Modern Art, Defined

Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.—© 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York-ADAGP, Paris

A century ago, in October 1912, a silent newsreel flew out from Paris bearing one of history’s hottest cultural updates. The footage is lost, but we can imagine its title cards: “Artist makes pictures without any subject—New ‘abstraction’ shakes up French avant-garde—Art of the future, or dead-end experiment?”—Even Picasso objects: ‘There is no abstract art, you always have to begin with something.’ ” Not since the Italians invented fully realist painting, 500 years earlier, had visual art made such a huge leap. Up until that landmark fall of 1912, fine artists had always assumed their work would link up to the world, one way or another. And then, almost overnight, a bunch of them saw that severing that link would open

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