color Beyond Kandinsky: Apr 4, 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


Monday, April 4, 2011

Response to Joseph and Taney


If this ends up NOT as a comment to the thread, my apologies. I am technologically challenged.

Joseph, thank you, I will certainly look for that book.

And Taney, as far as "the incomparable power of practice—of making—and its strange power to generate meaning", as an artist and teacher (I am by no means a scholar), all I strive to do is to convey exactly that to others.

My students in prison do dwell on their individual narratives as a means of self expression. They don't know any other way. Since I am not allowed to discuss their crimes with them, I try to work them towards a kind of poetry. Abstraction? Forget about it. They could care less. Tried that. (They HATED Kandinsky and Klee!). One successful assignment was to have them each write a haiku and to draw it. I figured, "How much of a story can they tell in 17 syllables?". (Though the next week one student said, "Professor, did you know that the word 'incarceration' has 5 syllables?"). Most, however found symbolism and universal meaning by being limited to a few words. That was a major breakthrough.

Two responses to Session III


Session III: Art and Its Audience

(1) What is the current role of experience in the making and beholding of art? Has aesthetic experience been displaced by the current practices of interpretation, “decoding,” identifying references, etc?

Experience in the making and beholding of art is crucial. It is all in the quality of attention.

(3) What role might there be for art criticism in providing new interpretive frameworks that include room for the recognition of the spiritual in art?

Writing serves art as a dialogue. Writing is crucial.

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.

Session III: Art and Its Audience


With our third session, which will carry us through the next two days, we’ll shift our focus away from art and its making and toward the various ways in which it is experienced and understood by its audience. Keeping in mind the larger context of a culture in which entertainment has acquired the status of a primary value, I present the following questions for consideration:

  1. What is the current role of experience in the making and beholding of art? Has aesthetic experience been displaced by the current practices of interpretation, “decoding,” identifying references, etc?
  2. Is there a relationship between synaesthesia and the “immersive experiences” of today’s multi-media and interactive art? What might the rise of these immersive forms say about the role and status of the body in an emerging worldview?
  3. What role might there be for art criticism in providing new interpretive frameworks that include room for the recognition of the spiritual in art?
  4. Is it time to replace “the viewer” with a designation less mired in the Modernist ethos of objectivity, distance, “disinterestedness,” etc.? If so, what might some alternative terms be?
  5. How might a different understanding of the experiential or spiritual value of art pose a challenge to the current emphasis on monetary value endemic to our market-based system?

A Footnote to “The Changing Shape of Art”


Georges Braque, toward the end of his life (in the course of a conversation with John Richardson) made the following statement:

You see, I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them, or between them and myself. When one attains this harmony one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence—what I can only describe as a sense of peace, which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.

As a result of his studio practice, painting the same motifs over and over, including the characteristic bird in flight (comparable to Brancusi’s birds), Braque apparently attains the state of no-self, seeing the insubstantiality of appearances. That would be defined as “enlightenment” in Buddhist parlance. I am bringing this up as an example of a natural, largely unconscious, development towards spiritual maturity that seems somehow ahistorical, in the sense that a solitary, contemplative artist working at any point in time could arrive at that same “harmony.”

It may be worthwhile to note that Braque fought, and was wounded, in WWI, yet that experience seemed to have no impact on his work.