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
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. …