color Beyond Kandinsky: The End of the Overtly Spiritual Period of Modern Art

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


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The End of the Overtly Spiritual Period of Modern Art

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.


  1. To think that there may have been a causal connection between the deep sense of trauma following the First World War and the rise of the machine aesthetic in art is very troubling indeed. The phrase "association with the aggressor" comes to mind.

  2. Also remember the emergence of logical positivism empiricism of the Vienna Circle group of philosophically minded scientists and logicians organized around Moritz Schlick - as influenced by the anti-subjectivist, positivist, empirical philosophy of the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. Logical positivism was based in opposition to the idealist philosophy of Hegel and hence stressed the exclusive value of logic and positivism (Comte) over self-attentiveness. Schlick and the Vienna Circle's other members; Otto Neurath, Kurt Gödel and Rudolf Carnap maintained that only verifiable statements (verified by observation or empirical data) were meaningful. Statements about art were nonsense to them.

  3. I agree that logical positivism had a central role in the general cultural shift we're trying to get at here, and it's helpful to see it in light of that which it positioned itself *against* -- i.e., Hegelian idealism. But I still have trouble understanding how a philosophical position so dismissive of invisible realities (whether we're talking about spirits, souls, *or* simply the contents of consciousness) could evoke anything but horror and resistance in artists.

  4. Well Taney, I suppose with the rejection of symbolism and its modernist aftermath, some artists were stimulated intellectually by logic and a rational approach. Famously, for example, Jasper Johns has found great inspiration in the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
    "The world and life are one." - Ludwig Wittgenstein in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

  5. Interesting, Joseph. I had no idea Johns was inspired by Wittgenstein. It's funny, though -- although Wittgenstein is in some ways the arch-logician, he's also so clearly a figure with a profoundly religious, or at least metaphysical, sensibility. And didn't he spend most of his later years renouncing the views laid forth in the Tractatus? In any case, Wittgenstein's whole enterprise seems to me to be more about the *limits* of language, logic, and science rather than about their absolute authority as ways of knowing.

  6. Indeed Wittgenstein did renounce his Tractatus. But in his late writings (Philosophical Investigations), he still maintained the need for silence on topics that could not be proven analytically.
    It is now widely agreed that the writings of the period from 1946 until his death (1951) constitute a distinctive phase of Wittgenstein's thought. These writings include, in addition to the second part of the Investigations, texts edited and collected in volumes such as Remarks on Color, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Zettel, On Certainty, and parts of The Foundations of Mathematics. Besides dealing with mathematics and psychology, this is the stage at which Wittgenstein most seriously pursued questions traditionally recognized as epistemological.
    The general tenor of all the writings of this last period can be viewed as, on the one hand, a move away from the critical (some would say destructive) positions of the Investigations to a more positive perspective on the same problems that had been tasking him since his early writings; on the other hand, this move does not constitute a break from the later period but is more properly viewed as its continuation, in a new light.

  7. Re: Wittgenstein, logic, and spirituality. There's a lot of similarity between Wittgenstein's later writings and the philosophy of the 2nd/3rd century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who wrote within the context of sectarian logical debate on emptiness.

    There have been a few articles on this similarity, and the introduction to the 2007 translation of Nagarjuna's Sixty Stanzas on Reason by Joseph Loizzo develops a detailed comparison of both philosophers' thoughts on the inability of reason to make definitive statements on many areas of human experience. Nagarjuna often used the tactic of pursuing his opponents' arguments to their logical extremes, at which point they would collapse from within, leaving nothing in their place.

  8. 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 it’s 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 was 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.

  9. Response to Charlene Spretnak. I think that a parallel to the spiritual ,by another angle of inner life , that has been left out of the discussion thus far is the _Psychological, and notions of the Unconscious . What was called Surrealism is interestingly kept separate in our Art History, from concerns of Kandinsky's spiritual .Both forms ,Surrealist and Kandinskyian led to forms of abstraction stemming from the interior life.The conceptualized site of this difference could perhaps usefully be seen in terms that Post Jungian James Hillman referred to as Sprit and Soul(the Greek source of the word Psyche as in Psychology, referring to the soul, this both being related to and different from the religious notions of soul. Frank P.

  10. 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.

  11. Daniel A. SiedellApril 7, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization." "Where religion ends, spirituality begins"
    -Babuji Maharaj

  14. Daniel A. SiedellApril 7, 2011 at 2:32 PM

    My understanding of the religion and spirituality relationship is not shaped by the traditional modern notion of viewing religion in purely negative terms and the spiritual in purely positive. Nor do I see them as opposed but intertwined. What often happens is that the most interesting of spiritual discourses occur within a religious context that remains present but also usually suppressed--and sometimes for good reason. (I'm thinking of Bonheoffer here and the church under Nazism.)

    I would argue that "the Spiritual" in Kandinsky emerges within a religious context that is shaped by Russian Orthodoxy. His understanding of the relationship of spirit to matter is profoundly influenced by the icon, which regards the material as the vehicle through which, not against which, spirit is revealed or experienced. (Within the history of Christian thought it is Gnosticism that denies the validity of matter to embody the spiritual and it's a heresy.) Russian Orthodoxy as a religious practice is very different than the kind of pietistic (Lutheran) Christianity that shaped Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Yet even for these thinkers, Lutheran Christianity as a (privatized) religious practice continues to form their worldview, including their habits of thought. So, too, is Kandinsky's work inflected by a Russian aesthetic that has its roots in concrete religious practice, that is, the practice of the veneration of icons. I have always felt that Kandinsky, like Malevich, want their paintings to be "venerated" in a particular way and that way isn't "spiritual" it's religious and shaped by his experience of (or imagination of) how believing Russian peasants venerated their icons.

    Religion is not merely an oppressive limiting institution, it's a public culture (literally a "cult") that shapes actions, practices, and thoughts. If I would be critical of "the spiritual," it would be that it tends toward fluffy thoughts un-anchored to actual practices.

    I like the fact that Wittgenstein was reported to say something like, "I'm not a religious person but I approach everything from a religious point of view." I find it interesting that he didn't use the world "spiritual."

    One of the more interested trends in intellectual history is to trace various geneologies in modernity that are profoundly religious and theological, which I would define as religious thinking.

    Kandinsky's text has some relevance, I think, in that discourse.

  15. Thanks for giving us your thoughts on the distinction between the spiritual and the religious, Dan. Fluffiness is indeed the bane of the former, just as oppressive authority is the bane of the latter.

    And I'm so glad you brought up the veneration of icons, both with regard to Kandinsky's work and within the larger context of religious tradition. Not being familiar with this tradition myself, one of the most fascinating things about your book (God in the Gallery) for me was your discussion of the "economy of the icon." I've long argued in favor of a work's *presence* being its primary vehicle for conveying meaning, by which I've meant something like its inexplicable but palpable embodiment of a richness unrealizable by any means other than the material -- as if somehow meaning is compressed or enfolded in the making of the object. "Presence," however, is not an easy sell on anyone, not least because it's so hard to define.

    I'd be grateful if you could say a few words about the "economy of the icon," or how "presence" figures in the veneration of icons.

  16. @Dan: I find this paragraph particularly illuminating: "Religion is not merely an oppressive limiting institution, it's a public culture (literally a "cult") that shapes actions, practices, and thoughts. If I would be critical of "the spiritual," it would be that it tends toward fluffy thoughts un-anchored to actual practices."

    Do you mean that we should integrate religion and the spiritual for the actualisation?

  17. Daniel A. SiedellApril 7, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    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 ensues 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.

  18. "In the West icons/images, etc. are good for teaching and illustration." Is it true that in the northern Europe, the use of icon is minimized? Since you put it "The icon reveals the union of the divine and the material." will you explicitly say something about the problem of northern Christian religion (reformed doctrines, in my mind)?

  19. Since then, there are many more divisions in the history of Christianity, probably not to do with Icons. @Dan, will you say more about how these "bifurcations" of Christianity affect the related aesthetics, or vice versa?

  20. RE: "The economy of the icon presumes this connection [i.e., between the material and the spiritual]." This makes a lot of sense to me in terms of my ideas about presence. I also seem to remember your writing somewhere about the space in between presence and reference -- about how this "in between" is where meaning resides. I like this idea of the "in between" very much.

    Thanks for all your thoughts, Dan, and I'm glad Tarkovsky's "Passion of Andrei Rublev" made its way into the discussion. Perhaps some of the other panelists will comment on what you've said.

  21. Daniel A. SiedellApril 7, 2011 at 8:43 PM

    William Desmond makes a lot of "in between," which he takes from Plato and the "metaxu." Desmond is a specialist on Hegel and a very original thinker who might be very helpful.

    Although the West (Latin Church) didn't know what the fuss with icons and iconoclasm was all about, the West however did believe that the Eastern defenders of icons were crypto idolaters. Charlemagne received a very bad mistranslation of the Nicaea II and that lingered for a long time and did in fact color Northern European understanding of images, effecting Luther even but more particularly Calvin and Zwingli and the "Reformed" branch of the Reformation. Leo Koerner has written a tremendous book on Luther and Lucas Cranach, entitled The Reformation of the Image that explores Luther's ambivalent attitude toward images. Even the humanism of Erasmus is iconoclastic and thus bears the Northern European attitude of skepticism of images, a skepticism that requires words to anchor them, discipline them.

    Christianity has unity but it is much more diverse intellectually and culturally (i.e,. "religiously") than is often acknowledged. The most surprising revelation is to encounter the Eastern tradition which at times seems to bear more kinship to Buddhism and Taoism than with contemporary Protestant Christianity. Although the different Christian traditions aren't defined by images, they can be distinguished by their views on the Eucharist and therefore on their views of matter. The higher the view of the Eucharist (whether Christ is truly present in the elements) the more friendly the tradition is to art and the image. So, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopalian traditions are much more open to imagery than Reformed (Calvinist), Baptist, and other Free Church traditions.

    Modernity as a cultural, social, and intellectual phenomenon seems very Protestant to me, which makes such artists like Kandinsky and Malevich (Matisse, too?) and their interest in icons to be evidence of some resistance to a purely materialistic view of the world.

    For a great introduction to the theology of the icon, Gabriel Bunge wrote a little essay on Rublev's Holy Trinity, translated by Andrew Louth and published by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

  22. @Dan: I find it a great point:"Although the different Christian traditions aren't defined by images, they can be distinguished by their views on the Eucharist and therefore on their views of matter. The higher the view of the Eucharist (whether Christ is truly present in the elements) the more friendly the tradition is to art and the image."
    It reminds me of An Oak Tree by Michael Craig-Martin, who took the blood and flesh as real (due to his Catholic background). Reformers only took them symbolically.