color Beyond Kandinsky: Apr 3, 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


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Response to Several Questions on 3 April


What a juicy day! Not to take up too much space here, I'll offer some brief responses to several questions that have been posed today.

On Buddhism—It's not really accurate to say that Buddhism is not a transcendent spiritual practice, though it's certainly not an example of the sort of vertical transcendence we are accustomed to into the West. Rather, it's a spiritual practice that illuminates nonduality and also transcends the mundane mind by showing meditators a glimpse of the incredibly dynamic, subtle field of energy/matter arising and passing away, arising and passing away every fraction of a second. Also, the Buddhist concept of karma is far more complex than the reductionist version known here (i.e., you do something good or bad, and it comes back to you). Instead, what Buddhist meditation teachers mean by karma is the interplay of all the dynamics in the universe, past and present, coming into play every moment, a "mind-blowing" totality far beyond the ken of the human comprehension. That is a transcendent dimension of reality.

On Steiner's influence on artists—There were two exhibitions on this in Germany last year (can be Googled): "Rudolf Steiner and Contemporary Art" at the Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg and "Rudolf Steiner—Alchemy of the Everyday" (re historical modern artists) at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein.

On why Kandinsky went geometric—Not that the other influences mentioned weren't important, but the main reason was that when he had to leave Germany (being a foreign national) at the outbreak of WWI and return to Russia, what he found in the avant garde artists' scene back in his beloved Moscow was an all-encompassing fascination with the concept of sacred geometry (regarded as an illumination of the invisible reality and a path to evoking a new society). The Constructivists and Malevich considered Kandinsky a bit of an old fogey, but he was clearly influenced by their deep attraction to sacred geometry. He maintained his [really great, I feel] organic abstract style in his paintings till 1920, but when he returned to Germany the next year and took a position at the Bauhaus, he changed entirely to geometric abstraction for the rest of his life (though he introduced some biomorphic forms among the geometric shapes during his last decade, in Paris).

On why artists stopped talking and writing about esoteric spirituality after WWI—The sacrifice of almost an entire generation of young men (poured into the idiocy of trench warfare for more than four years [in the last two years of that war, life expectancy in the trenches was two weeks]) was a trauma that shattered European faith in Enlightenment promises of the progressive perfecting of society. Among the avant garde, there was reaction against "cosmic wallpaper" (as Van Doesburg and Grosz called Kandinsky's pre-war paintings) has an art that had proven itself powerless not only to bring forth a new society (as the artists had hoped) but even to stop the carnage in the trenches. The new priest was to be the engineer and the architect; the new path to deliverance from "materialism" was to be the clarity of their diagrams and blueprints. (However, this did not mean that that dozens of the "greats" of modern art lost interest in the spiritual, only that after the late 1920s they largely kept quiet about it, while still exploring it in their art. I have found that they often wrote about it in late-life letters and journal entries.)

On Malevich's spirituality—too long a story for here, but the short answer is that it was a combination of his Russian Orthodox formative experiences (he loved the medieval Russian block-form cross), the esoteric charge around sacred geometry, and his sense of his own role as a spiritual/aesthetic visionary. Here's the closing of a poem he wrote:


The live Spirit carries the flame
further and further and all see
the star and the sun already dead
for in the new transformation it
is not necessary.
In the new miracle there is no
Sun, no stars.
The light of Paradise
has gone out.
The era of the new beginning has dawned.

The abandoned spiritual ideals of modern art


Before our current session draws to a close this evening, I thought I’d re-present an interesting question that came up in one of our recent threads, lest it become buried in the archive prematurely. The question seems fundamental to what we’re trying to accomplish here, in the sense that in order to move forward we need to have an adequate understanding of how we arrived at our current situation. The question is: Why were the spiritual ideals of modern art, embodied so powerfully not just by Kandinsky’s enterprise but also by Mondrian’s and Malevich’s, abandoned? What was the shift that occurred after which artists felt they could no longer seriously (or at least openly) pursue spiritual ideals in their work?

Joseph has cited art for art’s sake as a probable cause and has implicated figures such as Barbara Rose in its rise. Although I agree with this, I think we would do well to push the question one step further and ask: How to account for the widespread appeal of art for art’s sake on the part of the artists who took it on and the larger art world that embraced it? To what complex of attitudes or unconscious desires did it appeal? Could a sense of failure, of art’s impotence in the face of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, be a part of this?

I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on this from either our panelists or our reading audience. The question currently has us stumped.

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.

Nathaniel Dorsky film screening this Tuesday


In conjunction with our Beyond Kandinsky symposium, SVA will be hosting a film screening of the work of San Francisco-based filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky this Tuesday, April 5th. The screening will be held at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, which is at 333 W. 23rd St. in Manhattan, at 7:00 pm. The event will be free and open to the public. Nathaniel, who is one of our symposium participants, will be present at the screening. I hope those of you in New York will join us for Tuesday's event.

Nathaniel will be showing four films—Sarabande, Compline, Aubade, and Winter—and giving brief introductions before each. The total running time for all four will be just over an hour, after which we'll take questions and comments from the audience.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nathaniel's work, I encourage you to visit his page on our project's website: Nathaniel Dorsky.

Below are two stills from Sarabande to whet your appetite:

Steiner, Thought Forms, and Kandinsky


The comments from Barbara Braathen that Taney posted yesterday have spurred me to post some information that I meant to put up during the first session, but didn’t have time to. I’d like to throw out some ideas and imagery related to Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant, and Charles Leadbeater, and consider how/if they might have influenced Kandinsky.

Kandinsky was very open about his appreciation for Helena Blavatsky. He was a lot more elusive about Steiner. I just took a quick look back through the Collected Writings on Art, and couldn’t find a single mention of Steiner anywhere in the texts. However, his name comes up several times in the editors’ introductions, and—most importantly—they cite Kandinsky’s attendance at several of Steiner’s anthroposophical lectures in 1908.

Steiner’s lectures covered a broad range of theosophical topics. He would often elaborate on the occult connection between things like the planets and parts of the body, in a manner reminiscent of the systems of correspondence that became such a huge part of Renaissance magic (as in Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, or the 1620 magical calendar from Frankfurt that was once falsely attributed to Tycho Brahe). During these lectures, he would illustrate some of his ideas with colored chalk. The early drawings were lost, but in 1919 one of Steiner’s pupils got the idea to tape black paper to the surface of the chalkboard, so that the drawings could be rolled up after the talks were over. Over 1,000 of these drawings survive, along with notes and transcripts of the lectures. (I've included a couple here. To see a few paired with some of Steiner’s text and with commentary by a contemporary anthroposophist, check out this web page.

I’ve always been wary of giving too much weight to the Kandinsky/Steiner connection, but when I was going back through On the Spritual in Art, some resonances started to strike me. In the chapter where Kandinsky sets out his ideas on the movement and emotional tone of the colors, there’s a footnote in which he reinforces his assertion that yellow is inherently aggressive and has an unpleasant “sound” by citing the sourness of lemons and the shrill song of the canary. Earlier in the book, he discusses synesthesia (without actually using the term), but he seems to treat it as a spiritual potential inherent in at least the most sensitive of us, rather than the medical or psychological anomaly that many people consider it to be. I was reminded of Steiner’s way of connecting things, his frequent discussions of how the soul is affected by material and spiritual phenomena, and the way that colors were often a crucial part of this. His discussions of planetary influences on the body were often illustrated with specific colors for each planetary ray, and there’s a beautiful chalkboard drawing in which he uses a few quick slashes of light blue, yellow, and red to assert a connection between cosmic thoughts, memories, and dreams, and birds, butterflies, and bats, respectively (see above).

Steiner also spoke about the ability of color to alter spiritual perception. He claimed that meditation on a specific color would render that color transparent, so that one could see the spiritual entities lurking behind or within it. Such statements were couched in language that often sounds a lot like Kandinsky’s recurring image of the soul as a piano, with color as the force that hits the keys and vibrates the strings.

Though I don’t want to stretch comparisons too far or claim too much, I should probably also mention Steiner’s development of the hybrid art form eurythmy. Eurythmy attempted to blend colors, sounds, and spiritually significant gestures into a new dance form that would directly affect the deeper levels of the viewer’s soul. (Some of Steiner’s pencil sketches for eurythmy can be seen at this link, along with a few color images created using Steiner’s notes. For an example of eurythmy in action, check out this video.)

By 1926, Kandinsky had shifted his focus away from color and toward shape and form; this was the year that Point and Line to Plane was published. His only other published work that year was a piece called Dance Curves, in which he turned four photographs of the dancer Palucca into simplified schematic drawings (see below), with the idea of showing how the precision of her movements carries deep significance for those sensitive enough to recognize it (he states this idea much more vaguely and obliquely than I have, and the entire article—which is very brief—is pretty opaque). Though I’ve never seen anything to connect Dance Curves to eurythmy, the emphasis they share on precision and meaning in the body’s movement has always kept me speculating.

Not everyone is comfortable with this sort of tale-spinning. There are writers who try to downplay the Steiner-Kandinsky connection, under the assumption that it makes it too easy for Kandinsky to be dismissed as a serious artist. For a discussion of this, see this essay by artist, writer, and Studio International co-editor Janet McKenzie, written on the occasion of the 2006 Tate Modern exhibition “Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction.”

Finally, I should mention the 1901 book Thought Forms by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. Besant inherited the leadership of most of Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society after the latter’s death, and Leadbeater was a clairvoyant who claimed the ability to see the shapes and colors of people’s emotions. Their book begins with a detailed chart that lays out the spiritual meanings of 25 colors (for example, red-orange is listed as “pride”), and then discusses the ethereal forms of a wide range of subjective phenomena, including things like ”greed for alcohol” and “listening to the music of Mendelsshon.” The book is illustrated throughout, and some of the more complex images begin to approach the complexity of some of Kandinsky’s paintings. (One of my favorites is the illustration for "appreciation of a picture," shown immediately above.)

Once again, without trying to claim too much, I'm very interested in the way that the specificity of Besant and Leadbeater’s system looks a lot like Kandinsky’s ideas on the distinctive “feel” of various colors. At least one writer of books on Theosophical history (Gary Lachman) has stated that Kandinsky owned a copy of Thought Forms, and that it was one of the most influential sources of his speculations on color.