color Beyond Kandinsky: Some Formal Qualities of Visionary 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


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Some Formal Qualities of Visionary Art

Visionary art is more affective than discursive. More enigmatic than dogmatic. Its intricate patterning seems to contain many possibilities of interpretation—and thus seems magical, as magic does not conform to modern canons of causality.

Visionary art is full of complex inter-relational transitions and rhythmic overlapping perceptions that interlace. It displays elasticity through the principle of sameness with difference. There are forms emerging from other forms, both up and down in scale. Possible figures are nested within larger units, so things become component parts of other things. Here we are calling up image-formations from the depths of our mind. And this experience cannot but remind us that the primary feature that distinguishes aesthetic consciousness is imagination and that imagination entails visioning and symbolizing—areas of practice useful in heightening perception and intuition. Indecision, ambiguity and conflict become dynamic and useful values here. Because apparent secrets and angelic visual pleasures are concealed in visionary art's florid ground, apparent “flaws” like the all-over ambivalence of the superficial illusory groundlessness become affirmative values.

This is the interfering shift I detect in visionary art—what I think of as the responsibility of looking—a shift towards (and into) visual noise. Here we can re-appropriate our senses and our fragile capacity to visualize on a personal basis. Here is an inner reverberating resonance that cannot be appropriated by capital. Here one feels oneself feeling as a first person singular. This is an art to self, in self and for self. However, the result is empathetic—as one experiences one’s own powers of imaginatively projecting feelings and perceptions into vaguely apprehended forms. So a visionary shift in art is suggestive of an anti-pop, no-logo emancipatory labor indicative of social relationships outside of passive pop consumption. Here we can take back our head.


  1. Hi, Joseph. I don't know if I missed this in another thread, but who/what do you consider as good exemplars of visionary art? I can't think of any offhand, but I think that's because I'm getting mental interference from the occasional (and hotly contested) use of the term to describe outsider art.

  2. Anything with the pareidolia effect. A complete historical account of the global visionary art tradition would fill volumes. The 16,000 year-old cave paintings of human/animal hybrids, such as the Sorcerer of Trois Freres are a good place to start – but the best example of a prehistoric visionary practice that I know of is the Abside (Apse) of Lascaux - a roundish, semi-spherical, penumbra-like chamber (like those adjacent to romanesque basiliques) approximately 4.5 metres in diameter covered on every wall surface (including the ceiling) with thousands of entangled, overlapping, engraved drawings. Leonardo da Vinci offers us a rare aspect of the art of the High Renaissance which has visionary characteristics similar to those we previously saw in the Apse of Lascaux. He identified and worked with a general, unifying effect called sfumato composition; a smoky technique used for decreasing the separating dramatic force and physical presence of isolated figures in a work of art through immersing them in a fumy, semi-imperturbable equilibrium.
    I think it may come down to particular pieces, but I can suggest some visionary artists: we can count Hieronymous Bosch, William Blake, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Hans Arp, Hans Bellmer, Roman Verostko and Carl Fudge. As you suggest, there is a lot in Art Brut or Outsider Art. I really found it in the 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright (Tate Britain) See: but the photos are better here:

  3. Thanks, Joseph. This has helped me get a better handle on the material you've provided in your post.

    I read your piece on Baudrillard and the Lascaux Apse in The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies a couple years ago. I liked the connection you made between the Apse and immersive virtual reality. It's a fascinating interpretation of the shimmering, densely overlapping imagery in that part of the caves.

  4. exactly! as Jeff said, "the connection you made between the Apse and immersive virtual reality" is a classic. In fact, it helps me realize that the immersive virtual reality doesn't need to implement the fancy technologies, like VR. The prehistoric people merely used tools for body tattoos to paint the cave.

  5. The catalog from the show "The Spiritual in Art : Abstract Painting 1890-1985", is amazing and worth tracking down for anyone interested in these ideas.

  6. Is that the Maurice Tuchman catalogue, Andrea? I was waiting for that to come up. Thanks for that.

  7. "Here we can take back our head." -- Hear, hear!

  8. Thanks, Andrea. I'd heard about that catalog a while back an planned to seek it out, but then forgot the specifics. I'm going to look for it.

  9. Joseph + Taney...following this conversation over time + space has been a Joy. This IS what ART is truly about. All else is rubbish. The book, "Towards the Spiritual in Art" needs to be required reading for any art student. Thank You for this wonderful event.