Geo/Metric: Prints and Drawings from the Collection at The Museum of Modern Art, New York
June 11 – August 18, 2008
11 West 53rd Street
between 5th and 6th avenues
New York City
Curator Starr Figura uncovers the relationship of geometry to two-dimensional abstraction from 1912 to today without imposing a narrative arc. The attention rests first on individual works of art, however the exhibition is teeming with a myriad of connections between disciplines, formal imagery, and the relationship between spiritual content and conceptual design. Many of the artists represented are equally recognized as teachers (most notably Josef Albers), authors of manifestos, and members of schools or collectives, and an intense doctrinaire commitment to the geometric-based practice runs through many of “Geo/Metric.”Modestly inhabiting the Museum of Modern Art’s newest gallery space on the second floor, “Geo/Metric,” is the kind of user-friendly, yet classically rigorous exhibition that can be taken for granted in the age of curatorial spectacles. This is unfortunate, since exhibits like “Geo/Metric,” and the recently closed “Multiplex: New Directions in Art Since 1970,” are crucial in bringing MoMA’s naturally inclined historicism into a mutually beneficial relationship with its growing collection of contemporary art.
In the “Suprematist Manifesto” (1915), created the same year as “Black Square,” Kazimir Malevich describes geometric forms as symbols of both a primeval mysticism, and a highly rigorous, intellectual parlay between the artist’s subjectivity and the impassive art object. For each succeeding generation, this interplay of geometric form and content is located at different points. Malevich and Kandinsky, arguably the first practitioners and theorists of a non-objective art of geometric forms and symbols, are presented alongside lesser-exhibited compatriots, Frantisek Kupka, Vasilii Kamenskii, and Lyubov Popova.
Learning at the table of the Russian Constructivists, Helio Oiticia’s five luminous gouache on board works, radiate a fresh Neo-Constructivism. Created when Oiticia was in his early 20s, and a member of Rio de Janeiro’s concrete art collective, Grupo Frente, the “Metaesquemas” (1957) series are simple, cut-out geometric forms in red, white and black, composed within the limits of a grid or rectangle form on a neutral ground. The total effect captures the timing of a free jazz drumbeat, a minimalist re-interpretation of the rhythmic linoleum prints of Lyubov Popova and the paper collages Hans Arp.
Mary Heilmann’s “Davis Sliding Square” (1978), provides relief from the black and white reductive optical build-up of Bridget Riley and Francois Morellet. The painting is synthetic polymer paint on paper, a Malevich on acid description of a blue square and rectangle against a yellow backdrop. Similar to Blinky Palermo’s bright green triangle on white paper (from the screenprint series “4 Prototypes,” 1970) the geometric forms have a presence that is both organic and chemical. Classical geometry, in the hands of Heilmann and Palermo, are indeterminate substances, peeled and placed like stickers on a flat plane. In this company Ellsworth Kelly’s “Line Form Color” (1951), a series of ink and gouache building block color forms radiates a graphically controlled precision.
The fluid concept of “radical art,” how it was defined in its own era and is understood today, also permeates the rooms of “Geo/Metric.” A case in point is Jo Baer’s two 1965 gouache on paper compositions—thin, deftly painted frames that illuminate the paper’s white center. Baer’s work can be overlooked in a room of the decade’s flashier offerings, but it offers some of the first investigations into the conceptual perimeters of painting and painted abstraction. Like many artists who realize a mature vision early in their chosen art practice, Baer came to art-making from a multidisciplinary background of science and philosophy, which she brought to bear on her own development as a painter. Her frame compositions connect the hand-made line to the impersonal and industrial forms of Minimalism. Like Agnes Martin’s grids, the form realized is at once contemporary and primitive, derived from repetitive processes that reveal a wide species of spaces.
The geometric graphic’s counterpart, the ghostly space of the paper, is investigated through radical printing practices by Dorothea Rockburne. Her “Locus” print series (1972) is comprised of paper sheets bearing lines and ridges preserved from the process of folding prior to being run through an etching press. The slight three-dimensionality of the paper (which hangs unframed at MoMA) is geometry come to life off the page. The “Locus” prints have the sublime singularity of a child’s crumpled napkin, lending themselves to the illusion of self-created works of art. Inseparable from the invisible mechanics of the formal process, there is an important metaphysical dimension to the work. Describing her experience working with paper in the 1970s, Rockburne alludes to the spiritual properties underlining a highly analytic practice. “Paper began to assume terrific importance to me. I locked myself in my studio and just stared at sheets of paper. I thought that the paper would tell me something – something that I needed to know. Finally, I felt as though I became the paper.”
“Geo/Metric” brings the conversation up to date with only passing reference to the sweeping effects of digital media on geometric abstraction, a direction that, admittedly, could be better explored in a smaller survey of artists. Instead the exhibition satisfyingly closes its narrative with an artist, Mark Grotjahn (b. 1968), whose drawings seem to embody in equal parts the early lessons of the Russian and Brazilian Constructivists, the hard edges of Minimalism, and the flash bulb presence of Op and Pop Art. The pencil on paper “Butterfly” series are tightly realized compositions of radiating color bands meeting at horizontal perspective planes. The awkward precision of Grotjahn’s forms and the impossibility of the spaces they describe project the jubilant urgency of a hand-painted carnival sign. After being run through the pressure chamber of Conceptual Art, geometric forms for many artists working today are not indicative of a strict allegiance to any kind of school of non-objective thought or practice. From the storied history laid out in the rooms of “Geo/Metric” it seems that geometry in art has indeed reached its highest accomplishment: the freedom of eternal fresh starts.