Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kandinsky :Improvisations with Color

Vasily Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC
November 14, 2009

Rainy days bring out the crowds to New York Museums. I had been wanting to see the Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim for several weeks and Saturday gave me my opportunity. After driving from Connecticut and circling the block for a half an hour, I came to the conclusion that my usually faithful parking karma had taken a vacation day. With this realization, I succumbed to the inevitable and secured a parking space at a garage on 87th and Park that had a reasonable prix fixe for the time I had allotted. After walking in a fine mist that deceivingly drenches you, I made my way to the Gugg. I couldn't believe the long lines waiting in front of the ticket booths to get in. Seven rows deep, twenty people long and hundreds already making their way through the exhibit; quite an impressive turnout for an abstract artist!

The overcast light from the atrium's skylight cast a muted, cream colored light on the crowds below. It felt like we were all enveloped in a gauze,. seeing each other through mosquito netting. There is a thickness to the air a mixture of heavy humidity and perspiration emanating from the mass of humanity that inhabits the building. Most people lament about the long lines. Some succumb to their own creations of an seemingly endless wait,leaving prematurely an unfulfilled. Most suffer silently, braving the lines like homeless waiting for soup at a shelter. Gratefully the lines move fairly quickly, the mechanized efficiency of capitalism at its finest. Within fifteen or twenty minutes I get my ticket, an eighteen dollar entry pass to the world of Kandinsky.

Vasily Kandinsky is an artist whose transformative use of color and form was instrumental in the creation of the abstract art movement of the early twentieth century. Having never taken an art history or art appreciation class (it wasn't de rigueur for engineering school graduates), I have been drawn to Kandinsky's work for the purely visceral feeling that his dramatic use of color and shapes has elicited from me. I get a similar feeling when listening to a great jazz artist or group.

Looking up at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed spiral, I watch the flow of bodies surge through its serpentine corridors. This flow has the feeling of an orderly organic rush of plasma through a pulsating organ. I am sure the architect would have a smile of satisfaction on his face. It is perhaps the most symbiotic exhibit that could be presented at this facility. It was the abstract movement that was in some respects the inspiration for Guggenheim building this museum and hiring Wright for this commission.

The exhibit starts with a four panel display that Kandinsky was commissioned to paint for collector Edwin Campbell, for his Park Avenue apartment. It is sometimes referred to as "The Four Seasons". Painted between May & June 1914, these panels have apparently never before been displayed together in a museum They represent a stage of abstraction for the artist that was by this time highly developed.

With his abstract credentials firmly established, the exhibit regresses to Kandinsky's earlier works where he paints using more identifiable objects. The exhibit cleverly allows the viewing public to slowly experience the artist's progressive move into abstraction. Kandinsky's subject matter during his early period is predominantly landscapes. Objects like trees, mountains and people are readily identifiable. His quest for freedom from form is a slow process that he develops over a period of time and is well represented by various works in the show. For me his work from 1908 "Blue Mountain" is a most impressive painting where Kandinsky has started to use brilliant colors with minimally identifiable forms to inch us into his foray into almost total abstraction.

"Picture with an Archer" from 1909 still exhibits identifiable forms as well as a recurring theme of Kandinsky, the rider on the horse. This presumably represents Kandinsky's path to enlightenment and is a repeated motif in his work. Some of my other favorites from this period and brilliantly on display are his 1911 " Romantic Landscape" and his series of pictures titled "Compositions". By this time Kandinsky had been trying to free his art. His goal was to better approach the freedom he felt was implicitly achievable in the new music that was being concurrently presented by avante-garde composers like Arnold Schoenberg. His "Impressions III (Concert) from 1911 is a representation of a Schoenberg performance that he attended. He used numerous titles for his works like " Impressions" "Improvisations" and "Compositions" which have a definitive tie to his admiration of music. For me, Kandinsky represents the perfect visual representation of the beauty and expressiveness of improvisational jazz. Where jazz musicians use expressive glissandos of seemingly unrelated notes, rhythmic pulses of multiple meters free from apparent musical order to create expression, Kandinsky uses brilliant colors to form impressions and define his expression. Colors that flow into each other in seamless harmony. Flowing, organic representations that transcend normally definable objects creating a new reality that is both harmonic and atonal. It is this symbiosis with its expressive creative musical undertones that make Kandinsky a joy for me. There is a entire room dedicated to Kandinsky's more mechanically contrived etchings, inks and watercolors, but even these have an organic quality to them. He incorporates geometrical forms as well as from embryonic and microscopic objects in his work.

The exhibit is a splendid representation of the maestro's work in the perfect setting. A must see for any lover of improvisational art at its finest. The exhibit will continue at the Guggenheim through January 13, 2010. For a glimpse at the exhibit check out this link to the Guggenheim


  1. Ram,

    Thanks for sharing your rainy day visit with kandinsky. I don't know his work but obviously need to spend some time with it. Nice tie in to your love of jazz.


  2. Just got back from the Guggenheim exhibit and felt many of my favorite jazz musicians (Miles Davis, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sun Ra ...) must have been exposed to Kandinsky. There seems to be so much music in the paintings. Nevertheless, my Internet searches for links between jazz musicians and Kandinsky's painting has not turned-up much. Did any of his paintings ever get used for album art in the days of vinyl? Seems a likely possibility with the graphic potential of his painting. Thanks for the Kandinsky posting, here! -Mike, Ashland, Wis.

  3. Kandinsky on album covers certainly would have made for great album art! Thanks for seeing the tie in. Great show. Keep on following. Ralph

  4. Hello! I am trying to find out some of the jazz music pieces Kadinsky might have listened to while painting... Do you have anything in mind? Thanks~!

  5. Christine: Its hard to be definitive about what jazz music Kandinsky was listening to during the development of his abstract style. Clearly during his Bauhaus years 1922-1933 he was likely to have heard ragtime from Scott Joplin as well as newly developing jazz from the likes of King Oliver, Bix Biederbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Jelly Roll Morton, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, all of who were recording by this time. Maybe even Duke Ellington by the later years. Hope this helps.