The Guggenheim website suggests one way to view Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle: “Kandinsky’s work unfolds in reverse chronological order, starting with his late-life paintings and proceeding upward along the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp.” So let’s start with “Ribbon with Squares”(1944), with its wheel, ribbon, and ladder suspended against a deep purple background. Next, we get to “Dominant Curve” (1936), in which a larger green, red, and white ribbon encloses a brown and yellow centered form. Walking on, we arrive at “Upward” (1929), wherein the right half of a face set in a dark blue background recalls some works by Paul Klee, Kandinsky’s colleague at the Bauhaus. Going further up, how different is “Blue Circle” (1922), in which a triangle, a trapezoid, and a whole variety of other forms float in from the blue circle. And then there’s “Black Lines” (1913), a field a rounded green, blue, red, and white shapes linked by thin, jagged black lines. Next comes “Sketch for Composition II” (1909-10); Kandinsky is backing into abstraction in this high-pitched landscape of a horse and rider, and numerous other figures. And we get to “Group in Crinolines” (1909), depicting a group of men and women wearing high hats, in a pastel-colored scene that Marcel Proust might have described. The show concludes at the top of the ramp with some of his early landscapes from 1905.
Unusually at such a retrospective, viewers can place the works in some sort of visually obvious chronological order. But it’s not easy to reconstruct the development of Kandinsky’s career, or understand the significance of the individual paintings. Until fairly recently, the works of Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and the other pioneering Soviet abstractionists were relatively inaccessible, and the important Swedish painter Hilma af Klint was totally unknown. But Kandinsky has long been extremely well known in New York; the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, forerunner of the Guggenheim Museum, which now owns 150 of his works, opened in 1939. And so it’s reasonable to ask what may be learnt from this show of 80 paintings from that collection.
As the catalogue indicates, Kandinsky had a complicated career. Born in Moscow in 1866, he studied Central Asian ethnography and law in Russia before he moved to Western Europe in the early 20th century, living and working there (primarily Germany) until the Great War. It’s important, as art historian Reinhard Spieler has noted, that after a brief, unproductive stay in Paris, circa 1907, Kandinsky chose to paint in Munich. That’s where he formed the Expressionist art group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) — and where he avoided having to deal with cubism. Then, immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917, and after some frustrating art-world administrative work in 1921, he returned to Germany, where he played an influential role as a teacher at the Bauhaus. When Hitler came to power, in 1933, and closed that school, Kandinsky moved to Paris, where he died in 1944, just after the Allies liberated the city.
Kandinsky’s decisive leap forward, in which everything changed in his painting, came around 1910, when he moved into abstraction. After that, it’s not visually obvious from this show how he responded in his art to his movements from Munich to Moscow and back to Germany, and finally to Paris. Kandinsky had a veteran pedagogue’s passion to explain himself. His collected writings on art come to 900 pages. Viewing the show “around the circle” we see how, as he explains in this literature, he abstracted art from nature, removing by stages the figurative allusions of his landscapes. A great amount of his writing motivates that movement by describing the expressive significance of colors. Yellow, for example, “is the typical earthly color […]. When made colder with blue it takes on … a sickly hue.” Hence his interest in synesthesia, as well as in the parallels between painting and music. Kandinsky befriended composer Arnold Schoenberg, recognizing that by dismantling traditional musical structures, atonal music faced some of the same concerns as did his elimination of figurative subjects. He also identifies in his writings the expressive qualities of the other “essential, eternal, immutable language of painting,” what he calls form. This theorizing justified his development of abstraction. If the essential elements in painting are color and form, then what follows is that figurative subjects are dispensable. If you reverse directions at the Guggenheim, and walk down the ramp, then you can watch that process, as you see the gradual elimination of representational elements.
In Paris, the theorizing associated with Henri Matisse and Fauvism on one hand and Cubism on the other moved in quite different directions, yet neither led directly toward abstraction. And so, in retrospect, it’s unsurprising that Kandinsky didn’t remain there. He was interested in what the catalogue calls “mystical anarchism,” a very Russian “notion of spiritual and ethical transformation” that was not closely tied to practical political action. That said, my sense of the challenges faced by this show are clearly stated by Sean Scully (Abstract Painting, Art History and Politics. Sean Scully and David Carrier in Conversation, 2021):
Kandinsky’s landscape paintings leading into his abstract paintings and his circular paintings were works of pure radiant genius. What I cannot get interested in are those paintings that look like they’re made of Greek hieroglyphs. They actually cannot be decoded.
Look back at “Several Circles” (1926), in which one large and numerous small circles are suspended on a gray background. Here we have a drop-dead gorgeous, lucid image. The problem with Kandinsky’s other abstractions that I have described is that they don’t offer enough immediate visual information to “crack” his expressive code for color and form. In an extended 33-page text, “Reminiscences/Three Pictures” (1913), Kandinsky provides an elaborate account of three paintings, none of them unfortunately in this show. He describes childhood experiences, recounts his education, and elaborately theorizes these works. If so much information is needed to identify their expressive content, then it’s obvious that the pictures don’t effectively communicate on their own.
Maybe making this demand is unfair, especially for those, like myself, who don’t know much about his upbringing in the Russian Orthodox Church and the influence of its visual culture on his artwork. It surely is possible to appreciate the play of color and form in these pictures without asking for their meaning. And so, we certainly can enjoy them without accepting Kandinsky’s own obviously badly dated account of his achievement. But what are we then missing? This ambitious exhibition asks that we rethink the achievement of a canonical abstractionist, whose concerns now seem very far from the present. It will be most interesting to see how artists respond. Fortunately we have months to visit and revisit.
Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through September 5, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Megan Fontanella, Curator, Modern Art and Provenance.