New York

Wassily Kandinsky

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

In the recent show of Wassily Kandinsky’s most “symphonic works”—ten compositions and related sketches and drawings—the group of officially spontaneous works (Nos. I–VI) seemed, somewhat surprisingly, all too constructed and full of faux esprit, while his supposedly most constructed works (Nos. VII–X) read as remarkably spontaneous and spiritual. The former were made when both Kandinsky’s artistic career and the century were still young. After much ambiguous effort, Kandinsky established his identity as the “first abstractionist,”—indeed, abstract expressionist (the term was first applied to his work)—and began to construct an ideology around his gesturalist position. Nos. I–VI and On the Spiritual in Art reflect his anxious desire to claim a niche for himself. In effect they lend his pseudolyrical spontaneity—his idealization and construction of it as “spiritual”an epic grandeur. Without the menacing black lines that give these superficial surfaces of colors a certain dramatic flair and depth, these studies would be nothing but a mishmash of Impressionism and Expressionism. Without such theatricality, Kandinsky’s spontaneity would not have the messianic quality he assigned to it. In short, though Kandinsky broke with what had become the entrenched ritual of representational painting, he quickly began to ritualize abstract painting.

In Compositions VII–X, this process—the geometricization of spontaneity—works brilliantly. Made under the auspices of Bauhaus geometry, ingenuity, and practicality, they “breathe” (a word Clement Greenberg used like a laurel wreath) the way the earlier ones don’t. They have the solidity and comprehensiveness Kandinsky strove for in the first compositions but couldn’t quite achieve because he was possessed by an idea—that of his own genius in particular—rather than by painting. Kandinsky is the implicit star of the early compositions (the rider in Compositions II) while the later works no longer rely on his spiritualist ambition. Landscape has gone cosmic in them, but their complex organization, suggestive of what Ehrenzweig called a “hidden order” of gestalt-free effects, is their real point. These works stand in sharp contrast to the early compositions in which his (near) spontaneity never registers as more than a blind meandering in search of a generalized spiritual effect. The paradox of the relationship between the early and late compositions is that while the former often give us innovative gestures, those gestures end up looking like bizarre organic ornaments, whereas in the latter, geometry becomes a vehicle for uncompromised transcendence. In other words, there is more spiritual plenitude in the lush geometrical decorativeness of No. IX, 1936, than in all the would-be-visceral, artfully urgent colors and gestures (and manicured incoherence) of Nos. I–VI. Kandinsky did finally arrive in the pure esthetic heaven of his dreams, albeit by way of a path more tortuous than the one upon which he initially embarked.

Donald Kuspit