left off, Feral pushes classic avant-garde movements to the side. At center are Pop art, graffiti, and street art, surrounded by close relatives like punk, hip hop, and Colab. New art demands new terminology, and as time marches forward Feral adds new genres to the lexicon. These terms (coined by Feral and his colleagues) include Outsider-Graff (more idiosyncratic andunschooled than classic graffiti), cyber-graff, and, finally, Tackers (a mix of tagger, attacker, and hacker who use “aesthetic-based tactics to break down the system”).
Just as Barr did, Feral keeps tinkering with his chart. His most recent one, released last week, adds more permutations of urban-art styles, principally Graffuturism, a descendant of Wildstyle in which artists dispense with letter forms to create hybrid styles derived from graffiti, street art and fine art.
The evolution of art itself is one of Shelley’s main obsessions. He has made paintings that explore the history of the Fluxus movement, of the work of feminist pioneer Carolee Schneemann, and of theavant-garde itself. Shelley has updated Barr’s chart repeatedly.