New York

Wassily Kandinsky

The Museum of Modern Art put on an extremely choice selection of Wassily Kandinsky watercolors. Forty out of the group of forty-six came from the collection of the artist’s widow and many of them had never been exhibited in this country before. Happily, the Guggenheim also mounted a group of Kandinsky oils from their, collection so that one had a particularly good opportunity to get an overview of Kandinsky’s career. Some of the watercolors have an extraordinary beauty and lucidity. Others suffer to such a degree from a kind of brittle, agitated over-elaboration that one wonders that the knowing spareness and beauty of the successful works ever found expression. In this respect Kandinsky’s work constantly tests the partiality of one’s eye; for while I find myself at ease with the astonishing freedom of his earliest watercolors, and increasingly unhappy with Kandinsky’s impulse to regulate and compress his early freedom into spindly, inescapably dated shapes, he frequently creates with these very shapes and their fidgety multiplicity, a sharp and unaccountable beauty.

The fervor which is so present in Kandinsky’s writings on art finds its expression in his paintings, even at their most abstract, in an equally pervasive impulse towards exposition, or more accurately, illustration—something which Clement Greenberg has written about at some length. One sees the formulation of this impulse with particular clarity in this group of watercolors, by the way in which every aspect of Kandinsky’s early abstract improvisations is systematically examined and transposed, in an essentially illustrative way, into Kandinsky’s deeply personal conception of pictorial space. One senses, especially in those works from the period when Kandinsky was at the Bauhaus, an almost compulsive will to invest the growing accumulation of shapes with the lucidity of his strangely non-pictorial fervor. In a work like Upward Tension No. 168, Kandinsky exercised himself almost to the limits to spell out his intentions, his emphatic marshaling of the characteristic crescent and triangular shapes, fanned-out diagonal lines, criss-crossed spheres and shrilly dissonant colors resulting in a blatantly naive schematization of movement in space. In contrast, a work like Fragrant Green, No. 350 comes across so purely as a distillation of Kandinsky’s will to communicate that it seems almost as though the same crisply detailed schematizations and minutiae are brought into some kind of meaningful focus solely by means of the sheer purpose with which he marks them onto the surface. I find a certain poignancy to the beauty of a work like Fragrant Green, for in savoring its beauty one is clearly not reading it in the way that Kandinsky manifestly intended, and for this reason I find him a particularly difficult artist to come to terms with.

Jane Harrison Cone