The 20th Century's Abstract Art: An Expression of the Inner Life

In the ultimate art-history text, which artists will have major chapters and which will only be footnotes?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

'THE modern painter cannot express this age - the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio - in the old forms of the Renaissance,'' said painter Jackson Pollock.

Yet a major exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum demonstrates that modern forms use the same old elements of art: line, color, shape, and surface. So what's the difference? In the 20th century, inner life replaces still life, and red represents not an apple but an idea.

''Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline'' claims the distinction of being the first exhibition to examine abstract art in its entirety. It's a welcome opportunity to survey nearly a century's worth of art, to assess who deserves major chapters and who a footnote in the ultimate art-history text.

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The show starts with mini-shows of the Big Three pioneers: Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. Russian painter Vasily Kandinsky made the essential breakthrough around 1911. When he saw one of his paintings turned sideways, he discovered that, divorced from depicting recognizable objects, a painting ''entirely composed of bright color patches'' could convey, he said, ''incandescent loveliness.''

Next, Russian painter Kazimir Malevich invented, around 1915, geometric abstraction and, in 1918, the first monochrome painting. His famous ''Suprematist Composition: White on White'' is a tilted white square on a bare ivory background that evokes, he wrote, ''a state of feeling'' to lift the viewer beyond the gravity of realism.

The third horseman of early abstraction was Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose intersecting vertical and horizontal lines express the concept of equilibrium without reference to the world of appearances.

The Guggenheim devotes one room to its own earliest incarnation. When it first opened as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939, its director, Hilla Rebay, aimed for a meditative atmosphere. A re-creation of the original ambiance, with classical music and gray velour walls and carpeting, is intended to transport viewers to a higher metaphysical state. Actually, with the hushed environment and ubiquitous gray plush, it's like being swallowed by an oyster. The pearl is a great Kandinsky painting, ''Several Circles'' (1926), in which bubbles of color float and overlap on a black background.

Another branch of Russian abstract art was Constructivism, in which post-Bolshevik-Revolution artist-engineers used industrial materials to fabricate a utopian society. A model for Vladimir Tatlin's ''Monument to the Third International Communist Conference'' (designed 1919-20) looks right at home in Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral-ramped building itself. Revolving cylinders and a pyramid surrounded by a slanted metal helix create a futuristic, leaning-Tower-of-Pisa-meets-Star-Trek look.

The Abstract Expressionists make a strong showing. Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko's hovering, blurred rectangles look especially convincing. ''Blue Over Orange'' (1956) emits vibrations directly from canvas to psyche. Its message is elusive, however, like a smudged window hampering sight. American Jackson Pollock's ''Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)'' is a tangled profusion of line and color, not overdone by so much as a single drip.

Off the spiral ramp is a gallery containing the most effective pairing of artists. Back to back are painters disparate in technique: Dutch-born American artist Willem de Kooning and Canadian-born Agnes Martin.

De Kooning's ''Untitled'' (1977) is a crazy quilt of brushstrokes, all brash bravado and luscious liquid paint. Opposite are Martin's quiet, uninflected paintings that portray a field of subdued color striated by pencil lines. When described, her work sounds like a sheet of graph paper, and when reproduced it looks nearly blank. But the blue canvas scored by thin lines in ''Night Sea'' (1963) evokes an endlessly lapping ocean.

American Hard-Edge painter Ellsworth Kelly shows how reduced form can still pack a powerful punch. In ''Broadway'' (1958), a skewed red square seems to thrust off its white background. For all its implicit tension, the interaction of shape and color cohere in an indissoluble whole. As Kelly has said, ''In my work it is impossible to separate the edges from the mass and color.''

American Frank Stella's new work, displayed for the first time, is a knockout. From his deadpan beginnings (his impersonal paintings of pinstripes launched the Minimalist movement), he's developed into a baroque maestro. The huge relief sculpture, ''Schools and School Masters'' (1996), looks like an exploded gizmo, all metal coils and torn sheets of scalloped metal. From the whisper of Minimalism, he's evolved a fortissimo of maximum impact.

German Post-Modern artist Gerhard Richter looks like the true heir of Abstract Expressionism. ''January'' (1989) is a multilayered waterfall of paint that flows from Action Painting's current of energetic improvisation. Ambivalence and ambiguity characterize Richter's work. The subject of a canvas may be ''nothing,'' as Richter says, but that's the only way to grasp ''that which cannot be grasped or understood.''

With the exception of Carl Andre's Minimalist floor pieces (like a path of 120 bricks) that are as flat as Steve Forbes's proposed tax, the sculpture in the show looks particularly strong.

American Minimalist Donald Judd's ''Untitled'' (1965) is a bare-knuckled, galvanized-iron expression of pure form that eloquently employs the rhythm of repetition.

American sculptor David Smith's ''Cubi XVIII'' (1964) creates a precarious balance out of disequilibrium. Juggling polished steel blocks, the composition seems dynamic and static at the same time. At the top of the Guggenheim ramp, Post-Minimalist American sculptor Eva Hesse's work stands as a culmination of decades of development. She used nontraditional materials that have a sensuous, tactile quality, as in ''Untitled'' (Rope Piece)'' of 1970, the year she died. The hanging ropes form a vine-like jungle of implication.

As if in response to critics who condemn abstraction as merely decorative or devoid of content, Hesse said, ''Art and life are inseparable.'' Without holding back (the ''total risk'' in the exhibition's title comes from her statement), Hesse gave a total commitment to artistic experimentation and originality. Not content to refine or repeat what had been done before, she asked, ''Maybe if I really believe in me, trust me without any calculated plan, who knows what will happen?''

As for the future of abstract art, whose past is stunningly displayed at the Guggenheim, round and round the ramp it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.

* 'Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline' continues through May 12. Information can be found on the Guggenheim's Web site: http://guggenheim.lehman.cuny.edu/gugg

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