PRINT May 1963


EVERYTHING WOULD NOW SEEM to favor a high estimate of the art of Kandinsky. From the historical point of view, he was an innovator of great importance. He was, after all, one of the two or three key figures in the creation of modern non-figurative painting. This in itself is enough to guarantee his oeuvre a permanent place in the modernist canon, for the whole tendency of contemporary criticism and art-historical scholarship has been to identify artistic achievement with stylistic innovation. But in Kandinsky’s case, our interest is not only—or exclusively—historical. It extends to his influence on the recent, and perhaps even the present, course of art. His innovations, however one may now want to judge the esthetic quality of the individual works in which they appeared, have remained consequential. He is, if not the father, then at least the grandfather of two styles that still occupy dominant positions in current art. He was the first of the abstract expressionists, and he was also an early—though not the earliest or most distinguished—exponent of that tight, so-called “geometrical” abstraction that has lately been revived with some success. His art thus enjoys a claim that is both historical and, as the French say, “actuel.”

Kandinsky’s career, moreover, was of a kind that makes his name nearly ubiquitous in the annals of modern painting. Born in Russia, he played an active part in the development of modern art in his native country during the brief but intense period immediately following the Revolution when, for a few bright years, modernism in the arts was welcomed by the Bolsheviks as an instrument and companion to political revolution. (This relatively brief phase of Kandinsky’s career was more interesting for what the artist contributed to the Soviet cultural scene in the first stage of its revolutionary ferment than for what it contributed to his art, but even this phase has lately assumed a new interest and importance in the light of recent attempts to revive abstract art—and modernism generally—in the Soviet Union, for in any such revival Kandinsky inevitably figures as a mentor and exemplar.) More important from the point of view of Kandinsky’s creative development, however, were the two quite separate and distinct careers he enjoyed in Germany before and after the Russian Revolution. The first of these, beginning with his years as an art student in Munich at the turn of the century (when he first met Klee) and deeply marked by his association with Gabriele Münter, the German painter who was his mistress in this period, and his fellow Russian artists, Alexej von Jawlensky and Marianne von Werefkin, culminated in “Der Blaue Reiter” exhibitions of 1911–12. The second, dating from 1922 when he joined the Bauhaus at Weimar, ended in 1933 when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus and Kandinsky settled in Paris. These two German periods constitute the real locus of Kandinsky’s creative achievement, but his influence extended beyond them, of course. He remained in Paris until his death in 1944, and had his disciples there. And owing to the large collection of his works assembled by the Baroness Rebay for the late Solomon R. Guggenheim, a collection that formed the nucleus and raison d’être for the original Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York (now the S. R. Guggenheim Museum), Kandinsky’s art had begun to affect the course of American painting even before his death. By turn a Russian, a German, and a French citizen, and the only modern artist to have a museum more or less consecrated to his work and his theories in the United States, Kandinsky bestrides the international art scene in this century as only a very few other painters have done.

In view of such impressive credentials, it may seem churlish to raise questions about the character and quality of Kandinsky’s achievement. Yet the very enormity of Kandinsky’s career and influence and the exalted status his works now enjoy among the official custodians of modern painting make such questions imperative—and indeed, overdue. Was Kandinsky a great painter? Was he even a good painter? Was there perhaps a basic discrepancy between his ideas and his ability to realize them on canvas? Was he at his best as an abstractionist, as we have been led to suppose, or are his purest works to be found, paradoxically, among his representational paintings? These are not the questions we are in the habit of asking about modern painters. It is enough, usually, to define an artist’s contribution to the modern movement, and to explicate the morphology of that contribution. If, as in Kandinsky’s case, the artistic contribution derived from, or was at least accompanied by, an interesting and original body of ideas, then the lines of definition and explication will follow the contours of the artist’s thought, and pictures that most fully exemplify—one might almost say illustrate—basic doctrine will be judged the most successful and characteristic. This, at any rate, has been the prevailing critical practice, and Kandinsky has been one of its chief beneficiaries.

The view of Kandinsky that Mr. Thomas M. Messer, the director of the Guggenheim Museum, has now given us in two mammoth exhibitions1 conforms to this practice of turning the artist’s oeuvre into a kind of pedagogical allegory of his ideas and their place in art history. Now it may be that any really ambitious survey of Kandinsky’s painting on the scale Mr. Messer has undertaken would have to follow this course. The bulk of Kandinsky’s art is painting of a kind that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to defend on purely pictorial grounds, and I know of no serious critic who has even attempted to defend it on such grounds. The defense is made for the most part on points of general esthetics and art history—which is to say, in those areas where Kandinsky really does shine as a brilliant and original figure; and it is usually assumed—erroneously, I believe—that the force and originality of the artist’s mind will somehow explain away the deficiencies that mark his performance as a painter. This approach to Kandinsky has sometimes resulted in interesting and even eloquent writing on his accomplishments, but it places the organizer of a Kandinsky exhibition in the difficult position of having to produce a body of work that will live up to the extravagant expectations aroused by the official literature. By and large, Kandinsky comes off better as an artist written about than as one seen, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons—there are others—why Mr. Messer has taken his lead from the literature (and the view of art implicit in it) rather than from the art itself.

As everyone who has read Concerning the Spiritual in Art knows, Kandinsky was immensely knowledgable about pictorial problems. Yet unlike Mondrian, an artist whose development was in so many other respects similar to Kandinsky’s, Kandinsky never formulated a viable pictorial principle as the basis for his non-figurative painting. He explicitly held back from such a formulation in writing his famous and influential treatise, and the intellectual diffidence reflected in that document is also clearly visible in the way he painted his early non-figurative pictures. In his treatise Kandinsky wrote: “One of the first steps away from representation and toward abstraction was, in the pictorial sense, the exclusion of the third dimension, i.e., the tendency to keep the picture on a single plane. Modeling was abandoned. In this way the concrete object was made more abstract, and an important step forward was achieved—this step forward has, however, had the effect of limiting the possibilities of painting to the actual surface of the canvas: and thus painting acquired another material limit.” Reading this, one is reminded of Braque’s maxim: “Any acquisition is accompanied by an equivalent loss; that is the law of compensation.” But this “law of compensation” was not one that Kandinsky could accept. He thus differed from later exponents of abstraction in his deep desire to carry over into non-figurative art all the depth (for Kandinsky, it was not only spatial but spiritual) and pictorial complexity he admired in the great representational painting of the past. It was not a further “material limit” he sought, but an expansion of painting’s spiritual and pictorial resources. If one feels a certain irony and pathos in reading Concerning the Spiritual in Art today, a half-century after its publication, it is because one now sees with what eloquent and prophetic reluctance its author did indeed usher in a new era in pictorial values.

For Kandinsky was emphatic in rejecting the idea of “a single plane.” “Any attempt to free painting from this material limitation, together with the striving after a new form of composition,” he wrote, “must concern itself first of all with the destruction of the theory of one single surface . . .” And yet he was equally unwilling to submit his art, and painting generally, to the only new mode of pictorial syntax that promised to keep painting both abstract and three-dimensional: which is to say, he was equally set against the practice of cubism. “Out of composition in flat triangles has developed a composition with plastic three-dimensional triangles, that is to say, with pyramids; and this is cubism. But here a tendency has arisen towards inertia, towards a concentration on form for its own sake, and consequently once more a reduction of potential values.” Eventually, of course, Kandinsky did submit his art both to the tenets of cubism and to what he described (accurately) as “pure patterning.” Eventually he did accept, to a degree, the very “reductions” he had set his mind against in writing Concerning the Spiritual in Art, but he did so with diffidence and without consistent success.

This diffidence had two causes, I believe. The larger, or at least the more “spiritual,” cause (and Kandinsky himself would have considered this the larger, at least in his “Blaue Reiter” period) was his unwillingness to concede the possibility that in abandoning “external nature” as a source of visual form, he might be imposing a radical limitation on the painter’s formal and expressive repertory. Everything in the realm of intellect and the arts that absorbed Kandinsky’s interest in the first decade of the century led him to believe otherwise. The theosophist belief in the supremacy of spiritual values over the material world; the new scientific theories that swept away conventional notions of matter and energy; and the whole tendency of 19th-century symbolist poetry and music to eschew naturalism in favor of a more transcendental concept of reality: these developments in philosophy, science, and the arts, abetted by Kandinsky’s own mystical turn of mind, were more than enough to convince him that a similar abandonment of materialism (that is, “external nature”) in the art of painting would inevitably bring greater expressive possibilities in its wake. Concerning the Spiritual in Art is, in fact, a meditation on these possibilities, just as his early “Improvisations” and “Compositions’” are attempts to explore ways of realizing them. But Concerning the Spiritual in Art is also a dialectical exercise in which this meditation is combined with an analysis of the new pictorial practices that were then emerging in the works of Matisse and Picasso—practices that Kandinsky both admired and feared. His keen pictorial intelligence responded to the strength and originality with which the Parisian masters were developing styles that effectively challenged the very naturalism that had at all costs to be rejected, and yet his “spiritual” ideology—the conviction that the turn toward abstraction should not involve the jettisoning of painting’s traditional resources but instead transform them into an even larger and more powerful artistic instrument—resulted in a vigorous warning against the two directions (on the one hand, “a concentration on form for its own sake,” and on the other, “pure patterning”) in which he correctly saw cubism and fauvism respectively moving. The radical in Kandinsky was thus held at bay by the traditionalist.

The second cause of Kandinsky’s diffidence in the face of these cubist and fauvist innovations was directly connected with this ideological reluctance to accept the “reductions” they seemed to make imperative: he lacked any syntactical principle of his own that might have preserved painting against this feared reduction of means. He might resist for a while the new syntactical procedures of the Parisian school, but he had no radically new alternative to offer in their place. Conceptually, his art remained an amalgam of received ideas. What he did effect in his own painting was a synthesis of the new forms that were emerging from cubist and fauvist painting (and from the expressionist painting that more or less merged with fauvism outside France and that Kandinsky himself practiced for a time with great success) with the traditional syntax of 19th-century painting, and as it happened, this conjunction of the new and the old gave the appearance of being more radical than it actually was. Kandinsky nowhere admits this compromise explicitly in his writings, but he hints at it, and it is in any case clearly evident in his painting. In attempting to define the kind of pictorial construction he aspired to as an alternative to Parisian practice, he wrote: “It is not obvious geometrical configurations that will be the richest in possibilities, but hidden ones, emerging unnoticed from the canvas and meant for the soul rather than the eye.” The notion that a painting’s syntactical principle might pass “unnoticed” sounds rather bizarre, if not indeed nostalgic, from our present vantage point in the history of abstract painting. Bizarre or not, however, the notion is a significant measure of Kandinsky’s basic equivocation as an abstract artist.

One can certainly admire—as I do—Kandinsky’s refusal to reduce painting to its barest syntactical components, for it was fundamentally the refusal of a man of exquisite culture and intelligence to betray his artistic inheritance with facile notions (now so widely accepted) of “less” being “more.” One can sympathize with this yearning for a high cultural ideal, but all the sympathy in the world cannot improve the quality of the pictures Kandinsky painted under its influence. In effect, Kandinsky repopulated the romantic, impressionist, and post-impressionist landscape space of 19th-century painting with at first symbolic and then totally abstract—and often ill-defined—forms. This was what his abstract expressionism came to; his “hidden construction” consisted of putting some new wine, as it were, in a familiar bottle.

The question arises, then, as to exactly how this curious synthesis of old and new ideas became as fateful for modern painting as, ultimately, it did. A clue to the answer to this question can be found perhaps in Kandinsky’s suggestion that his style was intended for “the soul rather than the eye.” Kandinsky’s concept of “soul” was indeed too disembodied, too vague and immaterial, to be pictorially useful, and so in practice its visual habitat nearly always resembled some variety of 19th-century landscape space, but a more imaginative painter, namely Miró, working out of the psychoanalytic topography of surrealism, turned this territory of the “soul” into the dreamlike landscape of the subconscious. It was by way of Mirós highly individual use of surrealism, with its erotic fantasy and symbolic drama, that Kandinsky’s “spiritual” universe was re-materialized, so to speak, and thus at last able to assume a radically new structure for pictorial purposes, and the way then led from Miró to Gorky and Pollock and many others.

As an innovator, then, Kandinsky was a more equivocal figure than has generally been assumed. (Only Clement Greenberg, in an essay reprinted in Art and Culture, has really confronted the issue.) And his failures as a painter are to a large degree—though not wholly—based on this equivocation. But, of course, his works were not all failures. The best of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings are, I think, the four panels on the “Seasons,” painted in 1914 and shown as a group in the Guggenheim show. (Two of these paintings, Spring and Summer, are now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the other two, Autumn and Winter being part of the Guggenheim’s permanent collection.) This series is still dominated by the imagery and “feel” of post-impressionist landscape art, but the imagery is now far more compressed and summarized than is usual with Kandinsky; this is particularly so in the Autumn and Winter panels. The paint itself forms a more unified and continuous “skin” without degenerating into the feared “patterning,” and the use of color is more consistent and lyrical, more sensuous and confident. There is, too, less of that graphic scaffolding which is so painfully evident in most of Kandinsky’s abstract expressionist paintings—fewer of those disfiguring black lines that measure the exact distance between the artist’s elevated painterly intention and his usually mundane ability to realize it on canvas. The only other oil painting that approached the success of this series was the huge Composition VII (1913), one of the seven paintings borrowed from the Soviet Union for the New York exhibition and, like the four “Seasons” panels, an obvious attempt to sum up and consolidate the earlier “Improvisations” and “Compositions” into a definitive statement. Perhaps there was something about the vertical format of the “Seasons” series that liberated Kandinsky from a certain pictorial banality that still plagues even this Composition VII. Whatever the reason, they stand out as Kandinsky’s highest achievement in abstract painting.

The only other abstract work in the Guggenheim exhibition that could be favorably compared with this series was to be found among the watercolors and graphics. As a general rule, Kandinsky was more at ease—and more successful—with the decorative potentialities of abstraction in manipulating the color transparencies characteristic of the watercolor medium and in the explicitly graphic character of the woodcut. The flat white page of the paper provided him at the start, perhaps, with a kind of space, at once shallow and “infinite,” that he could not bring himself to accept, or create, in approaching the canvas. In particular, the Untitled Watercolor dated “1910” on its face but now generally believed to have been painted in 1913,2 is one of Kandinsky’s supreme artistic successes as an abstractionist, and it has a more immediate, up-to-the-minute relevance to current abstract painting than any single oil in the New York exhibition. The painters who now “stain” their unprepared canvases with thinned, irregular washes of oil pigment in an all-over design, using oil as if it were watercolor, all follow in the wake of this extraordinary little work. But Kandinsky himself never really followed through on the principle of composition inherent in the work.

When we turn from the work of Kandinsky’s first German period, which ended with the outbreak of World War I, and examine the work of his second, which commenced with his return from Russia in 1922, we are again reminded of what consequences followed from the artist’s basic failure to commit his art to a structural principle that would unite its form and content into a single coherent statement. In the work of the twenties, it is a case of everything changing and everything remaining the same. The shape of the forms in the paintings of this period are greatly simplified and clarified, but they are basically the same forms as before, only now purified into graphic and geometrical essences and left to drift in the same indeterminate space. As an exponent of tight, geometrical abstraction, Kandinsky was always a muddler, earnestly filling naturalistic space with abstract motifs, and then jamming these disparate materials into some precarious coherence by sheer will. These pictures are pretty dismal for the most part, but they too have had a widespread influence, as one can see from looking through the old catalogs of the American Abstract Artists and from those surveys of minor Parisian abstract artists that Michel Seuphor has assembled from time to time. There remains a kind of academic abstraction in Germany even today—all “cosmos” and no art—that takes its cue directly from this phase of Kandinsky’s oeuvre.

For myself, the main interest of the later works in the New York exhibition (from the late twenties and the thirties) was the sense I had of the influence some of the more diagrammatic abstractions must have had not only on painting but, more importantly, on the constructivist and surrealist sculpture that began to take shape in New York in the thirties. Works like Levels, No. 452 (1929) and Development Upwards, No. 596 (1934), both in the Guggenheim collection, lead directly to a kind of sculpture that has occupied David Smith, for example, since the thirties. Both of these paintings are, in fact, graphic illustrations of abstract objects that could never become wholly realized, plastically, until an artist like Smith had found a way to translate them into the technology of open-space sculpture.

All in all, the view of Kandinsky that Mr. Messer has given us is of this international master—if master he is—of the modern movement, the prophet of abstract art for whom so persuasive a case can be made so long as we do not look too closely at the individual works. And this is pretty much the Kandinsky that everyone seems to want just now—a benevolent grandfather who can at one stroke be made both to support current esthetic dogma and yet leave us with the heady satisfaction of knowing that we can do this sort of thing much better nowadays. (I think we can, and do.) But there is, alas, another Kandinsky who barely makes an appearance in the Guggenheim exhibition, and who remains, by and large, an unknown painter to everyone who has not seen the fine collection of paintings that Gabriele Münter donated only a few years ago to the Stadtische Galerie in Munich. That Kandinsky does not figure as an eminence in our art histories, but he was an uncommonly good painter. In the years 1904–1909, especially, he produced works of a quality that are exceptional in his entire oeuvre. They are mainly small landscapes painted from nature, post-impressionist in format and expressionist in feeling, and executed with a verve and confidence nowhere else to be seen in Kandinsky’s long development. Historically, they are interesting because they form the basis of the abstract expressionist landscapes that grew directly out of them, but artistically they remain superior to all but a few of the abstract works. (Only the “Seasons” series equals them in quality.)

In the Guggenheim show, only one painting—Beach Baskets in Holland (1904)—represented Kandinsky at his best in this period. Another, Street in Murnau (1908), was a good example of his method at the time, but not itself a first-rate picture; Kandinsky had difficulty with figures. The virtual omission of this important body of work cannot be attributed altogether to a narrow conception of Kandinsky’s real gifts as a painter, though such a conception undoubtedly played its part. The delicate matter of Kandinsky’s involvement with Gabriele Münter must certainly have been an obstacle to the organizer of an exhibition that required the generous cooperation of Kandinsky’s widow, Mme Nina Kandinsky, the Russian woman Kandinsky married after his break with Münter and his return to Russia during the Revolution.

My own view, after seeing the Kandinskys in Munich last year and also the large group of Münter’s own paintings that are shown in the same museum, is that Kandinsky’s life and work cannot be fully understood without a more detailed understanding of this so-called “Murnau period” than we have been given. This was the period when Kandinsky lived with Münter in the house at Murnau where they often had as guests, for extended periods, Jawlensky and von Werefkin. The paintings that these four artists did at that time, and especially those of Kandinsky and Münter, are often as close in subject, method, and feeling as the pictures Picasso and Braque painted in the first phase of cubism. This was, moreover, the only time in Kandinsky’s adult life when, as a man, he was relatively free of respectability and worldly cares and, as an artist, he was an earthy and robust painter of the natural world.

Fortunately, the omission of this work from the Guggenheim show was to some degree corrected by the ambitious survey of the “Blaue Reiter” group that the Leonard Hutton Galleries staged to coincide with the Kandinsky exhibition. A good deal of the exhibition had only an historical interest (twenty-two painters were represented, including Schoenberg, the composer, who was much interested in Kandinsky’s ideas but who was not much of a painter), but it did include four good works of Kandinsky’s Murnau period together with a fine selection of Münter’s paintings done at the same time. These few works, seen in the context of their own period and subject-matter, gave one a more intimate glimpse of Kandinsky’s sensibility than was possible in the selection of early pictures in the Guggenheim survey. And they left one with a nagging sense of how little we have yet understood about the inner life of the artist whose “spiritual” achievement has been set before us in such exhausting detail.

Hilton Kramer



1. The larger of these exhibitions will travel to Paris, the Hague, and Basel after its showing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The smaller, after initial showings at Pasadena, San Francisco, and Portland, will be seen at seven other museums across the country. Both exhibitions were selected by Mr. Messer.

2. The dating go this work is discussed in a caption to the plate:

This work has for some time been entered in the international sweepstakes competition for determining the least interesting question in modern art: Who painted the first abstract painting? It is signed and dated as “1910,” but the date was apparently added in later years. Dr. Selz, in his “German Expressionist Painting,” and Dr. Haftmann, in his great opus on “Painting in the Twentieth Century,” both accepted the 1910 dating, but Dr. Selz is now reported as having revised his view, agreeing with the latest consensus of scholarly opinion that the work was done in 1913. In the Guggenheim show, the work was accompanied by a wall label that discreetly hinted it might be the first modern abstract painting but then again that it might not be. In the catalog, the scholars were cited to show that it definitely was not.