Kandinsky Before Abstraction: 1901 – 1911 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
June 27, 2014 to Spring 2015
1071 5th Avenue (at 89th Street)
New York, 212 423 3500
The small show of Vasily Kandinsky’s early work, now on view in the third floor annex of the Guggenheim Museum, offers an intimate, insightful glance at the more formative years of this celebrated artist’s career. The 16 paintings and woodcut prints included in the exhibition highlight a period of inquiry, exploration, and discovery, the decade during which Kandinsky began testing the boundaries of his aesthetic credo and barreling toward his eventual ascension into the heady realm of pure abstraction. And although the low ceiling, low lights, and somewhat disjointed hanging scheme do not quite do them justice, the works themselves are a joy to behold: not only are they lovely and challenging, but they reveal a great mind on the verge of genius, toiling to piece together the aspects of a grand puzzle whose total image would change the face of art and the modern paradigm forever after.
The four early landscapes — picturesque en-plein-air sketches of Munich and Amsterdam — are studious and impressionistic, their subject matter and thick, gestural brushwork emulating the work of Monet. Though the mastery of color that characterizes Kandinsky’s later blockbuster Compositions had yet to materialize, one can sense his curiosity and desire to push his palette further, to release each color from its expected role and see what it might otherwise be capable of. In Amsterdam – View from the Window (1904), for example, there is a palpable tension between tradition and innovation. For all its richness and loose suggestion of form, the painting is still a representational rendering of the empirical world, and everything in it is more or less as it should be: the grass is green, the bricks are red, the sky is blue, and the city sits comfortably on its axis, extending out from a level and distant horizon. Fishing Boats, Sestri (1905) and Pond in the Park (1906) find Kandinsky compressing the picture plane and honing his attention to color, creating increasingly delineated zones in unexpected hues like ochre and cerulean with a vigorous back-and-forth of the brush.
Also included in the show are six woodcuts — four black-and-white and two tinted with metallic paint (all 1907) — whose presence feels largely didactic, serving as stepping-stones into Kandinsky’s next, more pioneering painterly phase. By removing the necessity of color, the medium forced Kandinsky to focus on simplified shapes, careful composition, and the manipulation of space, both in regard to truncated perspective and the rhythmic alternation between inked and non-inked areas. A few of the later jewel-toned paintings, including Landscape near Murnau with locomotive (1909) and Landscape with Rolling Hills (1910), retain the woodcuts’ flat, blocky shapes and further manipulate the space within the picture plane, suspending gravity and tilting the ground at such a pitch that the trees, houses, and clouds seem as though at any moment they might float away or tumble right out of the canvas.
From 1908 onward, Kandinsky began to gradually abstract and strip away recognizable imagery in favor of placing the emphasis on painting itself. Group of Crinolines (1909) marks a major shift in this direction, depicting a luncheon party à la Manet in an expanded palette of vibrant pastels that leans toward the secondary, slanted hues of the Fauvists. On a distinctively larger canvas, eight men and women stand stiff and flat as paper dolls against a highly abstracted countryside, their faces rendered in shades of celery green, lilac, citrine, and ice blue. Close inspection rewards the viewer by revealing a pleasurable trick Kandinsky has played, for the near-neon hues are tempered not by black, but rather by colors that adroitly tip toward black: deep navy or teal, olivey green, or overripe plum. The brusque juxtapositions of Braque’s early landscapes are fused with the scribbled, aggressive marks of Kirchner, giving one the sense that the objects are still isolated but on the cusp of dissolving into a raucous din of color and light.
By the time he painted Pastorale (1911), Kandinsky was squarely en route to abandoning representation altogether, his female figures and their bucolic surroundings blurred into vague, fuzzy fields of buttery yellows and dusty whites accented here and there by saturated shades of blue, pink, and green. His use of color is more material and his composition loosens up, allowing for a new kind of space to enter the picture. As art historian John Golding once observed, this is the moment where:
Kandinsky’s blues, his reds, his yellows, are becoming nouns, objects, substances in their own right: blue is blue, red is red, yellow is yellow… and the pocketing of space, both visually and psychologically, suggests a space that can engulf us. To this extent the picture plane now carries with it implications of concavity; as our eyes penetrate into individual areas, compartments of visual activity, others swim out to the periphery or sides of our field of vision.
Within his first decade as a serious painter, Kandinsky successfully unlocked and activated a realm of aesthetic experience that reverberates through the annals of art history and still has the capacity to inspire awe, and often render viewers speechless. In the year following Pastorale he went on to co-found Der Blaue Reiter and publish his seminal text, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” I, for one, am glad to live in an age where these breakthroughs are safely behind us, and can be brought together and marveled at simply for the price of admission.
 Golding, John, Paths to the Absolute. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), 90.print