The Magazine

Late Mastery

The marriage of art and humanity in Kandinsky.

Jan 4, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 16 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Guggenheim Museum

Through January 13, 2010

If Wassily Kandinsky had lived only as long as Raphael and Caravaggio, he wouldn't merit so much as a footnote in the history of art. Indeed, before he turned 30, his one act of artistic initiative--as far as we know--was to buy a paint box at the age of 10. Born in Moscow to an affluent family of the upper middle class, Kandinsky (1866-1944) trained in law and then in economics and then in ethnology--anything, it seems, but art.

So it must have felt like a bolt from the blue when he decided, in 1897, to take up the great cause of painting. He moved to Schwabing, the bohemian district of Munich, and signed up for instruction with the Slovenian artist Anton Azhbe. A new and uneven show at the Guggenheim celebrates his subsequent achievement over a career of almost 50 years, a career that began in the late 1890s, amid the dream fugues of late symbolism, and ended after the liberation of Paris, amid the angularity of geometric abstraction.

Unlike the landmark exhibition that the Guggenheim mounted in the early 1980s, over five years and in three installments, this exhibition does not seem to indulge any curatorial or scholarly illusions about its underlying consequence. The Guggenheim (together with the Städtische Galerie in Munich and the Centre Pompidou in Paris) has mounted this exhibition for much the same reason that orchestras play Beethoven: Simply put, that is what people want and expect from them.

Indeed, the Guggenheim itself began life, under Baroness Hilla Rebay, as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, its primary purpose being to promulgate the art and philosophy of Wassily Kandinsky. And yet, the present display lacks the focus of the Guggenheim retrospectives of the early '80s. More or less a crowd-pleaser, it passes in quick and somewhat arbitrary review of Kandinsky's long career, paying more attention to his later years than to his beginnings. Let it also be said that, in the rough and tumble selection of paintings on display, some weaker works appear alongside masterpieces that exemplify the general strength and confidence that define his art. "Lyrical," from early in 1911, feels rather slight while, in the nearly contemporary "Impression III (Concert)," a fine spray of yellow appears to have slipped away from the artist's control.

Although it does not celebrate or make much of the fact, this exhibition roughly coincides with the centennial of Kandinsky's creation, in his Schwabing studio in 1910, of the first abstract paintings in the history of art--at least according to his account. This was the goal to which the most advanced critics had been groping for almost half a century.

"All art is constantly aspiring to the condition of music," Walter Pater famously said in 1877, by which he meant the elimination of content in the pursuit of pure form. Half a generation later, the French painter Maurice Denis--all of 19 years old at the time--defined a painting, for the first time, as "a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order."

But if Denis, like a few other artists of his day, could see the promised land of abstract art, it was Kandinsky who not only took us there, but did so with a definitive and resounding mastery that has rarely been equaled and has never been surpassed. In so doing, he flung wide open the arcana imperii of visual art, with the astounding discovery that form could exist without content. This was the pictorial equivalent of splitting the atom. By comparison, Picasso's cubistic fracturing of reality into tiny facets--despite its huge but fugitive influence--amounted to little more than a distraction.

Of course, Kandinsky did not start out as an abstract painter. If this show were less of a celebration and more of a scholarly exhibition, and if it were not reliant mainly on the extensive but fortuitous holdings of the three institutions that have mounted it, more attention would have been paid to the interesting question of the artist's early evolution. His first known efforts, like "Trysting Place" (1901), are almost academic exercises. But by the time the Guggenheim takes up the tale in 1907, Kandinsky's "Motley Life" has fully embraced the liberties of expressionism. In this painting's evocation of traditional Russian life, it is true, Kandinsky retains an illustrator's attachment to the subject depicted. What is remarkable is the sovereign authority with which he already uses paint and composes his image.