color Beyond Kandinsky: Apr 2, 2011

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?

Comments from Barbara Braathen


One of our readers, Barbara Braathen, has just submitted the following, which needs no introduction:

Checking the dictionary for "spiritual," it is defined as that which is incorporeal, etheric as opposed to physical, supernatural, sacred. To disassociate art from the spiritual is somewhat disingenuous, since the art-situation, however embodied, alludes to feelings, concepts, theories, possibilities, projections, or just memory itself, all non-physical. (I loved Atta Kim's discussion of the point in Kandinsky's writing.) For instance, while Donald Judd expressed an aversion to both illusion and allusion in art, his work nevertheless provides unique, valuable, and memorable experiences of simplicity, purity, and fineness itself. One of the panelists in this symposium, Suzanne Anker, bases her artwork on science and, by her statement here, eschews the spiritual; nevertheless, her work brings to our awareness science's incredible advances into the nature of nature, how we are composed, and confronts us, in aesthetic form, with the mystery of our own being. It appears that once one ponders the deeper issues of any work of art, one enters the realm of the ineffable, the spiritual.

In the 60s, when I was in school, and in a circle of young and ardent artists in Los Angeles, it was still acceptable to discuss the spiritual in art. This too was a period, perhaps like the early 20th century, when explorations into Mme. Blavatsky, Bishop Leadbeater, Annie Besant, Rudolf Steiner, the eastern religions, and then for us, Gurdjieff, AA Bailey, and many other mystics, were of great interest. We dabbled in channeling through automatic handwriting, lifted tables in séances, amplified our studies with the occasional psychedelic (discovering how truly unreliable are appearances), and witnessed Swami Satchidananda, at close range in a living room, in meditation levitating about four feet off the floor. I became convinced of the substantiality of the incorporeal, to say the least.

At that time, each exhibition of new art and each issue of Artforum were like powerful jolts of lightning, shaping the exciting present and charging up the future. There was a term often used in referencing contemporary art, viz.,"The Mission." Art's "Mission" was to open vision, to heal the heart, to feed the mind, to transcend all fetters into the freedom of the new and the creative, to perceive inventions from artists in order to be able to face challenges in a novel world with novel mental and emotional tools. Perhaps "The Mission" embodied the last dying gasp of the idealism which fueled modernism…but for us this was art's turf, and it was spiritual in nature, expansive into the unknown terrain of the soul, whether individual, collective, systemic, or cosmic. Bruce Nauman said it in 1967, in blazing neon, tongue-in-cheek or not: "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths."

Sometime early in the 80s, not only did the future stop looking so exciting, but it was clear that the word "spiritual" as applied to art was absolutely unacceptable…and "The Mission" had entirely disappeared from discourse. I winced when you mentioned, Taney, that you were often met with pity upon bringing up this topic. Pity!!! I have always pitied those not interested in the spiritual mysteries which are of such great fascination to me…. But you learn to not bring up the topic, and eventually to appreciate the other side of thought.

I still believe that art has the power to change the individual, the culture, and the future, and that it inhabits a highly honorable, sacred field. Whether the artist's concern is political, phenomenological, descriptive, symbolic, scientific, cynical, decorative, aleatory, comical, conceptual, illustrative, numerical, whether the art installation is an accumulation of detritus or one of Platonic solids, and no matter what the artist claims, all art is essentially spiritual.

Analogue versus digital


In light of the recurrence of the subject of digital technology in our efforts to delineate a “new spiritual art,” I thought I’d pose more directly a question that was only implied in the initial set—namely, is there something inherently spiritual (i.e., conducive to a sense of connectedness to a larger whole) about digital representations that their analogue counterparts lack? I’m thinking about the increasingly pervasive computational model of the universe, wherein nature is understood as a vast digital computer (which to some is merely metaphorical but to others not at all so). Another way to put the question is: Is there something more *real* and accurate (because more accurately reflective of the inner workings of nature) about digital that analogue cannot attain? Or, alternatively, are analogue representations more real and accurate in their reflection of a continuous rather than a discrete world? Or, finally, is the question of digital versus analogue merely a passing trend that will be rendered irrelevant in years to come?

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.

ecstatic-electronic art against the controlling world's sedate blandness Re: The Changing Shape of Art


For me, the purely abstract associated with Kandinsky is a played out trope, more materialistic then spiritual. What seems to stand a slight change for a new spiritual art today is an impure electronic-based semi-abstraction; that is, abstraction mixed with infected representation.

Such a post-abstract approach to spiritual art suggests to me an inventing of an electronic-based art in which what matters is no longer pure identities, or logos, or distinctive characters but rather ecstatically dense phantasmagorical forces developed on the basis of inclusion—where from now on things will be represented only from the depths of an infected and inclusive energetic density withdrawn into itself (perhaps adumbrated and darkened by its obscurity) but bound tightly together and inescapably grouped by the vigorous connections that are hidden below in its digital depth (code).

Such noisy, semi-abstract capricious forms of ecstatic-electronic art (with their rhizomatizing connections) placed within a full ground that never isolates them but rather surrounds their outline with excess - all this might be presented to our spiritualizing gaze in a post-abstract art matrix. Such are the powers of a new spiritual art.

May I just say that this phantasmal flee from both pure abstraction and the play of popularity-based representation has the most urgent political/social ramifications in our media saturated society.

Session II: The Changing Shape of Art


Having explored some of the ways in which approaches to the spiritual have changed in the century since Kandinsky, the session that begins today will shift the focus of our discussion away from the spiritual in general and toward its embodiment (or disembodiment) in art specifically. Over the next two days, we’ll be exploring the changing shape of art, for which I pose the following questions as points of departure:

  1. How has the once-privileged relationship between abstraction and the spiritual fared since Kandinsky? Does this connection still hold a century on?
  2. Does music remain the paragon of spiritual art, as Kandinsky so fervently believed?
  3. What is the current status of “the object” (i.e., art’s material embodiment) in contemporary spiritually-inclined art?
  4. Is there currently a renewed emphasis on place or site in contemporary art that might reflect a new (or newly recovered) awareness of the spiritual? 
  5. Is there a unique role for time-based media such as film and video in contemporary art that aspires toward the spiritual?
  6. What role might there be for digital technology in expressions of the spiritual in art?
  7. How do recent developments in artistic practice (e.g., “post-studio” practice, art-as-ritual, and trans-disciplinary work) relate to the spiritual in art?

Clarification re Kandinsky's spiritual experiences


Before we leave Session I, I'd like to add that Kandinsky did have, from a very early age, the type of spiritual, or mystical, experiences described by Alex Grey in his post. It was clear to him from about age four that every entity has its inner reality as well as its outer form. When he became an artist in Munich in his 30s, he struggled to figure out what could replace the objective subject in painting. At some point in 1908 he realized that his childhood insight was the answer: he would try to depict the dynamics of inner reality. This decision was, of course, in sync with the fascination among his peers with the invisible world -- but Kandinsky brought a life-long depth of engagement to the project. This resulted in what Jeff Edwards called in his first post Kandinsky's "palpable sense of boundary-pushing" from 1909 on. However, when Kandinsky turned his attention to "inner necessity," his previous heightened sense perceptions of the world faded. He no longer walked through Bavarian streets with an almost electric sense of the bright yellow mailboxes and the blue ceramic house numbers, he noted. Instead, he increasingly dwelt in the realm of the subtle processes and dynamic relationships that infuse the physical world.