color Beyond Kandinsky: Re: Taney's latest questions and the changing shape of 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

Re: Taney's latest questions and the changing shape of art

Some of this session’s questions are setting off a lot of different thoughts and associations in my head, as are the latest posts that Joseph and Charlene put up. I’ll see if I can set out some of these thoughts without everything getting too jumbled.

I'm not sure how I feel about Taney's question on analogue versus digital. I'm fascinated with digital media, augmented reality, virtuality, and so on, but I still don't have an opinion on whether analogue trumps digital in terms of spirituality. To me, the answer to that resides in the complex relationship between sensory effects and a person's cognitive and emotional responses, both of which seem pretty variable (especially when memories enter the equation). Personally, I don't have a preference, and think that both have the potential to elicit a spiritual response or convey spiritual content. The question I'm avoiding here is which of the two are best able to embody the spiritual. I don't know, but I think a good way to crack that question open might be to consider whether the spiritual should be treated as something immanent, or transcendent (something that came up in the first session), and then try to decide if there is a way to map the analogue/digital split onto the immanent transcendent/split. I might be way off on the wrong track here, but it's a thought.

I don’t agree with Joseph that pure abstraction is played out as a vehicle for the spiritual, though decades of Formalist emphasis on the painted surface at the expense of content did a lot to smother the spiritual, as did the rise of Minimalist sculpture, which was often directly focused on material surfaces and textures alone. That being said, I’ve always felt perfectly free to read Donald Judd’s sculptures as visible Platonic forms, even though that might have sent him into a fit. I suppose I also shouldn’t limit the conversation to painting. Brancusi’s sculptures deserve at least passing mention, as do some of Jean Arp’s, since many of them were as spiritually focused in their own way as Kandinsky’s painting was. I’m not sure if such a spiritual approach to sculpture exists anywhere right now, though my guess is that it has to, somewhere.

Abstraction is no longer privileged as a locus for spirituality, but I’m resistant to the idea of looking for a single medium or type of artmaking where it is privileged. Given how diverse art is right now in terms of both mediums and artists’ intentions, I think that the spiritual can pop up almost anywhere. As a result, the object still has a place, but might not be absolutely necessary. As with so many of the topics that are coming up in this symposium, it seems to be a situation where each specific case needs to be considered individually.

As to actual artworks, I’m not interested in trying to set down an extensive list, but I will mention a few things that have caught my eye in recent years.

First, from the art-historical/art-critical side of things, I’ve noticed a growing interest in revisiting older art and reevaluating its relation to the spiritual. A few recent catalogs and monographs on Yves Klein seem to pay particular attention to the spiritual underpinnings of his work, as though we’re now ready to look through the image of him as a proto-conceptualist and see what lies beneath. Issue 135 of Frieze (November–December 2010) was mostly devoted to articles on religion and spirituality in art; though the quality of the pieces was pretty uneven, it was interesting to see the topic make the cover of the magazine.

As to art itself, looking for the spiritual becomes something of a scavenger hunt, a quest to find specifically spiritual works within the huge mass of stuff that’s out there. Whenever something pops up, the question then arises as to whether a specific piece or body of work is spiritual (in that it directly expresses some type of spiritual experience), or just about the spiritual (a sort of outside-looking-in situation). In the few pieces I’ll mention here, I’m not going to make that distinction. My criterion for including them is the effect they had on me when I encountered them; if they struck a chord somewhere deep, they’re on the list.

One time-based medium that Taney doesn’t explicitly mention is performance art, a medium that also incorporates place, at least in a transient sense. I don’t get to see much performance, but I spent a lot of time buzzing around Manhattan and catching what I could during the last (2009) Performa festival. At the time, I was struck by how much of the performances had something to do with the spiritual in one way or another. Some of them were very self-consciously art-critical and/or historically literate, as in a lecture-performance by Guillaume Desanges at X Initiative in which he set out a brilliant tongue-in-cheek theory rooting geometric abstraction in things like Kabbalah and sacred geometry. Others were much more direct, though still containing an element of whimsy. Ylva Ogland did a performance at The Swiss Institute called Snöfrid Ruby Distillery, in which she constructed a pretty exact replica of a Renaissance alchemist’s rig and spent three days gently trying to distill her intangible mirror twin into manifestation; the fact that the side-product of the process was a very strong alcohol distilled from champagne and rubies added an nice edge to the piece. There were also several other performances with the same feel during Performa 09, but those are the two that I’ve thought about the most.

In the comments on my last post, a really good conversation on Buddhism in art came up, with a good list of artists who have been deeply influenced by Buddhist ideas or Buddhist practice. I would add a few more, including Mariko Mori, Rirkrit Tiravanija, James lee Byars, Mingwei Lee, and more recently Marina Abramovic (for example, her 2008 projects Eight Lessons on Emptiness with a Happy End and The Family were both inspired by a growing personal engagement with Buddhism). Some of these artists are still making work under the same influences.

It’s always been interesting to me that while Buddhism was so easily absorbed into the art scene, Hinduism has barely made a dent. The only artist that comes to my mind is Mati Klarwein, and the elements of Hinduism found in his works often get shouted down by the cacophony of pop-mystical imagery derived from so many other sources, including science fiction and centerfolds. Some of Alex Grey's paintings also owe a lot to ideas and imagery from Hinduism. Maybe there are others, but if there are I’ve missed them.

On the other hand, there’s a thriving tradition of spirituality in contemporary art in India. Indian painting can look very conservative and behind the times to a Western eye; many artists are still working in the vein of late 19th and early 20th century abstraction. However, some of them are using art as a direct means of exploring transformative states and spiritual ideas derived directly from Hinduism and its offshoots. A few names I could throw out include Syed Haider Raza, J. Swaminathan, Sohan Qadri, Arpana Caur, Gaitonde, Ramkumar, G.R. Santosh, and Sujata Bajaj. Some of these artists come from a tantric background, and many of them consider painting to be an act of prayer or meditation. Most of these artists are a recent discovery for me, so I’m still learning about them. (I discovered them in an Indian edition of Concerning the Spiritual in Art that I mentioned in my preliminary statement for this symposium.) I thought I’d throw them into the mix, with the idea that they might have a place to play in Western spiritual art in the future.

Daoism is in a similar situation. At best, its influence on modern and contemporary art has been very indirect, with the adoption of the Yiing by John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and some of the Fluxus artists (in art circles it’s probably more well known under the old Wade-Giles transliteration I Ching, but I used the Pinyin system in one of my earlier comments, so I’ll stick with the new spelling for the sake of consistency). However, that barely counts, since most of these artists primarily used the Yijing as a simple random number generator and completely disregarded its text (contemporary composer Elodie Lauten, who has also used the Yijing in her compositions, has criticized Cage for this). The one artist I can think of who used the Yijing and Daoist ideas more deeply was the Argentinian painter Xul Solar, who made several paintings that drew a lot from both, and who was also influenced by alchemy and Renaissance magic, among other things.

I was also going to put something in here about pop spirituality, but I think I’ll save it for later, or possibly never. I’d have to touch on the history of fringe religions within the U.S., and I’m not sure how well that would fit here. For now, I’ll pass over the topic lightly by saying that there seems to be something of a cycle in broader public interest about spiritual topics, with peaks every 20 years or so, and we may be heading toward another high point. If that happens, it will be interesting to see if/how the art world gets affected by it.

Beyond this vague and unruly collection of thoughts, I really don't have a well-formed idea of what the future of spiritual art might look like. I think new/digital media will have a role to play, but because I the art scene is so multifaceted and multivocal right now, it's hard to predict just where the next great expression of the spiritual will occur, or what it will look like.


  1. So much to chew on there, Jeff -- thanks for all of it. I'm glad you pointed out my omission of performance art, which I myself am surprised by, given my strong and very ambivalent reaction to the Abramovic performance at MoMA last year. That piece was nothing if not spiritual *in intent*, though I'm still undecided as to the extent of its spiritual effect. With Abramovic, I simply cannot get away from the suspicion that the work is all about *her* -- her spiritual superiority, her aura of interior perfection, her extraordinary ability to withstand feats of unimaginable concentration, etc. While I may be duly impressed, I certainly wouldn't call my being so a spiritual experience. In any case, I do appreciate her (and others') efforts to de-materialize art and underscore actions, relationships, processes, etc. It's an important move, and one I admire, but I myself remain committed to the object.
    One of our panelists, Daniel Siedell, has written eloquently about the "economy of the icon" in religious art and about how objects can embody presence in a way that is profoundly spiritual and quite palpable. I may have more to say on this later, but I do hope Dan will share some of his thinking on this with the panel.

  2. @Taney: I like your comment of the Abramovic performance very much. I only managed to see some photos. My feeling is that she is very much a diva--dominant, self-expressive, even though she was almost motionless. There isn't much left to do in the "de-materialize art". Moving to the "object" is what I'm looking forward to.

    @Jeff: there are many inspirations in your article. My superficial thinking is that maybe there is something common/shared among all these religions/spirituality. The diversity of different religions may grow exponentially in the future. Keeping track of each one of them is too much work. As you make some distinction between the ancient and contemporary spiritual, to me, the essence(the timeless element) would be the same.

    my further question, or just curiosity, is that, anybody has any thought of the emerging works of art dealing with consciousness, and how to reframe consciousness (in the context of the spiritual)? A bad question as it is. I know I'm not good at dealing with these "soft"/open terms.

  3. Yuting, your comment about the shared essence -- or "timeless element" -- across the various religious and spiritual traditions brings to mind the perennial philosophy popularized by Aldous Huxley in his book by that name and a lesser-known book by Frithjof Schuon called The Transcendent Unity of Religions. The premise there is that the essence of religion (and the spiritual) lies in the search for union with Oneness, however variously that is conceived. Huxley and so many others have insisted that we never lose sight of what the various traditions and approaches have in common despite their obvious differences, and I think it's good advice to heed. It's interesting that in this conversation we've been searching for that very thing -- a unity that transcends the various dualisms, including that of transcendence and immanence.

  4. @Taney: thank you for the clue. That makes a beautiful point. a unity is what we are looking for here, and I think it's not a coincidence that the contemporary physicists' dream is a grand unification of all physical laws.

  5. @Yuting: I feel like I'm at a loss to come up with any new (or even relatively recent) artworks that deal with consciousness in such a broad and transformative manner. With the possible exception of Osmose and Ephemere by Char Davies (which I mentioned in an earlier post), I'm drawing a blank, though I know that a lot of new media artists are very concerned with consciousness. I'm probably forgetting a great example; maybe it will come to me later, or maybe someone else can help me out.

    On the other hand, I feel like there are plenty of artworks that deal with specific instances of consciousness; any political art that tries to inform, influence, or change minds fits into that category, but maybe that's a clumsy and obvious example.

    Maybe a better example is John Slepian, whose “virtual bodies” pieces (2000-2006) placed repulsive computer-generated creatures in carefully designed physical settings in order to make a point about how even patently artificial objects can elicit genuine emotional responses. For example, his piece little_one (2005) presented a deformed and almost featureless virtual baby on the screen of a large, pink, Tamagotchi-like object placed in a crib. The creature would start to make baby-like noises when approached, and would present a range of responses (from laughing to screaming) depending on how you handled it when you picked it up. People seemed to have very real responses to it, ranging from nervous laughter to empathy. The idea that something so obviously not alive can create a genuine emotional reaction is fascinating, and says a lot about our susceptibility to images. (You can see stills and video of little_one and Slepian’s other works at

  6. Thanks Jeff, I like your descriptions of these works. I'll check them out virtually.

  7. In a previous comment I mentioned Doze Green’s current body of work consists of paintings that translate complex metaphysical concepts that resonate with Afrofuturism, such as the “possible manipulation of energy and matter to create a timeless space.” Green speaks about performance as part of the process of creating abstract, graffiti-inspired painting, ie "The Left Hand Path." I had a conversation with my friend Pema Rinzin who recently exhibited with Doze about leaving the traditional Tibetan art form and embracing the kind of work Doze is doing (urban metaphysics). During this exchange I had an "Aha! moment" in that I realized that the nature of the art was intentionally liminal and syncretic. The syncretic reality that is emerging from the convergence of Mixed Reality technology and altered states of consciousness, and metaphors drawn from biology, quantum physics, field theory, language, combined with cultural, social and spiritual practices, in a hybrid space of potentiality.

  8. @Nettrice
    Thank you for pointing us at the work of Doze Green. I personally think that Afrofuturism is a very important movement. In short, I think that Afrofuturism asks us how can art reactivate the spirit in our times and the political potential inherent in artistic activity with its power to unleash spiritual goals? By which I mean, its power to embody the mutations of the sensible, and thereby, contribute to reconfiguring the energy of the world.
    Rammellzee was under appreciated (in my opinion) as a theorist. I have put some of his writings together here on my blog: