Kandinsky at the Guggenheim Museum | Review by Jill Conner

Several Circles (1926) oil on canvas

The tumbling art economy has led to a renewed interest in blue-chip art, with a special focus on European Modernism. Much to the surprise of New York’s contemporary art community, the Gagosian Gallery exhibited the late works of Picasso during the late Spring, once reviled as his weakest but suddenly considered to be his best. The Museum of Modern Art currently hosts an extensive show on the Bauhaus while the Guggenheim Museum features a focus on one particular member of the Bauhaus, Vassily Kandinsky. While celebrating the 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building, “Kandinsky” stands to be the most significant retrospective since the previous one in 1984 at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. As each painting is placed chronologically along the museum’s spiral structure, this retrospective not only moves past its predecessor 25 years prior, but it also reveals the influence that Kandinsky’s work had upon the design of the building’s unique and intricate structure. However the sheer number of paintings by Kandinsky creates an entirely separate experience, one that is purely retinal, nostalgic and deeply psychological.

Vassily Kandinsky hailed from Tsarist Russia and, like many members of the general public, grew extremely jaded by the monarchy’s exclusive, singular opulence. Although he studied law, economics and statistics, Kandinsky developed an affinity for the various types of everyday d├ęcor that appeared inside private middle-class homes. None of this may seem relevant, but the artist was attracted to the ideas of intellectuals such as Vladimir Sokolov, who disdained material wealth. In other words, the commodity symbolized aristocratic values, not that of everyday society. As a result Kandinsky opened the discourse for non-objective art, a genre that attempted to conflate the spiritual with the visual. Colors, in his view, reflected various musical notes, suggesting that if one spent a significant amount of time looking at his paintings, the viewer could eventually hear a symphony play out in one’s mind.

Riding Couple (1907) oil on canvas

However Kandinsky’s ideas were as avant-garde to Western Europe as Modernism was to America in the late 1920s. After arriving in Munich in 1896, the artist studied painting with Anton Azhbe and eventually continued at the Munich Academy with Franz von Stuck, a German Symbolist who was active in Art Nouveau and founder of the Villa Stuck. Although two of Kandinsky’s early paintings from 1907 titled, “Riding Couple,” and “Colorful Life,” reflect the arrangement of colors and contrasts seen in stained-glass windows, he sought to open up the canvas further, to make painting entirely independent of an art historical past.

Impression III (Concert) (1911) oil and tempera on canvas

When “The Blaue Reiter Almanac,” was published in 1912 with fellow artist Franz Marc, Kandinsky had created a platform for the ethereal nature of colorful space even though German Expressionism held the public sway. “Impression III (Concert),” (1911) portrays a small group of figures on the left, swamped by a deluge of yellow on the right. The composition does not make sense when seen in terms of a narrative. However this piece is its title: an impression made after experiencing symphonic sound.

Landscape near Murnau with Locomotive (1909) oil on cardboard

Two years prior, a painting titled “Landscape near Murnau with Locomotive,” (1909) reflects Kandinsky’s gradual development toward color abstractions. In this instance the green of trees, hills and field blur together when not defined by a dark contrast. The white clouds, smoke and flowers also appear synonymous except for their shapes. By contrast “Little Painting with Yellow,” and “Painting with Red Spot,” (both from 1914) disband with the object entirely and capture a swarm of colors that move spontaneously throughout the picture plane.

Painting with Red Spot (1914) oil on canvas

During the same year, Kandinsky stated at a lecture in Cologne: “I did not want to banish objects completely. I have in many places spoken at length about the fact that objects, in themselves, have a particular spiritual sound.” (1) The cityscape returned in “Moscow I,” (1916) but as a non-linear, spherical scene. Soon before the start of World War I, Kandinsky was forced to flee Germany and return to Russia, where he felt even less at home. The artist’s subsequent paintings lost their bright vibrancy and became darker in tone. Times had changed and he lost a close friend, Franz Marc. Despite this setback, Kandinsky continued his investigation of color as a source of feeling.

Moscow I (1916) oil on canvas

But in the early 1920s, the artist made a return to Germany as a teacher at the Bauhaus. Stark geometric angles and sharp, straight lines characterize much of his work during this time, serving as small frames for the light hues that blur together quietly throughout the background. “Several Circles,” (1926) reached further, toward the edge of the canvas that ultimately came to frame this series of otherworldly, soft-colored circles set upon a black background.

Kandinsky’s work was introduced to American audiences in 1912 but became notable in 1913, at The Armory Show. His reputation grew and by the 1930s he received offers to teach at the Art Students League in New York as well as an artist-in-residence at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He refused both offers and never visited the United States, feeling far more comfortable in Europe despite its political upheavals.

Various Parts (1940) oil on canvas

Although Kandinsky spent the rest of his life in Paris, following a move in 1933, his ideas found no place within the artistic circles there. By lightening his colors further to light pastels and transforming the canvas into a site for oddly playful biomorphic forms, Kandinsky’s search for the absolute remained a lifelong quest. Coincidentally when Baroness Hildegard Rebay von Ehrenwiesen arrived in New York City to see how the ideas of the Non-Objective artists had been received, she was struck by the lack of its presence and found American art to be far inferior to what was being produced in Berlin: “America has no style. I am too modern for this country…In this country no cocks crow for non-objective art.” (2) Rebay soon became a colleague of Irene and Solomon R. Guggenheim. Eventually she became an advisor for their private art collection that came to reflect Non-Objectivism, a genre that has influenced generations of American artists.

1. Kandinsky (New York, NY: Guggenheim Museum, 2009) 30.
2. Ibid., 113.