Los Angeles

Vasily Kandinsky

The large Kandinsky show organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presents massive evidence of the artist’s historical importance in the modern movement. The exhibit is the most comprehensive ever to represent the man who played such a large part in moving painting beyond the object into the forms of the 20th century. Confronted with almost 100 paintings it is no longer possible to think of him (comfortably) as merely one of the representative “greats” who exists in survey books as a link in the chain: one must face him as a painter. Such a confrontation of Kandinsky’s total sequence of work can prove uncomfortable; one can agree with him but he is more awesome than lovable. The puzzle of how, and on what grounds, we tend to accept him in the 1960’s becomes the nagging reservation. That he was a daring innovator and a man of fantastic dedication to the new art is apparent but there can be frustration when we feel we read only a fraction of his content with our eyes and must depend on the text of his philosophical migration toward the absolute to know what we have seen.

The response to his early work seems most immediate and uncomplicated. It speaks directly and clearly to eyes accustomed to reading the gesture of Action Painting. He was convinced that the voice of art lay beyond objects and felt the need to speak of the absolute through a truly spiritual art. Although this involved him in a very personal mystique he was still sensuous; he was a colorist and had the colorist’s need for the open picture where the push and pull of pure color would have a maximum effect. Once he found the means to dispense with the object he moved swiftly into a realm of pure relationship that had, to him, the freedom and expressive power of music. In “Murnau Landscape” of 1909 the colorist can be seen at work with (and against) nature forms. The color is intense and the action of the deeper saturated hues “hollows” into the rather tart bright areas as if impatient to be free of the object-world demanded by the landscape.

Only the discipline excited by the heavy darks keeps the response from shifting to a purely chromatic organization. Only two years later in “Rain” a dramatic shift from the demands of object is made and the dark spaces move independently across the surface buoyed by the loose flowing landscape masses that melt to become a neutral picture ground. Soon after come the improvisations, Kandinsky’s “music,” in which a whole lexicon of images move like charged particles into a precarious harmony. The lyric power is accessible to us and it is easy (almost too easy) to believe he was speaking to our generation. “Sketch,” an oil of 1912 has the same courageous multiplicity that some pre-drip Pollocks have. It is a suspended explosion, an overall bursting of vigorous movements, but in Kandinsky the corners act as a corral by directing the eye back to a center accent. The painting to which the sketch led, “Improvisations 29 (Swan)” takes on a more disciplined look; there are major and minor works sequenced along a curved axis. It is less activated and easier to read but lacks the giddy adventure of the sketch. “Light Painting” (1913) seems the boldest step away from object and object shape. Scratchy pen lines tenuously occupy the surface of thin color washes with only a central pivot of red and a sight corner pressure to keep them from chaos. The analogy to music is most apparent in these first ventures, the idea of sequence (as an expression of time) triumphs over the concept of a picture as an arrangement of fixed forms. The paintings of the 20’s and 30’s dominate in number but are much harder for us to read and from these one can begin to doubt if the earlier ones were really what they seemed. Moving as he did into closed and edged shapes, Kandinsky tried to deal more directly with the grammar of the symbol. His color took on a psychic reason—each color an assigned spiritual role—and the sensual response that could be elicited from his earlier work is no longer possible. His long determination to create a spiritual art and his affiliation with the Bauhaus in 1922 phase together to change the face of his painting. The Bauhaus mystique of the return to fundamentals supplied a rational laboratory tool for the forays into the world of spirit.

The work of this very productive period is not repetitious, it is varied, as the show points out, but it all has a quality of theory about it—a metaphysical chess game that is impressive but seldom ingratiating. The “assigned” uses of the visual language seems apparent in the “Watercolor 58” for example, where the elements seem to appear for reasons beyond the painting. The material grammar is so easily mined that the art classroom has all but gobbled up their vitality. The universal language of expression Kandinsky sought has become to many a chapter of a primer for would-be artists, and it is hard to look at the original without this filter of triviality. As an example, “Around The Circle,” one of the later constructivist paintings is an inert green ground covered with shapes of dizzying variety but the “glue,” the internal system that a painting needs to develop, is obscure. He did not have the picture-maker’s instinct of a Klee to help him in his lion-taming act and so the various elements, with all of their symbolic gravity, seem to be left to fend for themselves. Only in the last paintings (1943) does he show a willingness to accept a painterly compromise; nuances of greyed colors replace the diagrammatic, and act to bind the hieroglyphic shapes into a controlled pattern. “Fragment” with its quality of archeological digs, and “Twilight” with its microscopic world of elemental life floating within an irregular shape, have a sensual reality that is sober but delightful. But perhaps he is greatest when he is least delightful. Perhaps the large bundle of contradictory forces that was Kandinsky—The Asiatic heritage that could accept the Teutonic thoroughness of the Bauhaus, the man who could see a key to the absolute in the very specific statement of a Monet “Haystack,” the mystic with a microscope—speaks most truly in ways that he knows are demanding. In the preface to the catalog the artist is quoted: “I would like above all an exhibition as comprehensive as possible; quantity aids the discovery of the inner meaning. It must finally be understood that for me form is but a means to an end and that I am occupied with the theory of form and give up so much because I want to fathom what is innermost in the form and make it clear, very clear to other people.”

Douglas McClellan