color Beyond Kandinsky: Response to Joseph

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


Monday, April 4, 2011

Response to Joseph

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.


  1. Oh big yes to Emma Kunz. I saw that show. I also forgot Félicien Rops and Henri Michaux (and others I am sure). And I forgot perhaps my favorite (the little known) Austin Osman Spare.
    Congrats on doing such fine work LB.

  2. Laura, the experience you describe of teaching art to inmates sounds really powerful, and I'd be very interested to hear more about that. It seems by the way you describe it that their engagement with art is not so much as a means of communication (i.e., of rendering the internal external, of "expressing themselves") as it is a means of entering into a sense of connection, or communion, with something larger that gives them meaning, satisfaction, and solace.

    I wonder if the same kind of satisfaction can be had by people who don't make art themselves but who are nonetheless able to feel intimately connected to it by way of the beholding experience. I ask because you and I agreed in an earlier thread on the incomparable power of practice -- of making -- and its strange power to generate meaning. But most people don't have a practice of this kind.

  3. Obviously we need to learn a great deal more about this visionary art tradition: about its sources, internal developments, spiritual affinities and its cross-cultural manifestations.

  4. @Laura. With respect to conducting a "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", I can also advise a general look at Adrian Henri's book Total Art: Environments, Happenings and Performance (where Henri identifies a tradition of "total art") that has distinctive liberational/spiritual tendencies.