Infographic: The Social Network That Launched Abstract Art

A visualization plots the dense network of encounters that helped abstract art flourish in the early 20th century.

Abstraction transformed the art world with astonishing speed. The technique was “unthinkable at one moment” and “practically compulsory in the next,” as New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl recently put it. In part, it emerged out of a rapidly changing society as a way to respond to developments like automobiles and photography and the mechanized slaughter of World War I. But abstraction’s spread can also be attributed to close contact between artists themselves, who passed it along to one another like a bug in the years during and after the war. Here’s what all those encounters look like.


The interactive map was created by the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with their on-going exhibition, Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925. It shows a constellation of painters, poets, photographers, and more, tracing every recorded connection between them. In a sense, it’s a visual overview of who moved the movement.

Click to enlarge.

Many of the best-connected figures are well-known names like Picasso, Kandinsky, and Hans Arp, and it doesn’t come as much of a surprise the popular figures today were popular back then too. Other hubs were less expected. “It was great to discover how connected and influential Apollinaire was for instance, despite his premature death in 1918,” says Masha Chlenova, curatorial assistant for the museum’s Department of Painting and Sculpture. She points out that many others of the lesser-known connecting figures were editors of journals, who established contact with far-flung artists in the course of soliciting material for publication.

Chlenova and Leah Dickerman, MoMA’s curator of painting and sculpture, first conceived of the map as a handy way to organize the frenzied artistic activity of the period–and as a nod to the well-known diagram Alfred Barr put together for the museum’s “Cubism and Abstract Art” exhibition in 1936. But the curators knew that keeping track of all the artists’ meetings, and figuring out how to present them in a way that made sense was a serious undertaking. So they enlisted the help of Paul Ingram, a professor at Columbia University’s Business School, who along with a doctoral student, Mitali Banerjee, assisted in processing and visualizing the data.

The interactive version on MoMA’s website is available for all to sift through. Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925 runs through April 15.