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Kandinsky retrospective is natural for Guggenheim

An exhibition of oil paintings by the abstract artist celebrates the museum's 50th anniversary.

November 22, 2009|By CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Art Critic
  • Late in his career, Kandinsky painted amoeba-like forms.
Late in his career, Kandinsky painted amoeba-like forms. (Guggenheim Museum )

Reporting from New York — "Kandinsky," the big exhibition of 95 oil paintings made between 1902 and 1942 by the visionary pioneer of abstraction, Vasily Kandinsky, is a show that looks like it was made expressly for the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. That's because in a sense it was.

Solomon R. Guggenheim, the museum's founder, was a major collector of Kandinsky's art, amassing no fewer than 150 canvases in his lifetime. (He died in 1949, five years after the artist.) The work was perhaps the most profound influence on the collector's thinking about nonobjective painting, which shed direct relationships to the visible world. Kandinsky instead explored the emotive possibilities of color and form, study central to avant-garde art for the next half a century.

In 1939, a scant decade after the collector bought his first Kandinsky, he opened the Museum of Nonobjective Painting -- the precursor to today's Guggenheim. And 20 years after that, Frank Lloyd Wright's radically designed Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue opened, showing just how much nonobjective art had informed a variety of advanced ideas. A powerfully expressive, light-filled void pierces the building's core.

Wright's building recently underwent a much-needed, beautifully achieved restoration. As a celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Kandinsky retrospective (running until Jan. 13) not surprisingly elicits a major "Wow."

Life-altering events

Kandinsky, born into a prosperous Russian family in 1866, didn't turn away from conventional studies in law and economics in favor of art until he was 30. He left the University of Moscow to study painting in Germany, trading in business for bohemia.

Two events in Munich had a profound influence on his artistic direction. One was an encounter with Claude Monet's haystack paintings of the 1890s -- luscious, luminous canvases that began to dissolve worldly form into an ephemeral blaze of painted color. The other was attendance at a Richard Wagner concert; Kandinsky began to have his first inklings of the as-yet unimaginable possibilities for paintings that might be as thoroughly abstract as Wagner's richly textured music is.

Over the course of his career Kandinsky made three general types of paintings, each of which took its name from music's lexicon. "Impressions" were a direct response to what he saw in the visible world, heightened by the intense color of Matisse. "Improvisations" were spontaneous expressions, which allowed the play among abstract colored forms to speak. Finally, "Compositions" were thought-out and planned -- orchestrated Impressions and Improvisations, as it were, in which all the spatial and chromatic relationships were carefully calibrated in advance, frequently in drawings.

This evolution of Kandinsky's ideas about nonobjective painting seems to have guided the show's roughly chronological installation -- marvelously so. Guggenheim curator Tracey Bashkoff, who organized the retrospective with colleagues in Paris and Munich, has beautifully integrated the work with Wright's unusual building. The famous spiral ramp is loosely separated into three parts.

At the bottom of the ramp is the early work. Wright's spiral is divided into bays, where the rear wall of each tilts back, like an easel. The landscapes, Art Nouveau stylizations, Fauve-inspired experiments with color harmonies and full-fledged Impressions are like pictures fresh from Kandinsky's easel. The effect of the display is of an artist hard at work, trying things out.

Next come the Improvisations -- Kandinsky's breakthrough into nonobjectivity in the 1910s. Line, shape, color, surface, rhythm and other properties of painting develop according to a provocative internal logic.

These pictures evolved from many sources, not least the image of a horse and rider galloping through Bavarian-style mountains. Germany, like the United States, was undergoing the tumultuous upheaval of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Kandinsky's pastoral but exciting scenes of a horse and rider subtly evoke fairy-tale adventures and St. George confronting a fire-breathing dragon.

The motif puts the brakes on modernity. The disorientation that accompanies convulsive change gets rooted in something fundamental, ancient and even spiritual. Its forms disengage from observable representation -- the lumpy curves of a horse and mounted rider's head and back evolving into a black line (think of a 3 stretched out and tipped on its side) that pierces bright, brushy clouds of crimson, cobalt and gold. It cuts the work loose from worldly representation, recording instead the perceptual experience of the artist's inner life.

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