Kandinsky and Kandinsky: From Abstraction to Gemism

The name Kandinsky is one for the ages, like Lincoln or Roosevelt. Even the average art novice knows that Kandinsky was a trailblazer, much like a C-average student knows, at least in theory, that Lincoln “freed the slaves.” The current Kandinsky exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim is an easy fit.

Hilla von Rebay, who was Solomon’s personal art collector and the “Baroness” of the Guggenheim dating back to its days as The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, all but single-handedly built the museum’s collection on a solid foundation of Kandinskys. His expressive vocabulary and resistance to all conventional aesthetic values somehow manage to uphold one’s faith — nearly a century later — that originality is still possible in abstract art. Clement Greenberg once wrote, “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” It speaks volumes that many Kandinskys are still ugly.

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Capricious Forms, Wassily Kandinsky

The exhibit moves chronologically, beginning with his early days in Munich — when he flirted with Symbolism and Post-Impressionism — on the lower levels, and swirling on up through Der Blaue Reiter, his reluctant return to Russia, the Bauhaus, and his final days in Paris. Kandinsky’s career was a series of daring experiments coupled with exile. In 1911, around the time he produced the watercolors now considered to be the very first pure abstractions of the modern era, he wrote, “Color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.” Kandinsky was not, as some have posited, out to shock the establishment with his tightly-wound geometry and strange juxtapositions of color, but to find new visual passages, undiscovered access points into our myriad senses. He was the avant-gardist who repeatedly set the bar.

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Woody Allen, Anton Kandinsky

In a bizarre and (let’s be frank) completely unintentional complement to the Vasily Kandinsky show, the provocative and very living Anton S. Kandinsky is presenting China-ism at Art Next Gallery in Chelsea through October 30th. According to Kandinsky, “China-ism” was introduced to the West when Warhol painted Chairman Mao’s portrait in 1972, and the ubiquity of socialist propaganda art received its just treatment as good ‘ol product placement.

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Howard Stern, Anton Kandinsky

Applying a Warhol-esque sensibility for facial expressions and recalling Rosenquist’s winks at Western consumerism, Kandinsky has stirred the Neo-Pop pot in unexpected ways, teetering on the edge of something profoundly original. He pairs faces that, thanks to recent history’s warped sense of humor, simply belong together: Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, Chuck Close and Ai Wei Wei, Andy Warhol and Mao Zedong. It comes full circle, sort of. M-16s are stamped “Best Buy,” muscled Chinese nationalists stand under the Pepsi trademark, and vodka bottles replace literal heads of state. Inescapably scattered throughout are Kandinsky’s shining gems, his own trademark.

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Wizard of Oz, Anton Kandinsky

“Gemism” was coined by Kandinsky in 2004, and refers to his application of realistic images of luminescent gemstones on his canvases. The effect works, at the very least to create a visual push/pull, and in its best moments to ornament the dour gravitas of ideologues and politics-as-usual. Kandinsky is careful with the placement of his gems, but he’s definitely not shy with them. This is where Gemism meets China-ism. In Pop’s heyday, culture was forced to look in the mirror and looking back was something cynical, something brutally ironic. Since then our cynicism has grown, but with it our sense of humor. This isn’t straight Pop, nor is it Chinese art or some pastiche of Soviet-era propaganda. China-ism is a tip of the cap to all three. We’re not exactly laughing, but the urge doesn’t completely escape us either.

The Vasily Kandinsky show is a trip back in time to when the Guggenheim first opened its doors, to when Frank Lloyd Wright’s building was still considered a subtle slight on urban architecture. You are getting Hilla Rebay’s Guggenheim, Solomon’s Guggenheim: a place with a fluid and expressive spirituality. There are many shows at this place that simply don’t work because the interior displays are too constricting. Kandinsky’s Guggenheim works effortlessly.

There is little common ground these Kandinsky’s share, if any. But don’t let that dissuade you from taking in both in one day. Look at it as a playful leap, from abstraction’s birth to the test-tube bastard of Pop.