color Beyond Kandinsky: 04/01/2011 - 05/01/2011


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: www.beyondkandinsky.net.


SYMPOSIUM SCHEDULE

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


CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD COMPLETE SYMPOSIUM TRANSCRIPT

Monday, April 25, 2011

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Closing Remarks

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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

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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

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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:

I HAVE QUICK HANDS MY MIND IS ALERT

I HOLD MY BODY READY FOR INSPIRATION

ANTICIPATION ANY SIGN RESPIRATION

ANY SIGH I THINK NEITHER AHEAD NOR

BEHIND READY BUT NOT WAITING NOT

ON GUARD NOT PREPARED

Thank you Taney and Eric.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Pawel Wojtasik Images and Video

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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

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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)

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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
P7160


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
P6949


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
P6949

Kandinsky and the Red Corners

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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.

CIRCLING BACK TO THE RED CORNERS

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.

Reminiscences

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

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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

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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.)



Joseph Nechvatal Images

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cOncerning Abu Graib
Triptych, 66" x 132"
Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

vOluptuary drOid décOlletage
66" x 120"
Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

vOglia
Room of digital projections
Claudio Bottello Gallery,
 Torino, Italy


becOming mOre
becOming multiple

Each 44" x 66”
Le val des nymphes

Orgiastic abattOir
flawless ignudiO

Diptych, 88" x 66"
Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

Still from performance of XS: The Opera Opus
New York, Dannheisser Foundation

Viral Counter Attack
Projection
Galerie RLBQ
Marseille, France

back tO Order : cOnjugated bOdies
Diptych, 87" x 66"
Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

Art Rétinal Revisité: Histoire de l’Oeil
Installation view (partial)
16" x 20" Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas
and screen with digital animation
Galerie Richard, Paris, France

fleur de lys rectal
20" x 20"
Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas
and screen with digital animation

The Informed Man
82" x 116"
Computer-robotic assisted acrylic on canvas

RE: Open Forum

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I can't come up with anything else I'd like to address. Whatever questions are still open seem bound to remain open. They’re constantly evolving, and there’s always another tangent or new side path to explore. That’s one of the things that’s so compelling about the things we’ve considered here. Spirit (however you define it) is endlessly and relentlessly productive, and can’t be pinned down.

Though I teach a class at SVA that draws from various spiritual traditions, my own published writing usually has little to do with spirit, at least in any direct sense. The major exception was a short catalogue essay I prepared for a 2009 exhibition of Tobi Kahn’s works at the Museum of Biblical Art. In that piece, I wrote about the resonance between Kahn’s art and the deeper spiritual currents found in various religious and philosophical traditions (including Daoism, Upanishadic nondualism, and the Biblical exegeses of Jacob Boehme; Plotinus and William Blake also got mentioned in passing). Most of the other art I’ve written about is more grounded in earthly concerns of one type or another, and my writings have reflected that. However, spirituality will probably always be a part of my critical toolkit, ready for use if/when it’s needed.

Final Day: Open Forum

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Before our symposium draws to a close this evening, I’d like to invite our panelists and members of our reading audience to bring whatever final questions, concerns, ideas and reflections they may have on our subject to the table. We’ve covered quite a bit of terrain over the last ten days, but, as is to be expected, so much has been left untouched.

Additionally, I’d like to invite the visual artists on our panel to post some images of their own work, and our writers, critics, and philosophers to post whatever they’d like to about their work with the spiritual in art. I think our readers would appreciate seeing some examples of current work that engages the spiritual in some new and exciting ways.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Daniel Siedell on the economy of the icon

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In an earlier thread, I asked Daniel Siedell if he would give us some further thoughts on what he calls the "economy of the icon" in his book God in the Gallery. Because Kandinsky's relationship to icon painting and veneration has not yet been touched on, and because what Dan says about it is relevant to our current topic, I'm reposting his response below:

Dan said:

The icon opens up an interesting divide in the history of Christianity, between the West and the East. The West never really gets what the fuss is all about with the icon and the violent iconoclasm that ensued in the eighth century. In the West icons/images, etc. are good for teaching and illustration. In the East, it is more profound; it is a matter of preserving the Incarnation of Christ and the connection of the spiritual and the material. The economy of the icon presumes this connection. The icon reveals the union of the divine and the material. One of the more interesting aspects of this tradition is the criticism that Eastern thinkers level against Western representational art, especially the Renaissance. This is also why there is a certain connection to the icon and abstract art. The Russian Pavel Florensky is an example. He sees the Renaissance as draining the spiritual (and divine) from the material with its excessive naturalism (perspective). Nature is not denied, it is pushed through to reveal its true basis as a spiritual reality.

The philosopher Jean Luc Marion has argued that the contemporary crisis of the image (his phrase) could be rectified by Nicaea II, which is the seventh ecumenical council that mandated the use of icons—a rather provocative and interesting assertion.

But the economy of the icon also includes its use. It is venerated—that is not just looked at but kissed, bowed in front of, touched, etc. Icons were present in churches but also in homes—little prayer corners. Malevich made use of the "prayer" corner as well in exhibiting his paintings.

Another aspect of the icon is the character of the artist, who must engage in fasting, prayer, etc. to be prepared to make the work. Tarkovsky's film, "Passion of Andrei Rublev" doesn't depict him painting a single icon.

I think that aspect of ascetical commitment to art on the part of the icon painter was extremely attractive to Kandinsky and Malevich—that the artist needed to have a certain kind of character in order to make spiritual art. But that spirituality is informed by a profoundly embodied sense of religious practices in and around the making and venerating of icons, a sense they had experienced both directly but perhaps most important indirectly.

Such theological discourse around the icon is clearly "religious," in the sense that it is shaped by public ritual, practice, etc. and for the purpose of establishing institutional boundaries. However, I'm interested in exploring how such thought, clearing shaped by "religion" can be exhumed from that context and made to serve non-religious needs, serve or illumine certain "spiritual" concerns in an explicitly secular cultural context.

On the relationship between the artist's ideas and the work

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Another interesting topic that came up in one of the threads is threatening to disappear into the archive prematurely, so I wanted to reintroduce it and give it a thread of its own. The question of the relationship between an artist's ideas and his or her work—initiated here by Joseph's mentioning of Yves Klein—seems relevant to our current focus on the role of the artist in society. Below are some of the comments on that issue, beginning with Joseph on Yves Klein:

Joseph Nechvatal said:

We might remember here that there was at least one overtly spiritual artist at the heart of modernism: Yves Klein.

Klein first studied Oriental languages, Zen philosophy and Judo and wrote a book about the subject after spending fifteen months at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo. He then went on to found his own Judo school in Paris, making a living teaching Judo from 1955 to 1959.

Back in 1948, at age 20, Klein discovered a book by Max Heindel which teaches the basic beliefs of an esoteric Christian sect called the Rosicrucians. Klein obsessively studied the book for five years, and after coming to Paris in 1955, began to refer to himself as an initiate in the sect (he was made a Knight of the Order of Archers of Saint Sebastian) and was married to the beautiful Rotrault Uecker (now Rotrault Klein-Moquay) within its highly flamboyant and ritualistic ceremony.

Based on the Rosicrucian metaphysical ideology, Klein avowed to indicate to the world a new age, the Age of Space. In the Age of Space, boundless spirit would exist free of form, objects would levitate, and humans would travel liberated from their body. This contextual understanding is essential for understanding Klein’s artistic importance, as this ideology of the immaterial informs all his work, even the paintings, but most explicitly such conceptual-technological works as the Sculpture aérostatique (1957) which was the release of 1001 balloons, and the Illumination de l'Obélisque (1958) in the Place de la Concorde.

Klein's metaphysical ideology is the basis of his well known monochrome paintings. Definitely the well-known blue monochrome were for him no more than an introduction to his ideological "blue revolution", which he saw as the diffusion of immaterial pictorial sensibility throughout the whole cosmos, both visible and invisible. So blue color was for Klein not pigment and binder but a spiritual, cosmic force that stimulates the entire environment, transforming life itself into a work of art.

Admittedly, Klein's idea of pure open space (free from form) was first actualized in his blue monochrome paintings, where the bisecting nature of line was rejected in favor of an even, all-over, ultramarine-blue color which he called IKB (International Klein Blue). However, later some of his monochromes were painted pink or gold.

The Ex-voto dédié à Sainte-Rita (1961) which was deposited by Klein at the Convent of Santa Rita in Cascia, Italy is valuable evidence of Klein's spiritual imagination.

Taney Roniger said:

Joseph, I'm glad you brought Yves Klein into the fold, since he's certainly someone who had no compunction about making his spiritual views explicit. I'm reminded of the very interesting review written by Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker of Klein's Hirshhorn retrospective a few years back. At the very end of the review, Schjeldahl—clearly a fan of the work but not at all an enthusiast for Klein's spiritual ideas—says:

But there's no separating the improbable power of conviction in his art from the worship of a cosmic principle. The problem points up a recurring blind spot in the reception of modern art, as when scholars duly note the Theosophical faith of Kandinsky or Mondrian and then make as little as possible of it, concerning their work. And let it be recalled that Andy Warhol, as revolutionary an artist in effect as Klein was in aspiration, was an observant Catholic, too.

James Elkins, in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, puts the point succinctly by stating: "There is no end to great art made by artists who had ridiculous or misinformed theories."

All of this has me wondering about the degree to which an artist's ideas (spiritual and otherwise) should be considered an integral part of the work's "content" (in quotes because I am always reluctant to isolate content from form). Can the very ideas, passions, obsessions, and convictions that give rise to great works really be considered superfluous, when without them the works would never have come into existence?

The above quotes both further our ongoing theme of the denial or suppression of the spiritual in modern art and raise an interesting question about how an artist's ideas can be separated from the work, it seems to me.

Daniel Siedell said:

The question of how an artist's ideas can be separated from the work is an interesting one in this context because it seems that the spiritual role of the artist (prophet, priest, mystic) carries much more of the burden than the work itself. The response, influenced by our Greenbergian approach to art, is to easily dismiss the artist's silly ideas. But I'm not so sure that it's so easy. What is sillier, that Kandinsky believed that art could save the world or that painting stripes could save the avant-garde from kitsch?

There is still the problem of the traditional and I think quite problematic difference between the spiritual and religious. Kandinsky, like many (Hegel and Kant) spoke of the spiritual firmly within a religious context.

Taney Roniger said:

Dan, I agree emphatically that the Greenbergian paradigm continues to influence our sense of the work's autonomy—both in relation to the artist's ideas (silly or otherwise) and the context of a larger cultural web of meaning. It's always interesting for me to observe people who by self-description are avowed anti-formalists dismissing an artist's ideas as irrelevant to the meaning of the work (insisting, instead, that signification has a life of its own, wholly separate from the intentions of the "author").

The inversion of values you point to in your "what is sillier?" question is the very heart of this entire project, it seems to me. Thanks for putting it so succinctly.

I wonder if you might say a bit more about the difference between the spiritual and the religious, since we've not really touched on that here. I'm afraid our conflation of the two has probably been a bit clumsy.

Kandinsky: A Close Look, a film by Grahame Weinbren

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As a contribution to our project, filmmaker Grahame Weinbren has generously offered to host a private screening of his film Kandinsky: A Close Look, this Friday night in his Manhattan studio. Seating is limited, but a few spaces are still available. If anyone from our reading audience would like to join us for the screening, please send an e-mail to info@beyondkandinsky.net, and include a brief note about yourself. The screening will begin at 7:30pm. The location will be given to those with reserved seats.

Commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum for the occasion of last year's Kandinsky retrospective, the film is a three-part, high-resolution movie that draws extensively on Kandinsky's writings (including On the Spiritual in Art), and runs for 36 minutes. For more information about the film, please see: Kandinsky: A Close Look.

I hope to see some of you there.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Artist in Society: Individualism and Personality

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Suzi Gablik (Has Modernism Failed?) argued that a key tenet of modernism is the idea of "uninhibited individualism," which she suggests can only progress at the "expense of the strength of common beliefs and feelings." In other words, such individualism is inherently antisocial. At the same time, she states that artists have a responsibility to be a moral presence in the world and suggests that such moral authority requires that artists make themselves into "exemplary beings," individuals with the charisma to influence society by positioning themselves outside of the dominant culture. She ends up saying that it all comes down to the quality of the individual: "to recognize truth is not a matter of talent but of character."

I wonder if the artists in our midst care to comment about the either: 1) the role of the "personality" of the artist in today's art culture; or 2) the importance of the "moral" authority of the artist?

Response to Session IV: The Artist in Society

4 comments

(1) Shaman, seeker, prophet, visionary; genius, eccentric, cultural rebel, renegade: Have these roles gone the way of the Modernist dream? What kinds of alternative roles can we conceive for the artist, and how can we work toward their implementation?

Any and all personas serve art.

(2) Has Kandinsky’s enterprise of defiance and revolt—his self-appointed role as “spiritual warrior”—been rendered suspect by contemporary sensibilities, or is there still a place for an oppositional avant-garde in contemporary culture?

The avant garde is alive and well. It always is.

(3) What role might activism—environmental, political, social—play in a new spiritual art?

This is essential. The example of Ai Wei Wei is pertinent here. His art and his life, his political actions, are one. He is the example.

(4) What is the role of the personality of the artist in today’s art culture? Has the person of the artist displaced the former role of his/her work, and in what ways might this be damaging and/or beneficial to the “spiritual atmosphere”—or interior dimension—of our culture?

"Anonymity is humility; it does not lie in the change of name, cloth or with the identification with that which may be anonymous, an ideal, a heroic act, country and so on. Anonymity is an act of the brain, the conscious anonymity; there's an anonymity which comes with the awareness of the complete. The complete is never within the filed of the brain or idea."

Krishnamurti, "Krishnamurti's Notebook", page 10.

(5) Does the supreme value placed on the individual that is such a large part of the legacy of Modernism continue to disincline artists toward work that engages questions of relatedness, or our embeddedness in the larger whole? Are these latter engagements seen as "weaker" pursuits, suited only for the less talented and ambitious?

"Creation is never in the hands of the individual. It ceases entirely when individuality, with its capacities, gifts, techniques and so on, becomes dominant. Creation is the movement of the unknowable essence of the whole; it is never the expression of the part."

Krishnamurti, "Krishnamurti's Notebook", page 11.

Relatedness and embeddedness are a fact of life. We all live in one community.

The Observer Is the Observed

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Max is right. Attention is of paramount importance. How can one speak of the spiritual in art without being able to pay attention to it in such a way that the spiritual dimension becomes manifest? I mean the spiritual dimension of the art *and* of the beholder, which amounts to the same thing, because, as Krishnamurti said, “The observer is the observed.”

Brice Marden tells the story about how Jasper Johns came to his studio once, in the early days of Marden’s career. Marden had been working on a long painting, which was hanging on the wall. The sun was setting and cast a big shadow across the painting. The two painters sat there looking at the shadow slowly, imperceptibly moving across the canvas. It seemed to Marden like hours have passed as they waited for the shadow to go off the canvas. The moment it went off the edge, Johns looked at Marden and said, “That was nice”.

Nathaniel Dorsky’s films, to me, are a manifesto of “just seeing”.

The analytical, critical phase cannot replace the “just seeing” phase of an aesthetic experience, I posit the two are mutually exclusive, although both are necessary. This may have something to do with the way our brains are built, with the way our cognition works, with the division of the brain into two hemispheres, fulfilling different but complementary functions, etc.

There are probably countless ways of “entering” a work of art, in order to properly see it.

In my own experience, I have observed that one needs to get out of the way of the artwork. The all-knowing ego/self is a barrier as it keeps on imposing, layering itself over the work.

It is like inviting a guest (artwork) into one’s house (one’s own being). One then plays host to the artwork’s guest. Now if I open the door and invite the guest, but all the while I keep talking and making assumptions, and comparing and judging and analyzing, taking the guest apart before it can come inside, the guest does not feel acknowledged for what it is, it abhors such a situation and pulls back, refusing to enter. If, on the other hand, I open the door and, letting go of myself with all my prejudices and opinions, allow the guest to just be, just stand there in front of my door, i may be ready to receive my guest properly. The guest, for its part, may now be ready to come in.

It is not guaranteed, even then, that it will come in, that an act of pure seeing will take place. But it may happen that one will experience the work of art as if alive within one’s own being, in fact, in some sense, becoming the work.

From that perspective a proper critical analysis may take place.

Session IV: The Artist in Society

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Our fourth and final session, which begins today and runs through tomorrow evening, will set its sights on an issue that echoes throughout Kandinsky’s book and that continues to haunt serious artists in our time—namely, that of the role of the artist in society. Whether as prophets or visionaries serving as beacons to a benighted world, as in Kandkinsky’s case, as “interventionists” seeking to bridge the gap between art and life, as with such figures as Joseph Beuys and John Cage, or as champions of art’s utter autonomy such as Frank Stella, the role of the artist remains as fraught and problematic as it was a century ago. With a view toward opening possibilities for how a new spiritual art might position itself within the larger culture, I pose the following questions:
  1. Shaman, seeker, prophet, visionary; genius, eccentric, cultural rebel, renegade: Have these roles gone the way of the Modernist dream? What kinds of alternative roles can we conceive for the artist, and how can we work toward their implementation?
  2. Has Kandinsky’s enterprise of defiance and revolt—his self-appointed role as “spiritual warrior”—been rendered suspect by contemporary sensibilities, or is there still a place for an oppositional avant-garde in contemporary culture?
  3. What role might activism—environmental, political, social—play in a new spiritual art?
  4. What is the role of the personality of the artist in today’s art culture? Has the person of the artist displaced the former role of his/her work, and in what ways might this be damaging and/or beneficial to the “spiritual atmosphere” of our culture?
  5. Does the supreme value placed on the individual that is such a large part of the legacy of Modernism continue to disincline artists toward work that engages questions of relatedness, or our embeddedness in the larger whole? Are these latter engagements seen as "weaker" pursuits, suited only for the less talented and ambitious?

The End of the Overtly Spiritual Period of Modern Art

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The avant-garde artists in many countries felt they were on a spiritual quest to "save civilization from materialism" from the late 1880s until World War I. It's true that the Symbolist aesthetic of the 1880s petered out, but the quest went on with various new aesthetic approaches for another fifteen years. The big shut-down came after WWI, with the turn toward the machine aesthetic (art deco in design, geometric abstraction in painting) and hard-edged rationalism. In its early years after WWI, the Bauhaus was a pocket of hold-outs of spiritual painters (Klee, Kandinsky, and others), but as Gropius was forced in the direction of having to distance the school from pre-war "cosmic wallpaper" and to accept more and more industrial commissions over the years, as did the subsequent directors, the mission and the ambiance of the Bauhaus changed entirely.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Returning to the abandoned spiritual ideals of modern art

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I have been thinking back on the *why* of the abandoning of spiritual ideals in Modern art. I first thought it might be traced to the rise of the philosophy of Pragmatism, and that of Friedrich Nietzsche, then Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. And with the advent of phenomenology—most noticeably that of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. I recall reading about the strong impact Henri Bergson’s theory of vitalism had upon Henri Matisse and other Modernists (including the Cubists) with the release of his book Creative Evolution in 1907.

Then I recalled that the Symbolists’s spiritualist interests were focused on the possibility of combining and superimposing symbol systems into a *universal symbolic language*. When the universal symbolic language flopped with boring and vapid Modernist conceits, symbolist spirituality was clearly abandoned. But it occurs to me that a scientific spirituality has never been sought after in art.

Max on the quality of attention

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Since we're showing four films tonight at the SVA Theatre, I'm wondering if Max or anyone else would address the "quality of attention" that Max brought up yesterday. What are the qualities of attention necessary for properly experiencing art? As an artist, how would you like the viewer/participant to engage your work? What role does time play in that attention? How is it different with time-based media like film, video, digital art than with art that does not engage the participant over time?

Four films by Nathaniel Dorsky, tonight at 7 PM, SVA Theatre

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Still from "Aubade" (2010) by Nathaniel Dorsky

A rare screening of four films—Sarabande (2008), Compline (2009), Aubade (2010) and Winter (2008)—by filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. Presented by the BFA Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts in conjunction with "Beyond Kandinsky: Revisiting the Spiritual in Art." Mr. Dorsky will be present at the screening.

Tuesday April 5th

7:00 PM

SVA Theatre

333 W 23rd Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, New York City

The screening is free and open to the public.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Response to Joseph and Taney

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If this ends up NOT as a comment to the thread, my apologies. I am technologically challenged.

Joseph, thank you, I will certainly look for that book.

And Taney, as far as "the incomparable power of practice—of making—and its strange power to generate meaning", as an artist and teacher (I am by no means a scholar), all I strive to do is to convey exactly that to others.

My students in prison do dwell on their individual narratives as a means of self expression. They don't know any other way. Since I am not allowed to discuss their crimes with them, I try to work them towards a kind of poetry. Abstraction? Forget about it. They could care less. Tried that. (They HATED Kandinsky and Klee!). One successful assignment was to have them each write a haiku and to draw it. I figured, "How much of a story can they tell in 17 syllables?". (Though the next week one student said, "Professor, did you know that the word 'incarceration' has 5 syllables?"). Most, however found symbolism and universal meaning by being limited to a few words. That was a major breakthrough.

Two responses to Session III

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Session III: Art and Its Audience

(1) What is the current role of experience in the making and beholding of art? Has aesthetic experience been displaced by the current practices of interpretation, “decoding,” identifying references, etc?

Experience in the making and beholding of art is crucial. It is all in the quality of attention.

(3) What role might there be for art criticism in providing new interpretive frameworks that include room for the recognition of the spiritual in art?

Writing serves art as a dialogue. Writing is crucial.

Response to Joseph

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To me, the question of an artist’s audience, or lack there-of, is hugely important to the question of spirituality in art. Who an artist makes work for can enable or disable the potential for such transformation. Emma Kunz comes to mind. (She was introduced to the US mostly through the remarkable show at the Drawing Center along side Hilma af Klint and Agnes Martin some years ago). Her enormously complex geometric works were done for individuals as healing drawings, their axis determined by the movement of a pendulum swung in front of the person seeking help. She often worked a drawing to completion in a single sitting over the course of 24 hours. I highly recommend a visit to the Emma Kunz Zentrum in Switzerland, which includes a visit to her meditation grotto, next to the house.

I teach drawing in prisons upstate and many of my students are incarcerated for life. These men have no background in art history, no idea of the art world, and no audience beyond their cellmates and occasionally family members to whom they might mail out a drawing or two. They make their work for the purest of reasons. Taney mentioned in one post that she showed her students a film on William Kentridge. I have shown this video as well to my students in prison, to begin the conversation about process, as a trigger for contemplation, about the potential of the journey to help them escape the here-and-now, for a host of reasons, all tied up with the hope of giving them some optimism, a topic touched on my so many of the participants here.

I was glad that Tuchman’s show/book Abstraction: The Spiritual in Art came up. A major exhibition is long over due as a follow up, addressing all of the issues that this forum is bringing forth.

Session III: Art and Its Audience

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With our third session, which will carry us through the next two days, we’ll shift our focus away from art and its making and toward the various ways in which it is experienced and understood by its audience. Keeping in mind the larger context of a culture in which entertainment has acquired the status of a primary value, I present the following questions for consideration:

  1. What is the current role of experience in the making and beholding of art? Has aesthetic experience been displaced by the current practices of interpretation, “decoding,” identifying references, etc?
  2. Is there a relationship between synaesthesia and the “immersive experiences” of today’s multi-media and interactive art? What might the rise of these immersive forms say about the role and status of the body in an emerging worldview?
  3. What role might there be for art criticism in providing new interpretive frameworks that include room for the recognition of the spiritual in art?
  4. Is it time to replace “the viewer” with a designation less mired in the Modernist ethos of objectivity, distance, “disinterestedness,” etc.? If so, what might some alternative terms be?
  5. How might a different understanding of the experiential or spiritual value of art pose a challenge to the current emphasis on monetary value endemic to our market-based system?

A Footnote to “The Changing Shape of Art”

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Georges Braque, toward the end of his life (in the course of a conversation with John Richardson) made the following statement:

You see, I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them, or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence—what I can only describe as a sense of peace, which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.

As a result of his studio practice, painting the same motifs over and over, including the characteristic bird in flight (comparable to Brancusi’s birds), Braque apparently attains the state of no-self, seeing the insubstantiality of appearances. That would be defined as “enlightenment” in Buddhist parlance. I am bringing this up as an example of a natural, largely unconscious, development towards spiritual maturity that seems somehow ahistorical, in the sense that a solitary, contemplative artist working at any point in time could arrive at that same “harmony.”


It may be worthwhile to note that Braque fought, and was wounded, in WWI, yet that experience seemed to have no impact on his work.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Response to Several Questions on 3 April

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What a juicy day! Not to take up too much space here, I'll offer some brief responses to several questions that have been posed today.

On Buddhism—It's not really accurate to say that Buddhism is not a transcendent spiritual practice, though it's certainly not an example of the sort of vertical transcendence we are accustomed to into the West. Rather, it's a spiritual practice that illuminates nonduality and also transcends the mundane mind by showing meditators a glimpse of the incredibly dynamic, subtle field of energy/matter arising and passing away, arising and passing away every fraction of a second. Also, the Buddhist concept of karma is far more complex than the reductionist version known here (i.e., you do something good or bad, and it comes back to you). Instead, what Buddhist meditation teachers mean by karma is the interplay of all the dynamics in the universe, past and present, coming into play every moment, a "mind-blowing" totality far beyond the ken of the human comprehension. That is a transcendent dimension of reality.

On Steiner's influence on artists—There were two exhibitions on this in Germany last year (can be Googled): "Rudolf Steiner and Contemporary Art" at the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg and "Rudolf Steiner—Alchemy of the Everyday" (re historical modern artists) at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein.

On why Kandinsky went geometric—Not that the other influences mentioned weren't important, but the main reason was that when he had to leave Germany (being a foreign national) at the outbreak of WWI and return to Russia, what he found in the avant garde artists' scene back in his beloved Moscow was an all-encompassing fascination with the concept of sacred geometry (regarded as an illumination of the invisible reality and a path to evoking a new society). The Constructivists and Malevich considered Kandinsky a bit of an old fogey, but he was clearly influenced by their deep attraction to sacred geometry. He maintained his [really great, I feel] organic abstract style in his paintings till 1920, but when he returned to Germany the next year and took a position at the Bauhaus, he changed entirely to geometric abstraction for the rest of his life (though he introduced some biomorphic forms among the geometric shapes during his last decade, in Paris).

On why artists stopped talking and writing about esoteric spirituality after WWI—The sacrifice of almost an entire generation of young men (poured into the idiocy of trench warfare for more than four years [in the last two years of that war, life expectancy in the trenches was two weeks]) was a trauma that shattered European faith in Enlightenment promises of the progressive perfecting of society. Among the avant garde, there was reaction against "cosmic wallpaper" (as Van Doesburg and Grosz called Kandinsky's pre-war paintings) has an art that had proven itself powerless not only to bring forth a new society (as the artists had hoped) but even to stop the carnage in the trenches. The new priest was to be the engineer and the architect; the new path to deliverance from "materialism" was to be the clarity of their diagrams and blueprints. (However, this did not mean that that dozens of the "greats" of modern art lost interest in the spiritual, only that after the late 1920s they largely kept quiet about it, while still exploring it in their art. I have found that they often wrote about it in late-life letters and journal entries.)

On Malevich's spirituality—too long a story for here, but the short answer is that it was a combination of his Russian Orthodox formative experiences (he loved the medieval Russian block-form cross), the esoteric charge around sacred geometry, and his sense of his own role as a spiritual/aesthetic visionary. Here's the closing of a poem he wrote:

 

The live Spirit carries the flame
further and further and all see
the star and the sun already dead
for in the new transformation it
is not necessary.
In the new miracle there is no
Sun, no stars.
The light of Paradise
has gone out.
The era of the new beginning has dawned.

The abandoned spiritual ideals of modern art

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Before our current session draws to a close this evening, I thought I’d re-present an interesting question that came up in one of our recent threads, lest it become buried in the archive prematurely. The question seems fundamental to what we’re trying to accomplish here, in the sense that in order to move forward we need to have an adequate understanding of how we arrived at our current situation. The question is: Why were the spiritual ideals of modern art, embodied so powerfully not just by Kandinsky’s enterprise but also by Mondrian’s and Malevich’s, abandoned? What was the shift that occurred after which artists felt they could no longer seriously (or at least openly) pursue spiritual ideals in their work?

Joseph has cited art for art’s sake as a probable cause and has implicated figures such as Barbara Rose in its rise. Although I agree with this, I think we would do well to push the question one step further and ask: How to account for the widespread appeal of art for art’s sake on the part of the artists who took it on and the larger art world that embraced it? To what complex of attitudes or unconscious desires did it appeal? Could a sense of failure, of art’s impotence in the face of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, be a part of this?

I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on this from either our panelists or our reading audience. The question currently has us stumped.

Some Formal Qualities of Visionary Art

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Visionary art is more affective than discursive. More enigmatic than dogmatic. Its intricate patterning seems to contain many possibilities of interpretation—and thus seems magical, as magic does not conform to modern canons of causality.

Visionary art is full of complex inter-relational transitions and rhythmic overlapping perceptions that interlace. It displays elasticity through the principle of sameness with difference. There are forms emerging from other forms, both up and down in scale. Possible figures are nested within larger units, so things become component parts of other things. Here we are calling up image-formations from the depths of our mind. And this experience cannot but remind us that the primary feature that distinguishes aesthetic consciousness is imagination and that imagination entails visioning and symbolizing—areas of practice useful in heightening perception and intuition. Indecision, ambiguity and conflict become dynamic and useful values here. Because apparent secrets and angelic visual pleasures are concealed in visionary art's florid ground, apparent “flaws” like the all-over ambivalence of the superficial illusory groundlessness become affirmative values.

This is the interfering shift I detect in visionary art—what I think of as the responsibility of looking—a shift towards (and into) visual noise. Here we can re-appropriate our senses and our fragile capacity to visualize on a personal basis. Here is an inner reverberating resonance that cannot be appropriated by capital. Here one feels oneself feeling as a first person singular. This is an art to self, in self and for self. However, the result is empathetic—as one experiences one’s own powers of imaginatively projecting feelings and perceptions into vaguely apprehended forms. So a visionary shift in art is suggestive of an anti-pop, no-logo emancipatory labor indicative of social relationships outside of passive pop consumption. Here we can take back our head.

Nathaniel Dorsky film screening this Tuesday

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In conjunction with our Beyond Kandinsky symposium, SVA will be hosting a film screening of the work of San Francisco-based filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky this Tuesday, April 5th. The screening will be held at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, which is at 333 W. 23rd St. in Manhattan, at 7:00 pm. The event will be free and open to the public. Nathaniel, who is one of our symposium participants, will be present at the screening. I hope those of you in New York will join us for Tuesday's event.

Nathaniel will be showing four films—Sarabande, Compline, Aubade, and Winter—and giving brief introductions before each. The total running time for all four will be just over an hour, after which we'll take questions and comments from the audience.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nathaniel's work, I encourage you to visit his page on our project's website: Nathaniel Dorsky.

Below are two stills from Sarabande to whet your appetite:


Steiner, Thought Forms, and Kandinsky

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The comments from Barbara Braathen that Taney posted yesterday have spurred me to post some information that I meant to put up during the first session, but didn’t have time to. I’d like to throw out some ideas and imagery related to Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant, and Charles Leadbeater, and consider how/if they might have influenced Kandinsky.

Kandinsky was very open about his appreciation for Helena Blavatsky. He was a lot more elusive about Steiner. I just took a quick look back through the Collected Writings on Art, and couldn’t find a single mention of Steiner anywhere in the texts. However, his name comes up several times in the editors’ introductions, and—most importantly—they cite Kandinsky’s attendance at several of Steiner’s anthroposophical lectures in 1908.

Steiner’s lectures covered a broad range of theosophical topics. He would often elaborate on the occult connection between things like the planets and parts of the body, in a manner reminiscent of the systems of correspondence that became such a huge part of Renaissance magic (as in Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, or the 1620 magical calendar from Frankfurt that was once falsely attributed to Tycho Brahe). During these lectures, he would illustrate some of his ideas with colored chalk. The early drawings were lost, but in 1919 one of Steiner’s pupils got the idea to tape black paper to the surface of the chalkboard, so that the drawings could be rolled up after the talks were over. Over 1,000 of these drawings survive, along with notes and transcripts of the lectures. (I've included a couple here. To see a few paired with some of Steiner’s text and with commentary by a contemporary anthroposophist, check out this web page.

I’ve always been wary of giving too much weight to the Kandinsky/Steiner connection, but when I was going back through On the Spritual in Art, some resonances started to strike me. In the chapter where Kandinsky sets out his ideas on the movement and emotional tone of the colors, there’s a footnote in which he reinforces his assertion that yellow is inherently aggressive and has an unpleasant “sound” by citing the sourness of lemons and the shrill song of the canary. Earlier in the book, he discusses synesthesia (without actually using the term), but he seems to treat it as a spiritual potential inherent in at least the most sensitive of us, rather than the medical or psychological anomaly that many people consider it to be. I was reminded of Steiner’s way of connecting things, his frequent discussions of how the soul is affected by material and spiritual phenomena, and the way that colors were often a crucial part of this. His discussions of planetary influences on the body were often illustrated with specific colors for each planetary ray, and there’s a beautiful chalkboard drawing in which he uses a few quick slashes of light blue, yellow, and red to assert a connection between cosmic thoughts, memories, and dreams, and birds, butterflies, and bats, respectively (see above).

Steiner also spoke about the ability of color to alter spiritual perception. He claimed that meditation on a specific color would render that color transparent, so that one could see the spiritual entities lurking behind or within it. Such statements were couched in language that often sounds a lot like Kandinsky’s recurring image of the soul as a piano, with color as the force that hits the keys and vibrates the strings.

Though I don’t want to stretch comparisons too far or claim too much, I should probably also mention Steiner’s development of the hybrid art form eurythmy. Eurythmy attempted to blend colors, sounds, and spiritually significant gestures into a new dance form that would directly affect the deeper levels of the viewer’s soul. (Some of Steiner’s pencil sketches for eurythmy can be seen at this link, along with a few color images created using Steiner’s notes. For an example of eurythmy in action, check out this video.)

By 1926, Kandinsky had shifted his focus away from color and toward shape and form; this was the year that Point and Line to Plane was published. His only other published work that year was a piece called Dance Curves, in which he turned four photographs of the dancer Palucca into simplified schematic drawings (see below), with the idea of showing how the precision of her movements carries deep significance for those sensitive enough to recognize it (he states this idea much more vaguely and obliquely than I have, and the entire article—which is very brief—is pretty opaque). Though I’ve never seen anything to connect Dance Curves to eurythmy, the emphasis they share on precision and meaning in the body’s movement has always kept me speculating.

Not everyone is comfortable with this sort of tale-spinning. There are writers who try to downplay the Steiner-Kandinsky connection, under the assumption that it makes it too easy for Kandinsky to be dismissed as a serious artist. For a discussion of this, see this essay by artist, writer, and Studio International co-editor Janet McKenzie, written on the occasion of the 2006 Tate Modern exhibition “Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction.”

Finally, I should mention the 1901 book Thought Forms by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. Besant inherited the leadership of most of Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society after the latter’s death, and Leadbeater was a clairvoyant who claimed the ability to see the shapes and colors of people’s emotions. Their book begins with a detailed chart that lays out the spiritual meanings of 25 colors (for example, red-orange is listed as “pride”), and then discusses the ethereal forms of a wide range of subjective phenomena, including things like ”greed for alcohol” and “listening to the music of Mendelsshon.” The book is illustrated throughout, and some of the more complex images begin to approach the complexity of some of Kandinsky’s paintings. (One of my favorites is the illustration for "appreciation of a picture," shown immediately above.)

Once again, without trying to claim too much, I'm very interested in the way that the specificity of Besant and Leadbeater’s system looks a lot like Kandinsky’s ideas on the distinctive “feel” of various colors. At least one writer of books on Theosophical history (Gary Lachman) has stated that Kandinsky owned a copy of Thought Forms, and that it was one of the most influential sources of his speculations on color.