By Danto, Arthur Coleman
The Nation , Vol. 240
The Guggenheim Museum's final installment of a three-stage biographically motivated exhibition of the work of Vasily Kandinsky will be on display through April 14. It is greatly to the museum's credit that it should memorialize in this manner an artist so closely linked with its own historical identity. "Piety," Santayana said, "is loyalty to the sources of our being." There is also a particular justice in giving the entire museum over to only the last decade in Kandinsky's life, as this is at once his least familiar period and the one least appreciated and understood.
The horizons of Kandinsky's life during this decade, spent in a Paris drained of light first by war and then by the German occupation, were scarcely wider than the walls of his studio, which he filled with compensatory colors. And though he managed a muted participation in the activities of a quiescent art world, he was for the most part on his own. Drawn in on himself as he was, it is hardly surprising that the sense conveyed by Kandinsky's paintings is that of a look into a private world populated by tiny beings of indeterminate biology. He was creating a world of his own in these last years rather than seeking to transform the larger world, as he had in his earlier periods, first in Munich and then in Dessau and Weimar. The overwhelming impression provoked by the exhibition, which requires that we measure it against the circumstances of his life, is that of a great artist who has entered his Altestil, the expression used by art historians to designate the late style of painters who have grown old without growing dry or weak.
Kandinsky was a vigorous painter to the end, and there is an endearing jauntness, an almost jazzy cadence, in the syncopated deployment of biomorphic forms. These forms, laterally related to shapes in Miro and Arp and, above all, in Klee, who had been Kandinsky's close friend and colleague in their Bauhaus days, were to become matrices for the decorative motifs of art moderne. It is all the more important, therefore, that we see them as the distillations of a lifetime, the emblems chosen by a man determined to show that whatever the critics and collectors might think, there was plenty of dance left. It is almost as though the minuscule organisms carry the promise of growth and exuberance, however reduced their world.
"Each for Himself," painted in April 1934, only a few months after his arrival in Paris, is dominated by nine forms in a three-by-three array, each having the shape of a living cell, or perhaps an amniotic sac, and each containing some energized and vital creature as its nucleus. The suggestion of isolation and potentiality could not be more elegantly achieved. Each of these creatures, swimming in different colored fluids, represents a distinct artistic possibility: each could generate a different species of form. It is a wonderfully optimistic image.
What one wants in the Altestil of a serious artist is continuity and synthesis, the final harmonious conjunction of the strands of a life. We do not expect a radically new style since that would be a repudiation, an effort, as it were, to proclaim a spurious youth. Nor do we want repetitions of what went before, which would imply a falling away of creativity. By these criteria it would be difficult to find a more fulfilling coda than that furnished by the paintings and watercolors of this show. They incorporate and transform what preceded them, and they point to a future, if there is to be a future.
In Kandinsky's first phase, marked, of course, by the discovery of abstract or nonobjective painting, the forms are typically organic, even if they lack a precise biological identity. They refer us, if not to birds and insects or to winged creatures generally, then to the idea of flying matter. These early paintings radiate the optimism of a man who has entered a new life--Kandinsky was 30, with a degree in law and a future in academia, when he moved, abruptly, to Munich to become an artist--one who has been the first to set foot in an unexplored world of artistic possibilities. …