color Beyond Kandinsky: The Observer Is the Observed

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 Observer Is the Observed

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.


  1. Pawel, your calling the work of Nathaniel Dorsky a "manifesto of 'just seeing'" seems exactly right to me. He's written wonderfully about the power and primacy of vision in his book Devotional Cinema -- about how we see space before we act in it, and certainly before we "ornament" it with language. For Dorsky, the film viewing situation is a metaphor for (or reflection of) our vision; the dark theater illuminated by a rectangle of moving light is much like how we seem to "sit inside" the darkness of our skull and watch the world of light through our eyes. I find this incredibly powerful and moving, although I would probably take issue with the privileging of vision over the other senses. To me, the Buddhist notion of pure perception, which is inclusive of all the senses (including the mind) is the great paragon of active, engaged attention.

    And what a beautiful story about Johns and Marden!

  2. Taney, by "seeing" I mean perception as a whole. Thanks for pointing it out. It's a total surrender...