Kandinsky at the Guggenheim is a major event in New York. Six levels of the museum have been devoted to the painter’s canvasses – nearly 100 of them – in a retrospective that ranges from 1902-1942 and draws mostly from the three largest public holdings of his work: the Guggenheim Foundation, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich. As the artist died in 1944, this is likely the most comprehensive gathering we’ll see for some time. His work was last given such attention in the United States in the 1980s, when the Guggenheim presented three surveys.
The show is organized chronologically, and this is a felicitous decision. It’s hard to think of another artist whose development appears so neatly linear – each period seems the logical successor to its antecedent. As spectators walk up the museum’s winding rotunda, they follow the evolution of an aesthetic from its beginnings in darkly-colored folk scenes (1902-07), through an intermediary period of bright amorphous landscapes (1908-12), to its maturity in abstraction, of which there are a few phases (1912-21; 1922-33; 1933-44). There is such concordance between the artist’s genius and the presentation’s utility that one could think that no human labor went into forging his monumental vision.
This is not to say all the paintings are masterly. In fact, that the early work wouldn’t be of great interest without the later work is precisely what makes the exhibit’s breadth so impressive. Colorful Life (Motley Life) (1907) is a village tableau whose salient compositional units, waterfront perspective, and violence commend it as a mock-idyll response to Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It’s certainly vibrant, but unremarkable among the canon.
The next period, during which Kandinsky lived near the German Alps, begins around 1908 and is known for landscapes that defy traditional principles of representation. Heavy with mass, these scenes contain large blotchy shapes of sky, shrubs, clouds, and chimneys that converge on one another. Vigorous brush strokes fill every form with motion. Increasingly, the “subjects” – often people and their horses – recede into the totality of the pictures, as in Improvisation 3 (1911). Some of these paintings just feel crude. Others, such as Improvisation 7 (Storm) (1910), are quite compelling: they seem the primitives of his abstract masterpieces.
When the spectator gets to those masterpieces, which for most will have been the original attraction, it’s a feeling of consummation. Around 1912, heavy strokes are replaced with subtle harmonies of color and lineation that generate a much more powerful energy – motion is no longer contained within shapes; entire paintings become motion (the Edwin R. Campbell Panels from 1914 are superlative examples). After 1922, geometric figures become predominant. These works, though varied, are generally sparer. In Several Circles (1926) and Movement I (1935), bright forms are suspended across black planes, conjuring infinite space.
The mature work stands on a deep faith in the inherent spiritual values of colors and shapes, telling us that, all along, the arrangement of these simple elements – not subjects – has produced the “vibration in the soul” that is the great initial achievement of art. It is the artist’s task, Kandinsky believed, to “set art free,” and the ultimate task the collective formation of a “spiritual pyramid” that would “some day reach to heaven.” Roll your eyes as you will at reaching heaven, the feeling of standing before these paintings is ineffable.