Kandinsky and His Progeny

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

[This article first appeared in Aristos, May 1995.]

Two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this spring strikingly illuminate the ostensibly opposing poles of twentieth-century avant-garde "art"--that is, modernism and postmodernism. Without at all so intending, these exhibitions serve to reveal how closely related these two seemingly disparate aspects of modern culture actually are.

The smaller, quieter of the two shows is "Kandinsky: Compositions," which traces the origins of abstract painting through the work of the acclaimed Russian modernist Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Focusing on the large canvases Kandinsky considered his most important work, the exhibition highlights his transition from figurative to nonobjective painting, and documents the philosophic and spiritual concerns that prompted him. At the heart of the exhibition are his Compositions V-VII, painted between 1910 and 1913 and widely reputed as masterworks of abstraction.

The exhibition brochure explains that most of the Compositions deal with themes of cosmic catastrophe and renewal, inspired by traditional religious subjects such as the Deluge and the Apocalypse, but that none of this is made "visually explicit." Indeed, even with the help of a detailed description for Composition VII, for instance, it is impossible for the viewer to discern either the "abstracted, universalized form" of a reclining couple intended as a "sign of renewal," or the "imagery of destruction and catastrophe" said to be represented on the opposite side of the canvas. All that is readily evident to the viewer is a brilliantly hued, dynamic (if chaotic) arrangement of lines, shapes, and subtly modeled areas of color. On a formal level, the work is visually engaging. But any attempt to understand it, to discover in it a coherent intention or objective meaning, is inevitably frustrated.

At the other end of the twentieth-century avant-garde spectrum is the Museum of Modern Art's boisterous, rambling retrospective of "multimedia" works by the prominent postmodernist Bruce Nauman (b. 1941). (This show, by the way, is the third largest retrospective in the museum's history, smaller only than those for Picasso and Matisse.) Nauman's mostly large-scale, often noisy "installations" are neither painting nor sculpture. They range from early pieces such as Run from Fear, Fun from Rear (1972), which is nothing but a neon sign bearing those words, to recent pieces such as Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear (1994)--a series of greatly enlarged, close-up video sequences showing the "artist" brutishly sticking his finger in his eye, nose, and ear. As if such repugnant images were not sufficient, many of Nauman's installations involve ear-splitting sound components--from the deafening drumming in the video Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer) to the spine-chilling, grating noise of mutilated animal effigies being dragged around on the ghoulish piece entitled Carousel. Small wonder that even some friendly critics have compared this exhibition to an insane asylum. Still less wonder that one of them reported hearing a little girl wailing to her mother: "I don't like it here!"

Not surprisingly, the Nauman and Kandinsky exhibitions have received markedly different reviews from art and culture critic Hilton Kramer, editor of the neoconservative journal The New Criterion. A persistent gadfly with respect to postmodernism, Kramer has predictably blasted the Nauman retrospective, calling it "contemptible" and "nihilistic," the "single most repulsive show" he has seen in nearly fifty years of museum-going (New York Observer, March 13, 1995)-- though, tellingly, he continues to refer to the work as art.

By contrast, Kramer has effused praise for the Kandinsky show. In an article entitled "Kandinsky & the Birth of Abstraction" (The New Criterion, March 1995), Kramer credits the exhibition with calling attention to "one of the pivotal moments in modern cultural history," and notes that Kandinsky gave us "some of the most beautiful [abstract] paintings that have ever been created." Kramer has also used the occasion of the exhibition to enlighten the "vast public that now takes abstract art for granted," as to the intellectual origins of this "art that makes no direct, immediately discernible reference to recognizable objects."

Kramer explains that "the emergence of abstraction early in the second decade of this century represented for its pioneers a solution to a spiritual crisis." He continues:

". . . The conception of this momentous artistic innovation entailed a categorical rejection of the materialism of modern life; and . . . abstraction was meant by its visionary inventors to play a role in redefining our relationship to the universe. . . ."

How that relationship was to be redefined was explored by Kandinsky not only in his paintings but in his influential treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art (originally published in German in 1911), which played a key role in disseminating, and gaining acceptance for, the principles on which nonobjective art was based. An attentive reading of Kandinsky's treatise, however, reveals just how thin his theoretical argument is.

In his zeal to escape what he regarded as "the nightmare of materialism," Kandinsky fell into two fundamental errors. First, he held that the "internal truths" of the spirit could be rendered in an entirely new way, severed from the external forms in which we inhabit, and perceive, the world. "The more obvious is the separation from nature," he maintained, "the more likely is the inner meaning to be pure and unhampered." But we human beings are in and of nature. And it is precisely through external forms and features that our inner meanings become visually manifest--first and foremost, through the expressiveness of the human face and figure; and secondarily, by psychological projection, in the expressive qualities of other creatures and in the infinitely variable character of the natural landscape.

Kandinsky's further error, equally devastating in its influence on the course of art, was to force painting--as well as the other arts--into an extended analogy with music. "In the striving towards the abstract, the non-material," he announced, "the various arts are drawing together," and "are finding in Music the best teacher." Even if we grant that color is, as he observed, somewhat analogous to musical tones in having a direct effect on the emotions, it is not primarily through color and abstract form, but rather through the particular forms and aspects of the natural entities noted above, that we "perceive" (more precisely, infer) spiritual values in the visual realm.

As Hilton Kramer makes clear, Kandinsky's "fateful leap into abstraction" was inspired not only by his revulsion for modern life but by a growing belief in the metaphysics of the occult--a belief he shared with Mondrian (whom Kramer also greatly admires), among other early modernists. Remarkably, however, while Kramer discusses Kandinsky's treatise in detail and emphasizes that it was heavily influenced by the theosophical doctrines of Madame Blavatsky--a notorious Russian psychic--he never questions its validity. (It is worth noting here that the May 1995 Smithsonian magazine offers this assessment of Madame Blavatsky: "one of the most accomplished [and] ingenious . . . impostors in history.") Kramer's admiration for the early modernists remains undiminished, for he earnestly believes that abstraction "emancipated" them (and, presumably, everyone else as well, not least himself) from "the mundanity of the observable world."

Ironically, Kramer (along with other eminent apologists for abstract art) fails to recognize that Kandinsky--whom he credits with innovating a form of "high art"--in fact paved the way for the postmodernists whose work he holds in deserved contempt. First, in seeking to divorce painting from the perceptible world, Kandinsky in effect sundered it from the values that give shape and meaning to human existence and thereby sustain it. Thus, in their strikingly different ways, the work of Kandinsky and Nauman alike implies a morbid alienation from actual human existence--Kandinsky's abstractions, by attempting to retreat into a mystical other-world of "pure," disembodied spirituality; Nauman's bizarre "installations," by degrading, deforming, and "deconstructing" everyday experience.

Moreover, by advancing the notion that painting need not concern itself with the visible world, by advocating that artists must be permitted absolute freedom from nature, and by minimizing the differences between the various arts, Kandinsky led a frontal assault on the integrity of the diverse art forms. Nearly a century later, we reap the whirlwind of what he sowed: the insanity of postmodernism, as exemplified by Bruce Nauman's barbaric multimedia concoctions--as devoid of artistic integrity as they are of life-enhancing meaning.

[NOTE: Reproductions of characteristic works by Kandinsky, including "Compositions V-VII" (cited above), can be viewed at the WebMuseum, Paris. A work in neon by Bruce Nauman entitled "Double Poke in the Eye" (one of his tamer pieces, not discussed here) is illustrated on the Art in Context web site. (Click on images to enlarge them.)]

© Copyright 1995 The Aristos Foundation Inc.