color Beyond Kandinsky

The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky's classic text, On the Spiritual in Art. Inspired by this anniversary, this project set out to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.

Beginning on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011, a ten-day virtual symposium moderated by Taney Roniger and Eric Zechman was held in this forum. The symposium closed on the evening of Friday, April 8th. Below is the full record of the proceedings.

Panelists invited to participate were: Suzanne Anker, Laura Battle, Connie Beckley, Anney Bonney, Deirdre Boyle, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeff Edwards, James Elkins, Max Gimblett, Tom Huhn, Atta Kim, Roger Lipsey, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joseph Nechvatal, Daniel Siedell, Charlene Spretnak, David Levi Strauss, Alan Wanzenberg, and Pawel Wojtasik. For participant biographies and other project details, please visit our site:


March 30th–April 1st: Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now

April 2nd–April 3rd: Session II: The Changing Shape of Art

April 4th-5th: Session III: Art and Its Audience

April 6th–April 7th: Session IV: The Artist in Society

April 8th: Conclusions


Monday, April 25, 2011

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Closing Remarks

First, I want to thank everyone who attended last night’s screening of Grahame Weinbren’s wonderful film Kandinsky: A Close Look, hosted by the filmmaker for the occasion of the closing of our symposium. Even more, I want to thank Grahame himself, whose generous contribution to our project could not have been surpassed as a way of bringing things to a close. Not only were many of us given the opportunity to meet in person for the first time, but, by way of Grahame’s piece, the man whose work and life inspired this symposium was made a living presence among us for the entire evening. Sitting in the darkness of the theater with Kandinsky, I felt the desire to thank him for all he’s given us and inspired in me, but I also wanted him to understand that in many ways it is indeed time for us to move beyond him. I think I heard him say that he understood.

The last ten days have been exciting for me, and I find myself emerging from them with a renewed sense of the vitality and vigor of the spiritual, of the strength of its pulse that is far from fading. I’ve learned about new perspectives on and approaches to it that I did not know existed, and I feel positively infused with a whole new set of questions to begin pursuing. I’ve no doubt that for all of us similarly infused, the dialogue will continue.

None of this would have been possible without the enthusiastic and generous contributions of everyone who participated—panelists and readers alike. I’m deeply grateful to all of you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to give us so much of yourselves.

I also want to thank my project partner, Eric Zechman, whose commitment to our subject is deep and abiding. Eric’s longstanding involvement with the film work of Nathaniel Dorsky has brought new dimensions to my understanding of the spiritual—and indeed to our project as well. I want to especially thank Eric for his heroic efforts in the coordination of our hugely successful film screening of Nathaniel’s work on April 5th.

And I want to reiterate my thanks to Suzanne Anker, Chair of BFA Fine Arts at SVA, for her continued support of our project. We’re very grateful to have had her sponsorship.

Last but certainly not least, I want to thank my husband, Colin Selleck, for his tireless work on our web site over the course of the last year. Colin has been the invisible force behind the scenes without whom there would have been no scenes. If I didn’t know it before, I certainly know it now: he truly has the patience of Job. Thank you, Laz!

Final Thoughts from Barbara Braathen

Barbara Braathen, a reader who submitted an eloquent statement early on in the symposium, has offered some final thoughts on our project. I'm deeply grateful for her contributions. Here's what she said:

Interest in the Spiritual in Art has risen and fallen a number of times over the last hundred years, and is treated differently and in varying intensities in different circles. It was exciting to hear about the techno-garde lingo of the 90s… spirituality peeps over the horizon again!

My belief is that the spiritual is what provides art with value. This would be the loosest possible appraisal of the spiritual, viz., that it is pleasurable, it stimulates the imagination, and it is expansive. The art realm, the entire realm, and all works of art participate in the spiritual in this manner.

I disagree with Alex Grey that in order for an artist to deal with mysticism in art, the artist must have a mystical experience. After 50 years of interest in this subject, perhaps my mystical experiences (not counting those regarding art) might add up to five seconds. The mystical experience is in the making of the art, not exactly in purveying the content of spirituality. One artist referred to the "numinosity" of the making experience, a sort of bond between self and other…. When ordinary time does not pertain as one is lost in the process of creation. This unity, this placement of self within the whole, can be felt as well when apprehending the work of art. It's a mystical process… not the conscientious engagement of mysticism as a topic.

My belief is that, until recently, artists have always known that their enterprise was on spiritual, and valuable, ground. All the cheeky inventions of the avant-garde—for which we must be humbly grateful—were made because the artist worked with total confidence that whatever was produced was for "higher" purposes. The spiritual content of art might be left unsaid, unexamined, and unacknowledged, but it existed as an unquestioned given. Even the turn to machine aesthetics was for a utopian, harmonious society, a visionary quest; this was not non-spiritual.

The nervousness, uncertainty, and doubt about much of today's art production is, I believe, because that lifeline, the spiritual in art, is ignored, even disparaged. The teachers of art and art history listened too hard and ultimately believed hook, line and sinker, in the party line of nihilism. Yes, Duchamp broke open the field of materials in art, bringing in the realm of the ordinary. But Duchamp was an occultist. If, as an art student, you learn only that he took any object and claimed it as art, voila… and you can do it too…. This is only part of the truth.

When did it become forbidden to mention the word spiritual regarding art? The interesting formalist trajectory, begun with Manet in the 1860s, terminated in the 1970s with body, process, installation, and new media art. Coming off the decade of the 60s, where Pop, in joke form, and Minimal, in silent mode, reacted to the passions of Abstract Expressionism… we had already by the 70s almost a decade of marginalizing the spiritual in art. Cool prevailed, and still does. Since then, there have been other major developments to absorb. In the 80s, the cult of the personality, of social circles, and entertainment columns became more important than talking about the work itself. Then, in the 90s and 00s, the extraordinary expansion of the once-tiny art market into the global and corporate player it now is. Art is participating in the larger culture of the spectacle on a scale unheard of previously. There is now so much art and so much art activity, there is no way to know everything, there is no way to go to all the art fairs. We are not only overwhelmed with data, but the contemporary art world is now a large social circle of interdependents who don't want to offend each other… so there is no judgment. Coolness is reinforced by the era of political correctness. But I view this cynicism as skin deep… not even beginning to penetrate the value of the spiritual.

In this large circle, there is no "high art". Because the "spiritual" rests upon values determining "higher" realms, perhaps this is why the spiritual is not addressed. Or perhaps nothing much is being expressed… better silent than wrong? I paraphrase here a statement made some years ago by Philippe de Montebello in Art Newspaper as an aside during an interview: "It seems that in the field of contemporary art, people do not feel free to comment." Curious, because as far as I know, the spiritual is about achieving ultimate freedom…. And so is art.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the Symposium these somewhat random thoughts occurred to me:

The value of silence—what was not said was as important as that which was.

We use the word “spiritual”—it is so painfully inadequate, even after so much clarifying. I am reminded of a Zen master who said one needs to wash their mouth every time one utters the word “Zen” or “Buddha”.

What was the purpose and effect of the symposium? Was it to re-affirm the presence of spirituality in art in the forum of ideas? It certainly could accomplish that. But perhaps another objective could be to bring about a spiritual state within individuals and society at large. For that, a kind of “via negativa,” a way of unlearning might be necessary

Finally, for no particular reason, here is a quote from Bruce Nauman, a real Zen master:







Thank you Taney and Eric.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Pawel Wojtasik Images and Video

Pigs (2010) still from video

Dark Sun Squeeze (2008) still from 3-channel video

Nascentes Morimur (2008-9) still from video

At the Still Point (2010) still from 5-channel video

Final Day: Acknowledgments

On this the last day of the Beyond Kandinsky: Revisiting the Spiritual in Art symposium, I'd like to express my appreciation for everyone who contributed to the project.

Most important, I want to commend Taney Roniger for her initial inspiration for the project and for providing the critical guidance necessary to shape the material into something that would get to the heart of many of issues relevant to the spiritual in contemporary art. I know that her commitment to this inquiry began long before we ever talked about the symposium and will continue long after, as it is central to her deep commitment to her own creative work and view.

I would also like to thank Suzanne Anker, Chair of the BFA Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts, for recognizing the value of hosting such a discussion at this point in time. While the centennial of Kandinsky's 1911 book provided an inspiration and point of departure, the interest and response the project has received underscore the continued relevance of this subject for artists today.

In addition, I'd like to thank everyone who participated in the ongoing dialogues over the past 10 days, including the discussions that occurred at the Nathaniel Dorsky screening on Tuesday, April 5th. I've been struck by the incredible range of views expressed by the participants in the symposium, views that mirror the infinite variations of feeling and thought aroused by any earnest investigation of the deep mystery embodied in the spiritual.

I hope that the dialogues and conversations started here will continue.

Some examples of my work (Max Gimblett)

Max Gimblett
Gesso, Acrylic & Vinyl Polymers, Epoxy, Oil Size, Swiss Gold Leaf & Japanese Champagne Pink Colored Silver Leaf, Clear Acrylic Overcoat / Canvas
25.00 x 25.00 x 2.00 in

Max Gimblett
Such Bamboo's Will Be The Hardest To Find, 2010
Gesso, Acrylic & Vinyl Polymers, Epoxy, Aquasize, Swiss Gold Leaf / Canvas
70.00 x 70.00 x 2.00 in

Max Gimblett
Such Bamboo's Will Be The Hardest To Find, 2010
Gesso, Acrylic & Vinyl Polymers, Epoxy, Aquasize, Swiss Gold Leaf / Canvas
70.00 x 70.00 x 2.00 in

Kandinsky and the Red Corners


Many thanks to Taney and Eric for their initiative and enthusiastic follow-through on a subject that while taboo and invisible in many circles seems like the elephant in the room to me.

I especially appreciated the generous contributions of Joseph, Jeff and Charlene and loved reading Barbara Braathen’s lively recollection.

Some thoughts researched, some imagined referencing the nature of spirit and icon painting, unfortunately written before I read Dan’s post. I am indebted to the scholarship of Peg Weiss, Carol McKay and Hans Belting.


Kandinsky was often teaching, telling stories, but he was secretive about the deeper content. To echo Charlene…

He was the first artist extensively trained as an ethnographer. And that partially set the terms of the recurring theme that has been reviewed several times in the symposium, but here again: the art and science dichotomy. When scientists admitted the atom was not, after all, the ultimate indivisible unit of life, Kandinsky seemed to take it as a personal/cataclysmic betrayal, saying:

The crumbling of the atom was to my soul like the crumbling of the whole world... Everything became uncertain… Science seemed to me destroyed; its most important basis was only a delusion, an error of the learned, who did not build their godly structures stone by stone with a steady hand in transfigured light, but groped at random in the darkness for truth and blindly mistook one object for another.

For him, science was analogous to positivism, materialism and later representational painting. He redirected his scientific aptitude in the service of a more systematic defense/canon of his artistic intuitions. That practice may have been seeded in 1889 when he discovered the shamanic tradition, possibly reclaiming his own heritage, almost by accident. Submitting a paper on “The Beliefs of the Permians and Zyrians” to a competition at the Russian Imperial Society, he won sponsorship for an expedition to the Vologda Province. The project would require a synthesis of scientific analysis and subjective insights that focused on the nature of spirit.

Kandinsky wrote in Reminiscences that:

Apart from my chosen specialization (economics…), I was strongly attracted…by various other disciplines…criminal law... the history of Russian law…peasant law…[and] ethnography… which, I promised myself initially, would reveal to me the soul of the people.

He had to probe deeply just to uncover Zyrian beliefs about the soul. He noted their concept of "Ort" (spirit) in the Ethnographic Review, defining it in a series of apparent self-contradictions. On one hand "Ort" could mean spirit (dukh) or soul (loi), but on the other hand Ort shouldn’t be regarded in the Christian sense as opposed to matter. Part of the Zyrian paradox centered on the substance of deities, the fact that they had specific elemental compositions. “All [Zyrian] Forest and Water Deities, etc. have a substantial form. All these beings can be seen and they can incur physical injury.” There simultaneously coexisted the natural, the supernatural and its darker side, sorcery.

Some believed that Orts were materialized tutelary spirits that accompanied people throughout their lives. Most agreed that Orts came to announce death whose arrival might be negotiated, that is–delayed. Orts could also leave physical marks, like bruises, on the bodies of those they were warning.

Zyrians believed shamans could occupy their material bodies after death and wander in the world. They shackled dead shamans’ bodies during burials in order to restrain them. Kandinsky included the belief that Shamans could predict and transcend death in his report. He had to make sense of the Zyrians more fluid interpretation of matter and spirit. Ethnography challenged him to extend his own objectivity towards intuition.

And something happened to Kandinsky in Vologda that lay outside ethnography’s academic grasp. The red corners at the heart of every Zyrian home introduced him to the syncretic practice of double faith, known as "dvoeverie".

I entered the living room for the first time and …stopped… on the threshold before the unexpected vision… every object [was]… covered with brightly coloured and elaborate decorations… the ‘red’ corner (‘red ‘is old Russian for ‘beautiful’) [was] thickly, completely covered with painted and printed pictures of the saints… I felt surrounded on all sides by the painting, into which I had thus penetrated.


Kandinsky experienced the medieval Christian icons contemporaneously with the rich residue of the shamanic, pagan beliefs that had preceded them. When he later borrowed the style and outer forms of the Finno-Ugric folk traditions, he tried to incorporate the sense of transformed space/time embedded in their cult images and the rituals that lay behind them, but in private. The Shamanic and the Christian influences were equally absorbed. His work would allude to their stories.

In his essay “The Storyteller” Walter Benjamin focused on Russian author Nikolai Leskov—not to bring him closer to the reading public, but to increase critical distance. Benjamin felt people were forfeiting their ability to tell stories: the art of exchanging experiences. And what was at stake specifically in Leskov’s tale of "The Sealed Angel" (1873) was not only the power of story, but also the redemptive capacity of the medieval Russian icon as the venerated image and the fact that in their history East met West.

Leskov’s novel was published thirteen years before Kandinsky went to Vologda. Its message that “the icons of the Old Believers… [were] an authentic [religious] tradition… symbols of their oppressed faith” reached a wide audience. Besides emphasizing the original image as the authentic one, the book promoted a populist re-identification with Russia’s past, something very much on Kandinsky's mind as well.

The saint’s image could trigger the memory of the saint’s story-the miracle communicated without being seen, without blaspheming the invisible reality of the sacred. Its “reduced but universally valid canon of forms reflected in the icon a super-ordinate canon of values…” The fusion of icon as spiritual image filtered through the displacement of story to thread Kandinsky’s early Munich paintings to his later non-objective abstraction. And this was the breakthrough period, the time of Concerning the Spiritual in Art’s publication that occasioned this symposium.

Atta Kim Images and Video


Atta Kim has submitted the following images and a link to a video showing a project he's been working on for the past year.

The first set of images (images 1 and 2) are from his ON AIR Project, and the second set (images 3 and 4) are from his Artist Indala Series, in which Kim superimposes all the paintings of artists he admires to form a single composite image. Image 3 is Artist Indala: Kandinsky (109 Paintings), and Image 4 is Artist Indala: William Turner (155 Paintings). The final image (image 5) is from Kim's The Museum Project (#149). (Click on images to enlarge.) To see the video of Kim's current project, please visit Atta Kim's video.

Laura Battle Images


Laura Battle has submitted the following images: Landscape, 2010, ink on paper, 22" x 72" (image 1), and Spell, 2010, ink on paper, 24" x 72". (Click on images to enlarge.)