color Beyond Kandinsky: The hidden spiritual dimension of American 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


Saturday, April 2, 2011

The hidden spiritual dimension of American art

An interesting topic came up in one of the previous threads that seems to deserve a thread of its own: The undercurrent of Buddhist and other spiritual orientations that "secretly" runs through a lot of American art we don't generally consider spiritual. Below are some of the comments in that thread.

Joseph Nechvatal said...

The topic of the child has reminded me of I book I read in 1972 on non-transcendental spirituality (correct me if I am wrong here): Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. And this reminded me of Suzuki's impact on John Cage and Cage's huge impact on American art in the 60s and 70s via Fluxus. So perhaps there has been a bigger hidden spirituality embedded in American art than we may have assumed. Hmmmmm. What do you think?

Taney Roniger said...

Yes, the influence of Zen specifically and Buddhism in general on American art has been enormous. The show at the Guggenheim a few years back called The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia (curated by Alexandra Munroe) revealed many of these hidden undercurrents. (The exhibition catalogue, by the way, is gorgeous and full of insightful essays by a number of scholars, and Max Gimblett, who is on our panel here, was in the show.) I was surprised to learn that artists such as Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Sam Francis, Lee Mullican, and Gordon Onslow-Ford (not to mention the more obvious ones such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Richard Tuttle) studied Buddhist thought and were influenced by its concept of sunyata, or emptiness. I'm glad you brought this up, Joseph, because indeed Buddhism does offer a powerful model for a non-transcendental, non-theistic, here-and-now rather than there-and-then based spirituality. Perhaps Max will say something more about this. I believe we also have a number of other practicing Buddhists on the panel (Pawel Wojtasik, Atta Kim, and Max are the ones that come directly to mind.)

Yuting Zou said...

I remembered, from somewhere, Yoko Ono pointed out that the NY avant-guard movement was basically influenced by oriental philosophy, Japanese Zen in particular. I guess I read it from her book Grapefruit or some remarks of this book. Duchamp had been a good friend of Cage, they had common interest in the oriental, and had a performance of playing chess one night. they had two groups of people playing together. with electronic device under the chess board. according to the movement of the chess, different electronic sounds were made. they said the concept was that intellectual people can play very chance music... I think chess related event are spiritual, as it was a standard spirit-nourishing practice in ancient China, though it's dead now.

Pawel Wojtasik said...

Joseph, it was another Suzuki, the scholar Daisetz Teisaro (D.T.) Suzuki who influenced Cage. D.T. Suzuki's lectures at Columbia were famous among artists in the 40's and 50's. Agnes Martin, Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, Alan Ginsberg were influenced and inspired by them. And I agree with you, there is a hidden undercurrent of spirituality embedded in a lot of American art in places where we normally would not look for it, for example in the work of Bruce Nauman.

Joseph Nechvatal said...

Thank you Pawel.

Joseph Nechvatal said...

Might we consider Jungian psychology's influence on Jackson Pollock (and other AE and Surrealist artists?) as another buried spiritual influence on American art? Is Carl Gustav Jung considered a spiritualist? Does his interests in alchemy and astrology qualify him as such?

Taney Roniger said...

I'd say Jung is very much considered a spiritualist, which is why he's fallen out of favor among "right-thinking" intellectuals (I mean right as in correct). The archetypes alone put him in that category -- i.e., their transcendent, universalist nature.

Joseph Nechvatal said...

I saw the show "Malevich and the American Legacy" today and the above logic of suppressed spiritual intentions embedded in American art again came to mind based on Malevich's spiritual goals. I know that the spiritual ideas that Malevich attempted to embody in Suprematism are difficult to summarize, for his writing is often vague and mystical. Can anyone help me here with them?


  1. o vow, I didn't know this thread is still expanding. As far as I know, Jung had a lot to do with I Ching, here is his foreword to I Ching (book of changes):
    From that book, he developed one of his signature concept "synchronicity", as he said:
    "This assumption involves a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity,"

  2. For those who may not know: The show Joseph is referring to is currently at Gogosian Gallery through April 30th (980 Madison Avenue in Manhattan).

    I love the Malevich and Judd quotes that appear on the gallery's website:

    "I have transformed myself into the zero of form and dragged myself out of the rubbish-filled pool of Academic Art. I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring which confines the artist and the forms of nature."
    --Kazimir Malevich

    "It’s obvious now that the forms and colors in the paintings that Malevich began painting in 1915 are the first instances of form and color."
    ---Donald Judd

    I look forward to seeing the show this week.

    Until then, I love that the bombast of Malevich's quote doesn't strike us as bombastic, his being Malevich. One could never get away with such grand, sweeping statements about one's own work today. But there's something to be said for soaring aspirations, is there not? Perhaps one will be allowed to have them again some day. Going back to the recurring theme of "third ways" that has emerged in this symposium, I wonder if the third way in between the exultant metaphysics of transcendent modernism and the prevailing cynicism of our time will allow for an art that has grand philosophical and spiritual visions once again -- or, will the latter forever be condemned to the status of kitsch?

  3. To go further with Pema Rinzin's shift from traditional Tibetan Art to his current exploration of abstraction (urban metaphysics) and how it relates to this discussion... ie how the "prevailing cynicism" of the present has influenced non-Western art and I think this offers us an interesting opportunity for dialogue. I am trying to decide whether or not I like Pema's shift from the traditional to modern abstraction. Of course I don't have a say in the matter but Pema and I have talked about it over beer in a Boston pub, for example. What is at stake is the preservation of traditional Tibetan art for future generations as well as the progression of Tibetan art in a contemporary world. Where does this leave the spiritual aspects of the traditional? Does it remain or does it get sacrificed for progress?

    FYI - The bio: Pema Rinzin studied Tibetan painting from 1979 through 1983 in Dharamsala, India, and taught at the Tibetan Children's Village School there from 1984 through 1992. From 1995 through 2004 he worked as an artist-in-residence at the Shoko Temple and Institute, Nagano, Japan, where he completed eight major Buddhist paintings for Yuko Mikasaka, the abbot of the Shingon Temple. After completing his residency, he traveled to Bamberg, Germany, where he had his first European exhibition at the City Gallery. Pema Rinzin was an artist-in-residence at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City and broke out to start the NY Tibetan Art Studio, the only institute in the Western Hemisphere dedicated to teaching and preserving Tibetan art.

  4. Thanks for bringing Pema Rinzin into the fold, Nettrice. And you raise a very interesting question about the sacrifices cultures make in the name of "progress." I'm not familiar with the work, but I'll look into it now...

  5. You're welcome. Pema's most recent show:

  6. I just informed Pema about this discussion. Maybe he'll make an appearance. To answer my own question about sacrifice: I think the NY Tibetan Art Studio serves as a way to preserve the traditional while the gallery space is Pema's site for transformation (progress). It doesn't have to be either or. On the other hand, the questions I posed remain valid beyond Pema's example.

  7. @ Yuting: You're right about the Yijing/I Ching, and its influence on Jung’s development of the idea of synchronicity.

    Thinking about the Yijing jogged my memory about Princeton University’s Bollingen series, has published a lot of texts relevant to this symposium over the years, some of which are listed at this link: The list doesn’t seem to be complete, as it’s missing the book Spirit and Nature: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, a collection of essays by Jung and several others that was edited by Joseph Campbell. I don’t know what else is missing from the list, but I caught that one.)

    As Joseph mentioned above, Jung wrote a lot about alchemy and astrology, both of which he interpreted psychologically; for Jung, the alchemists were working with archetypes in a quest for self-integration, even if they didn’t consciously know it. Jung didn’t come up with this idea himself—he got it from Herbert Silberer, who in turn got it from Ethan Allen Hitchcock—but he developed it much further than they did. He also studied Gnosticism, though I’m not sure if/what he wrote about it, and he wrote about mandalas and used them as a therapeutic tool for working with dream imagery (his book on mandalas has some amazing full-color images of his patients’ paintings). During the height of the late-1950s flying saucer flap in the U.S., he even wrote a book in which he interpreted UFOs in light of the collective unconscious.

    I’m not sure if Jung would have considered himself a spiritualist, despite his interest in a lot of spiritually-oriented topics. I’ve heard conflicting things about that. He always tied his interests back to his own theories on archetypes and the collective unconscious, which he may have considered to be at least quasi-scientific. In any case, the range of these topics was pretty broad, and I think his lingering influence among spiritually oriented people at least merits him the title of honorary spiritualist.

  8. I’m glad that Pawel mentioned Agnes Martin; she’s a great person to include in any discussion of spirituality and art. Although she resisted labels such as “mystic” and downplayed any connection between her work and things like Zen Buddhism, she also claimed later in life that all of her paintings came from direct visions, which she called “inspirations”. These visions were supposedly very specific (right down to the colors, number of stripes, and proportions), and I think she thought of them as illustrations of the simple, pure states of awareness that are reflected in some of her titles (such as Innocent Joy). Whenever the inspirations would stop coming, she would stop painting.

    Her writings sometimes read like inspired texts, which is probably why a lot of people associate her with mystical traditions. (Unfortunately, they’re out of print right now, and copies of the most recent Hatje Cantz edition are going for ridiculously high prices on the secondhand book market.

    Two pretty good sources for information about Martin are the exhibition catalogue Agnes Martin by Barbara Haskell, Anna C. Chave and Rosalind Krauss, and the documentary Agnes Martin: With My Back to the World, directed by Mary Lance.

  9. Jeff, your comment has me rushing to my bookshelf and dusting off some very old and half-forgotten volumes. One of these rediscoveries I'm particularly happy to have made is that book from the Bollingen series called Understanding the I Ching - The Wilhelm Lectures on The Book of Changes, by Hellmut and Richard Wilhelm. Thanks for that!
    It's a bit of a shame that Jung felt ambivalent (or seems to have) about the spiritual, given that his interests were so obviously inclined in that direction. But I suppose the climate of the times -- coupled with Freud's lifelong insistence that psychoanalysis be considered a rigorous science (doth somebody protest too much?) -- made it difficult.

  10. Yeah, Agnes Martin is hugely relevant here. I tend to find her writing unbearable, however. I wonder if I'm the only one who feels that way. I'm reminded of what Gertrude Stein said to Picasso after reading a draft of a play he'd written: "Picasso, go home and paint!".

  11. I might have more tolerance for Martin's writing because I've read a lot of similar-feeling things from various different religious traditions.

    It may also be due to the fact that the documentary I mentioned above includes a lot of scenes with her speaking in a very similar fashion, and I encountered that at around the same time that I found her writings. The former may have prepared me for the latter.

    On a related note, I know a few people who say that the film puts them to sleep. It's very slow and gentle.

  12. From the press release of "Malevich and the American Legacy": "It is not only formal analogy that connects Malevich and American artists but also deeper aesthetic, conceptual, and spiritual correspondences."
    This also reminded me of a show I saw in Paris last year:"Mondrian/De Stijl: interweaving paths"
    Room 1: "“The Spirituality behind the Vision” – casts new light on the Dutch symbolist and theosophical undercurrents that merged into the De Stijl movement, which Mondrian also researched (even though he gravitated away from them later on), and which rippled through early 20th-century art and architecture as far as Bauhaus."
    So it seems to me that almost ALL of Modern Art was based in spiritual ideals. The question is, why were they abandoned?

  13. On second thought, I don't believe that there were any "spiritual" virtues attached to Cubism, Futurism, Dada or Surrealism. Am i correct about this?

  14. a quick thought: I think Cubism was partly influenced by flamenco, and flamenco is quite fragmental, dense and fast paced. flamenco dated back to the Muslim region early on in Spain. Some typical Spanish architectures give that a visual aid. watch this:

  15. It seems we still haven't gotten to the bottom of that question -- i.e., why were they (the spiritual ideals of modern art) abandoned? Somewhere along the way a shift occurred after which artists ceased to pursue these ideals (at least *explicitly*, because as we've seen "the spiritual" has never really gone away but only been pushed behind closed doors). Can anybody identify what changed? I suppose one could cite the increasingly tight stranglehold exerted by all the anti-spiritual modernist forces on the collective psyche (materialism, positivism, etc.), but none of that stopped the likes of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, etc. It seems clear that somewhere along the line art grew acutely self-conscious about its own impotence in the face of these things, so that the effort to seriously pursue the challenge came to seem vain, futile, and quaint.

  16. I wonder if the psychological and the subconscious can be regarded as species of the spiritual.

  17. @ Yuting: Good question, and I tend to think the answer is: yes! As Barbara Braathen pointed out earlier, "the spiritual" might be seen to encompass the entire spectrum of life's invisible realities, which includes not just entities like souls, spirits, and gods, but also ideas, emotions, sensations, etc. -- in short, consciousness itself and all its constituents. Has anybody ever seen a consciousness? Can anybody measure it empirically, or quantify it scientifically, or render it verifiable, repeatable, etc.? I say no. It seems to me that consciousness is itself the most profound spiritual mystery... which is why I find Freud's insistence on psychoanalysis as a hard science absurd.

  18. then we now pass the ball to Joseph, as Cubism, Futurism, Dada or Surrealism may all have spiritual values. Even Dada's abandonment of dogmas(can I say so?) is "spiritual" to me. Of course, it's not mystic at all, however, it suggests another level of depth in thinking(consciousness) and problematizes a traditional axiomatic approach.

  19. Peggy Klineman says:

    Tapping into the subconscious and/or the intuition definitely seems like a component of spirituality in art. If you believe as I do that we are part of a collective universe, then following one’s intuition becomes a key component in the art making process.

  20. Must have had to do with the rise of Art for art's sake. "L'art pour l'art" (translated as "art for art's sake") is credited to Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). I don't know if he got this idea from Ad Reinhardt's philosophy of art Ad called "Art-as-Art" or not - but Frank Stella in 1961 famously said that a picture was "a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more." Barbara Rose is tied in here. Regardless, impossible for me to see Reinhardt as less than a great spiritual artist with his profound interest in Eastern Philosophy and his so-called "Black" paintings of the 1960s.

  21. I guess I would ask: Why the rise of art for art's sake? Am I wrong to suspect hidden (perhaps unconscious) motives in its catching on the way it did? It all seems intimately connected with the underlying mind/body dualism inherent in the modernist vision. If you think about Greenbergian formalism, what is that but the idea that vision -- sight -- can somehow be separated from the rest of the brain and body -- can be isolated and experienced in its "purity," wholly uninfected by "contaminants" like ideas, emotions, longings, memories, etc.?

    The following quote from Frank Stella speaks volumes here:

    "I have no difficulty appreciating (and up to a point understanding)the great abstract painting of modernism's past, the painting of Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian, but I do have trouble with their dicta, their pleadings, their defense of abstraction. My feeling is that these reasons, these theoretical underpinnings of Theosophy and anti-materialism have done abstract painting a kind of disservice which has contributed to its present-day plight."

    And then, of course, we have his famous dictum: "What you see is what you see."

    In my twenties, I found this exciting. But I suppose in the intervening years my optic nerve has become reattached to the rest of my brain.

  22. Yes. Surely the spiritual is about a deeper awareness, in avocation of a fluid evolutionary progress, both personal, social, and technological.

  23. We must identify which artistic practices have fallen into this dualistic trap? What makes them so numerous? What can our creations do in order to confront this challenge?

  24. Joseph, that is *the* question. I hope we can get everyone to address this.

  25. The "Art for art's sake" slogan was first raised in defiance of those who thought that the value of art was to serve some moral or didactic purpose. "Art for art's sake" affirmed that art was valuable as art, that artistic pursuits were their own justification and that art did not need moral justification — and indeed, was allowed to be morally subversive. Such brusque dismissal expressed artist's distancing themselves from sentimentalism of Romanticism.
    The explicit slogan is associated in the history of English art and letters with Walter Pater and his followers in the Aesthetic Movement, which was self-consciously in rebellion against Victorian moralism.

  26. @ Taney, re: Greenberg: Although Formalist criticism is largely about materials, surfaces, and edges, I've always felt like it had a deep relationship to Platonic philosophy. What else is the idea of "significant form" but a quasi-mystical echo of Plato's Ideas? Formalism often exists in an uneasy relationship to its own spiritual heritage, which is always lurking under the surface.

    I've been thinking about the larger questions of when and why spirituality was abandoned by art, and I can't come up with a satisfactory response, because I feel like there are many small moments scattered throughout modern and contemporary art history when it's been pushed aside. Joseph's citing of the rise of "art for art's sake" rings true to me, so maybe that's it.

    It seems like art history and art criticism have also occasionally gone back to make sure that spirit hasn't crept back into the conversation. In the post I put up earlier today, I linked to one article that kind of does that with Kandinsky, and it seems like every few years a new book comes along that re-asserts the scientific/perceptual basis of Cubism, or the purely aesthetic (and not spiritual) use of primitive art by the Modernists, or something similar.

    Now you've got me thinking about the infamous 1985 debate that raged for months in Artforum and elsewhere between Thomas McEvilley and MoMA curators William Rubin and Kirk Varnadoe over the MoMA exhibition "'Primitivism' in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern." McEvilley's whole point was that the curators stripped the primitive art in the show of its religious and ritual meaning, in an attempt to argue that a universal, Formalist aesthetic sense exists among all people at all times.

  27. @ Jeff: I couldn't agree more about Greenbergian formalism's connections to Platonic philosophy. Is there anything more radically dualistic than the latter? Talk about wresting the world into two! You mention McEvilley, and I'm glad you did. He (and others) have written extensively about formalism's theological/transcendental underpinnings. It all seems to hinge on the notion of "purity" -- Plato's realm of Pure Ideas, the "purity" of sight/vision, etc. So, while formalism might *think* that because it confines itself to materials and means and eschews content of any kind it's radically anti-spiritual, its very doing so puts it in the camp of the transcendental bifurcators.

  28. Then we must turn our attention to "formal" spiritual art qualities. What are they? What might they be?
    People spend between 10 to 20 seconds on average looking at a painting in a public space these days. Might the issue of s-l-o-w-n-e-s-s bust up the cynical fastness of uncaring with an insistence on dignity? This is what I took away from the Black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. You slow down to "see" them or - too bad for you - you don't see them. This is smart slowness in contention with the continuous stimulation that monopolies the consciousness of consumption zapping. I think the same true of the slow films of Antonioni, Bergman and Bunuel - they are formed by reflective dignity in some way.
    But we also need to think about the "visionary" form.

  29. Ah yes, s--l--o--w--n--e--s--s, and more silence. Plenty of which we having in store for us this Tuesday night at the Nathaniel Dorsky film screening. People unprepared for an hour of silence be forewarned!

  30. This makes we wonder: Does Warhol qualify as a spiritual filmmaker now? His oh so s--l--o--w films: do they have the effect of a subtle perforation in the compact mass of dominant brutality that envelops the planet today?

  31. I must say, I never thought I'd see "Warhol" and "spiritual" in the same sentence, but now that it has occurred, it's certainly worth pondering. When I think of Warhol, I think of the hypertrophy of "externals" (e.g., appearances, surfaces, etc.), rank materialism, and the utter poverty of the inner life -- all of what I find so troubling about late capitalism. But perhaps I'm being unfair. Those films *are* really, really wonderful.

  32. The mention of Warhol's films made me remember two other filmmakers who often used long, incredibly slow passages as a way of setting mood, controlling perception, and even making time palpable, almost a character in its own right.

    The first is Andrei Tarkovsky, who even used the phrase "sculpting in time" to describe his method. I'm most familiar with the films Solaris and Stalker, both of which provide great examples of what I'm talking about.

    The second is someone people might not think of without prompting: Sergio Leone. In both The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West he pairs very slow, long takes with vast expanses of space to create a sense of mythic immensity unlike anything I've experienced in any other film. The technique also helps create the impression that his characters are as much forces of nature as they are human beings, which is something I've always felt about them. Of course, he also uses this technique to add a ton of tension to the inevitable moments of violence; the buildup can be almost excruciating.

    I guess Akira Kurosawa might also have done something like this with some of his longer, more measured films (like Ran and Kagemusha), but I haven't thought about them that way before, so I can't say for sure (the idea just occurred to me right now).

  33. Jeff, Tarkovsky is a *must* in this context. Thanks for mentioning him. Stalker is probably my favorite film of all time, and no matter how many times I see it I never get over how incredibly rich those long sequences in which nothing happens -- narratively speaking -- are. By the time one of them ends, you feel like an entire universe of meaning has been compressed into an atom.

    I'd love to hear from the film folks on our panel about this.

  34. This is a great book: P. Adams Sitney: Visionary Film: the American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 - as is Gene Youngblood's Expanded Cinema (1970)

  35. Cannot forget the films of Jean Cocteau in this context, of course.