The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Through April 15

“In terms of the history of art, it is one of the greatest stories ever told,” said Roberta Smith in The New York Times. Roughly a century ago, following more than 500 years of striving to attain window-like realism or some inflection of the same, Western artists took a sharp turn away from representational imagery. Though that story may be familiar to most, this “dizzying, magisterial cornucopia” brings to it “new breadth and detail and a new sense of collectivity.” Focusing on the early 1910s, when painting suddenly veered into pure abstraction, lead curator Leah Dickerman rightly expands this survey beyond the visual arts. The poets, composers, filmmakers, and choreographers represented here were all “struggling to sever Western art’s age-old link with legible images, narrative logic, harmonic structure, and rhyme.”

As the exhibit’s free-flowing layout suggests, there was no one catalyst to this international brainstorm, said Thomas Micchelli in While the prevailing wisdom is that total abstraction began with Vasily Kandinsky, here we see “how fluidly the multiple strains of modernism run together—cubism, vorticism, futurism, suprematism, dada, and the rest.” At the gallery’s entrance, a wall-sized introductory chart places each of the show’s 84 artists within a complex web of connections, as if Dickerman and her crew were mapping Facebook friends. Not everyone in that web is an equal, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Only a “mere coincidence in time” connects Kandinsky’s brilliant 1913 Farbstudie Quadrate with Czech artist Frantisek Kupka’s “clumsy painterly cadenzas.” Still, this “splendid historical survey” captures many of the movement’s most thrilling developments.

Still, there’s “something demented, even dangerous, about this show,” said Jerry Saltz in New York magazine. The idea that pure abstraction was invented in 20th-century Europe is ludicrous. “Abstraction is there in the caves. It’s been practiced ever since, all over the world.” Even within the show’s scope, there are glaring omissions: What of Klee, Gaudí, or any of the pioneers of early ragtime and jazz? Visitors are granted the chance to savor magnificent displays of abstraction’s mind-bending power: The sight of nine large Kazimir Malevich paintings arrayed behind Constantin Brancusi’s towering oak sculpture Endless Column (1918) evokes “some metaphysical Teutonic timberland.” Yet even these works feed the “deluded, limited narrative” MoMA has always propagated—that the world turns on what elite white Westerners are doing and thinking. The show is symptomatic of an institution that, once truly avant-garde, has become “besotted with its own belly button.”