Mondrian To Ryman: The Abstract Impulse
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Piet Mondrian, Tableau 2, 1922. Oil on canvas, 21 7/8 x 21 1/8 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 51.1309. Piet Mondrian © 2003 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o
This exhibition assembles abstract paintings and sculptures from two distinct yet closely related aesthetic movements extensively collected by the Guggenheim: abstraction of the early twentieth century and Minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s. These works complement the sculptures on view in the exhibition Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things on the lower levels of the Rotunda.

Many artists grouped loosely under the designation "Minimalism" have explored the legacy of Brancusi's aesthetic in their own work; for these artists, Brancusi's purity of form opened up a new way of thinking about art objects. Sculptors such as Carl Andre and Richard Serra reacted especially to Brancusi's establishment of the pedestal as a work of art in itself, creating basic objects that rest directly on the floor and sometimes are even meant to be walked on. In much of his sculpture, Serra in particular touched on the themes of verticality and gravity explored by Brancusi in his most iconic pieces. Dan Flavin's light works can be viewed in relation to Brancusi's use of pure white marble and brass that catches and intensifies ambient light. Similarly, the paintings of Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman absorb or reflect light, offering variously stark or misty, meditative sensibilities. Paintings by Robert Mangold and Brice Marden use color but always remain strictly simplified in the treatment of tone and line. By radically reducing the illusionistic possibilities of sculpture and painting, these Minimalists created art that exists in space without referring to anything beyond itself.

The works on view from the first half of the twentieth century outline a prehistory of Minimalism and highlight the aesthetic milieu in which Brancusi produced his sculptures. Pioneers of abstraction such as Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian in the first generation, as well as Naum Gabo and László Moholy-Nagy in the second, broke with prevailing modes of illusionism and representation. They aspired to convey utopian notions—of spirituality, beauty, social and political change—in a universal visual language of essential forms, colors, and materials. Most of the pieces on view here approach these goals through geometric abstraction. Mondrian's paintings—consisting of primary colors arranged within rigid, black-and-white grids that seem to extend beyond the canvas—are the classic examples of this mode of abstraction. The twisting complexes of lines and round shapes in Gabo's sculptures evoke a sense of order emerging out of chaos and seem weightless enough to rise above the material world. Echoing Brancusi's own origins in figural sculpture, Alexander Archipenko broke down the human form into three-dimensional geometric forms, while Jean Arp used elegant biomorphic shapes. Arp's pure white and totally abstract sculptures perfectly segue from Brancusi's own process of aesthetic reduction, and express the ideal, transcendent form to be found within all worldly things.