An Artist Distilled Kandinsky Show Centers on Essential Work

Article excerpt

IT'S an extraordinary phenomenon. Vasily Kandinsky is packing 'em in at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There was no reason to believe that yet one more exhibition of work by the Russian abstract pioneer would attract the kinds of entranced crowds that this one has.

The Guggenheim Museum, after all, owns an enormous amount of Kandinsky's work; in fact, museum and artist have become paired by popular definition. And the Guggenheim has with great frequency shown its own Kandinskys and combined them with loans. This was done most exhaustively in three major exhibitions in the early '80s, corresponding to Kandinsky's three periods (usually identified by where he lived): Munich (1896-1914); Russia and the Bauhaus in Germany (1914-1933); Paris (1933 until his death at the age of 77, in 1944).

None of those massive exhibitions, however, managed to make the case for Kandinsky's singing color, the percussive rhythms of his shifting form, the thunderous orchestrations of meaning and metaphor in his painting that the relatively tiny "Compositions" show at the Museum of Modern Art does.

This is an exhibition that consists of seven major paintings and 33 studies and paintings that relate to them. It is, in fact, an exhibition that hinges on a single work: the climactic, apocalyptic "Composition VII," which Kandinsky painted in four intense days, between Nov. 25 and Nov. 28, 1913, having first worked out his ideas in 30 drawings, paintings and watercolors.

Until almost the last minute, however, it was a cliff-hanger as to whether "Composition VII" would arrive at all to make sense of the exhibition, which runs at the Modern through April 25. The catalog had already gone to the printer last fall when curator Magdalena Dabrowski received word for sure that the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow would be lending the work.

Except for a brief appearance in Moscow, it had been in storage since a 1963 visit to the Guggenheim. That accounts for its perfect condition, but it also accounts for the fact that no one else had attempted what Dabrowski accomplished: to distill the artist's work to the paintings Kandinsky considered most central, just as he, in his paintings, found a way to distill images, colors, narrative and symbols to their most profound essentials.

Kandinsky painted 10 "Compositions" in his life - the first seven in Munich between 1910 and 1913, the last three in Weimar and Paris between 1923 and 1939. The first three were lost during World War II and are represented in the show by studies and black-and-white photographs.

He approached the "Compositions" the way painters since the Renaissance have approached their great set pieces: as big, ambitious culminating moments in the procession of his ideas and the process of his painting. …