Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Kandinsky. through Jan 13 @ Guggenheim

Guggenheim Museum 1071 5th ave (at 89th street)

Hey, if you like early 20th century abstract, Russian, avant-guard painting (and who doesn't) then Vasily Kandinsky is your kind of guy. If for some reason you don't, then you should, because he's an enormously important, ambitious and influential figure in the history of modernism. In fact, no study of modern art, no matter how cursory could be complete without including his work. He's probably one of the 4 or 5 most important artists of the 20th century, and he's credited with creating the first abstract painting. Although, that's a little hard to determine, since abstraction is something that happens in degrees, and with Kandinsky it happened very gradually, and over a very long period of time. So, it's kind of like how abstract does it have to be before it's abstract. Know what I mean?

He didn't actually start studying art in earnest until 1896 when he was 30 years old. His two major inspiration were Monet's "Haystacks" paintings where he felt he was more moved by the colors and forms than the subject matter, and a Wagner concert he attended. He came to believe that visual art should operate like music and be expressive in a pure autonomous form, thus laying the groundwork for abstract art. Solomon Gugganheim started collecting his work in 1929 on the advisement of artist/baroness Hilla Rebay who convinced him of Kandinskys importance. In 1943 when the museum opened it was originally called The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and Kandinsky was presented as the leading figure of the new art. The upshot of all this is that the Gugganheim has a lot of Kandinsky's, and this is one big ass show.

Kandinsky was a Russian artist who spent most of his life in Germany, and whose strongest influence came from the French. Which I guess makes him multicultural in an exclusively european kind of way. You can see the impact the impressionists had on his early landscapes and cityscapes, where the colors are rich and the forms simplified. He became a leading figure in the Russian avant-garde, and worked with composer Arnold Schonberg who was similarly experimenting with music, trying to give it a freer form of expression. In 1912 he started the "Blue Rider" movement, whos goal it was to express the power of color and form independently. The movement is strongly motivated by Kandinskys interest in mysticism and Theosophy. It's interesting to me that his work from this period still include some form of figurative imagery, which seem romantic and symbolist in nature. When there isn't a clear figurative subject there's a figurative depiction of forms, and some kind of an illusionistic space. There's one particularly beautiful little painting from the end of this period called "Moscow 1" that I'd never seen before. It was also around this time that he published "On The Spiritual in Art" (1912). Which, with his second book "Point and Line to Plane" (1926) are considered two of the most seminal written works on modern art. Having read Kandinskys books I have to say that I find his writing very dry and cerebral. It's basically essays about theory and cold annalysis of form. It seems to have very little to do with his paintings which are dynamic and improvisatory, and seem playful and even impulsive in structure. It's amazing to me that the writer and the painter could be the same person.

He moved from Germany to Moscow in 1917. During this time he internalized some of the teachings of the Russian constructivists and the Suprematists. This caused his paintings to become flatter, less figurative, and more geometric in structure. He developed a vocabulary of abstract forms, and he seems to have realized that he can create pictorial tension by simply contrasting these forms and not having to revert to conventional pictorial space. His drawing, however remains specific and he maintains a clear figure ground relationship, which today would be considered inconsistent with non-objectivity. (Speaking of drawing, there's a large gallery of Kandinskys works on paper which are kind of disappointing. They're very tight and finished looking, and seem to lack the spontaneity and energy of the paintings. I don't really know why.)

Kandinsky then moved back to Germany, and taught at the Bauhaus from 1922 to1933 when it was closed by the nazis. Then he moved to Paris, which in retrospect was a wise choice. While he was there the influence of the Surrealists becomes visible and these strange ameba forms enter his work. He planned to eventually return to Germany, but after his paintings were labeled degenerate and removed from German museums he decided to stay in France. Another wise choice.

The work from the last decade or so of his life is very beautiful, but a little complacent and kind of formulaic compared to the rest of his oeuvre. He seems to lose interest in the paint, and I think if he were making them today he would probably do it on a computer. Personally I think he was kind of running out of steam, which I guess had to happen eventually. Even this late work though doesn't seem to get bogged down in theory. That's the thing that impressed me the most about this show. Kandinsky is considered an important figure because of his revolutionary ideas. Today those ideas may not seem that revolutionary, but the consistent high quality of the paintings, that don't simply illustrate his ideas, is something that would make them stand up in any era. Maybe that's why he's such a modern giant. He didn't just have great ideas he was a great painter.


  1. Good post. I like what you wrote. I did not know how connected to so many movements he was. I will not miss the show. Cheers!

  2. Terrific! I had a very fixed (and negative) opinion of Kandinsky based on some paintings that obviously didn't reflect the innovation and variety of his work. I'll definitely give him another look.