color Beyond Kandinsky: Apr 7, 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


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Daniel Siedell on the economy of the icon


In an earlier thread, I asked Daniel Siedell if he would give us some further thoughts on what he calls the "economy of the icon" in his book God in the Gallery. Because Kandinsky's relationship to icon painting and veneration has not yet been touched on, and because what Dan says about it is relevant to our current topic, I'm reposting his response below:

Dan said:

The icon opens up an interesting divide in the history of Christianity, between the West and the East. The West never really gets what the fuss is all about with the icon and the violent iconoclasm that ensued in the eighth century. In the West icons/images, etc. are good for teaching and illustration. In the East, it is more profound; it is a matter of preserving the Incarnation of Christ and the connection of the spiritual and the material. The economy of the icon presumes this connection. The icon reveals the union of the divine and the material. One of the more interesting aspects of this tradition is the criticism that Eastern thinkers level against Western representational art, especially the Renaissance. This is also why there is a certain connection to the icon and abstract art. The Russian Pavel Florensky is an example. He sees the Renaissance as draining the spiritual (and divine) from the material with its excessive naturalism (perspective). Nature is not denied, it is pushed through to reveal its true basis as a spiritual reality.

The philosopher Jean Luc Marion has argued that the contemporary crisis of the image (his phrase) could be rectified by Nicaea II, which is the seventh ecumenical council that mandated the use of icons—a rather provocative and interesting assertion.

But the economy of the icon also includes its use. It is venerated—that is not just looked at but kissed, bowed in front of, touched, etc. Icons were present in churches but also in homes—little prayer corners. Malevich made use of the "prayer" corner as well in exhibiting his paintings.

Another aspect of the icon is the character of the artist, who must engage in fasting, prayer, etc. to be prepared to make the work. Tarkovsky's film, "Passion of Andrei Rublev" doesn't depict him painting a single icon.

I think that aspect of ascetical commitment to art on the part of the icon painter was extremely attractive to Kandinsky and Malevich—that the artist needed to have a certain kind of character in order to make spiritual art. But that spirituality is informed by a profoundly embodied sense of religious practices in and around the making and venerating of icons, a sense they had experienced both directly but perhaps most important indirectly.

Such theological discourse around the icon is clearly "religious," in the sense that it is shaped by public ritual, practice, etc. and for the purpose of establishing institutional boundaries. However, I'm interested in exploring how such thought, clearing shaped by "religion" can be exhumed from that context and made to serve non-religious needs, serve or illumine certain "spiritual" concerns in an explicitly secular cultural context.

On the relationship between the artist's ideas and the work


Another interesting topic that came up in one of the threads is threatening to disappear into the archive prematurely, so I wanted to reintroduce it and give it a thread of its own. The question of the relationship between an artist's ideas and his or her work—initiated here by Joseph's mentioning of Yves Klein—seems relevant to our current focus on the role of the artist in society. Below are some of the comments on that issue, beginning with Joseph on Yves Klein:

Joseph Nechvatal said:

We might remember here that there was at least one overtly spiritual artist at the heart of modernism: Yves Klein.

Klein first studied Oriental languages, Zen philosophy and Judo and wrote a book about the subject after spending fifteen months at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo. He then went on to found his own Judo school in Paris, making a living teaching Judo from 1955 to 1959.

Back in 1948, at age 20, Klein discovered a book by Max Heindel which teaches the basic beliefs of an esoteric Christian sect called the Rosicrucians. Klein obsessively studied the book for five years, and after coming to Paris in 1955, began to refer to himself as an initiate in the sect (he was made a Knight of the Order of Archers of Saint Sebastian) and was married to the beautiful Rotrault Uecker (now Rotrault Klein-Moquay) within its highly flamboyant and ritualistic ceremony.

Based on the Rosicrucian metaphysical ideology, Klein avowed to indicate to the world a new age, the Age of Space. In the Age of Space, boundless spirit would exist free of form, objects would levitate, and humans would travel liberated from their body. This contextual understanding is essential for understanding Klein’s artistic importance, as this ideology of the immaterial informs all his work, even the paintings, but most explicitly such conceptual-technological works as the Sculpture aérostatique (1957) which was the release of 1001 balloons, and the Illumination de l'Obélisque (1958) in the Place de la Concorde.

Klein's metaphysical ideology is the basis of his well known monochrome paintings. Definitely the well-known blue monochrome were for him no more than an introduction to his ideological "blue revolution", which he saw as the diffusion of immaterial pictorial sensibility throughout the whole cosmos, both visible and invisible. So blue color was for Klein not pigment and binder but a spiritual, cosmic force that stimulates the entire environment, transforming life itself into a work of art.

Admittedly, Klein's idea of pure open space (free from form) was first actualized in his blue monochrome paintings, where the bisecting nature of line was rejected in favor of an even, all-over, ultramarine-blue color which he called IKB (International Klein Blue). However, later some of his monochromes were painted pink or gold.

The Ex-voto dédié à Sainte-Rita (1961) which was deposited by Klein at the Convent of Santa Rita in Cascia, Italy is valuable evidence of Klein's spiritual imagination.

Taney Roniger said:

Joseph, I'm glad you brought Yves Klein into the fold, since he's certainly someone who had no compunction about making his spiritual views explicit. I'm reminded of the very interesting review written by Peter Schjeldahl for The New Yorker of Klein's Hirshhorn retrospective a few years back. At the very end of the review, Schjeldahl—clearly a fan of the work but not at all an enthusiast for Klein's spiritual ideas—says:

But there's no separating the improbable power of conviction in his art from the worship of a cosmic principle. The problem points up a recurring blind spot in the reception of modern art, as when scholars duly note the Theosophical faith of Kandinsky or Mondrian and then make as little as possible of it, concerning their work. And let it be recalled that Andy Warhol, as revolutionary an artist in effect as Klein was in aspiration, was an observant Catholic, too.

James Elkins, in his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, puts the point succinctly by stating: "There is no end to great art made by artists who had ridiculous or misinformed theories."

All of this has me wondering about the degree to which an artist's ideas (spiritual and otherwise) should be considered an integral part of the work's "content" (in quotes because I am always reluctant to isolate content from form). Can the very ideas, passions, obsessions, and convictions that give rise to great works really be considered superfluous, when without them the works would never have come into existence?

The above quotes both further our ongoing theme of the denial or suppression of the spiritual in modern art and raise an interesting question about how an artist's ideas can be separated from the work, it seems to me.

Daniel Siedell said:

The question of how an artist's ideas can be separated from the work is an interesting one in this context because it seems that the spiritual role of the artist (prophet, priest, mystic) carries much more of the burden than the work itself. The response, influenced by our Greenbergian approach to art, is to easily dismiss the artist's silly ideas. But I'm not so sure that it's so easy. What is sillier, that Kandinsky believed that art could save the world or that painting stripes could save the avant-garde from kitsch?

There is still the problem of the traditional and I think quite problematic difference between the spiritual and religious. Kandinsky, like many (Hegel and Kant) spoke of the spiritual firmly within a religious context.

Taney Roniger said:

Dan, I agree emphatically that the Greenbergian paradigm continues to influence our sense of the work's autonomy—both in relation to the artist's ideas (silly or otherwise) and the context of a larger cultural web of meaning. It's always interesting for me to observe people who by self-description are avowed anti-formalists dismissing an artist's ideas as irrelevant to the meaning of the work (insisting, instead, that signification has a life of its own, wholly separate from the intentions of the "author").

The inversion of values you point to in your "what is sillier?" question is the very heart of this entire project, it seems to me. Thanks for putting it so succinctly.

I wonder if you might say a bit more about the difference between the spiritual and the religious, since we've not really touched on that here. I'm afraid our conflation of the two has probably been a bit clumsy.

Kandinsky: A Close Look, a film by Grahame Weinbren


As a contribution to our project, filmmaker Grahame Weinbren has generously offered to host a private screening of his film Kandinsky: A Close Look, this Friday night in his Manhattan studio. Seating is limited, but a few spaces are still available. If anyone from our reading audience would like to join us for the screening, please send an e-mail to, and include a brief note about yourself. The screening will begin at 7:30pm. The location will be given to those with reserved seats.

Commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum for the occasion of last year's Kandinsky retrospective, the film is a three-part, high-resolution movie that draws extensively on Kandinsky's writings (including On the Spiritual in Art), and runs for 36 minutes. For more information about the film, please see: Kandinsky: A Close Look.

I hope to see some of you there.