Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Guggenheim Kandinski Retrospective

Dominant Curve, April 1936

I’ve never been a great fan of Kandinski -- and I’m still not, despite the terrific Guggenheim retrospective (ending January 13th). I admire him and his work in an intellectual way, but it never gets to me the way Picasso, Matisse and Mondrian do. Strange because I’ve always been interested in art that’s experienced over time, the way we experience music (and Chinese landscape painting). In fact, if you try to take in a Kandinski all at once, it’s a jumbled mess -- you have to scan it from one pictorial riff to another to make any sense of the work.

I think Kandinski never breaks away from traditional easel painting (the idea of the canvas as a window into a separate world) mainly because he centers his pictorial incident, avoiding the edge of the canvas -- the area of a painting closest to the viewer’s real space. Kandinski paintings are a spacey (outer-spacey) staging area for a lexicon of psychedelic, cutesy abstract (or semi-abstract) images flying all over the place, where figure and ground shift, and objects become fields of color. But it is a world that’s separate from ours -- one we observe through the frame. (See my post on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon for a comparison)

Lyrical, January 1911

It’s too bad Kandinski chose not to go in the direction of his early, Matisse-influenced, Blaue Reiter paintings. That work had the physical presence and immediacy we have come to expect of painting for the last 100 years.

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