Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Weird Science

Although the purpose of this blog was always intended to be personal reflections on the arts, I wouldn't normally go so far as this, to the point of it sounding like a journal. But the day I went to see the Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim, I had to check to make sure there wasn't a full moon (there wasn't). The entire experience was just so bizarre, I had to describe it.

First of all, on my short walk down from the Cooper-Hewitt to the Guggenheim, I pass by this woman whose front driver's side tire had dislodged a faulty manhole cover. So her white mini-van or whatever had literally dropped down into the manhole as she pulled out of her parking spot. She didn't seem all that upset about it talking on her cellphone, but definitely an irritating thing to happen. I'm so annoyed that I'd forgotten my camera that day, because it really was one of those just-when-you-think-you've-seen-everything-in-New-York kind of moments. I hope the city reimburses her for the damage to her vehicle, because they should be grateful she was moving slowly and the accident wasn't worse.

Then inside the museum, about a third of the way through the show, I get distracted by this lost little four- or five-year old blonde girl with pigtails down on the ground floor SCREAMING bloody murder, "MOM!!! MOOOM!!! MOOOM!!!" up into the atrium for about fifteen minutes straight. There was a woman or two--other mothers, presumably--trying to talk to her to calm her down unsuccessfully. Strangely, there was no security guard anywhere near the little girl, just this woman and a bunch of museum visitors standing around staring at her. Why an employee of the museum wasn't coming to this little girl's rescue, I have no idea. What's even more bizarre is that any parent could possibly lose a screaming child in the middle of the atrium of the Guggenheim, where she can be clearly seen from every other part of the museum, practically.

Then this weird alarm starts going off from around the fourth floor. It was somewhat intermittent and didn't sound like a fire alarm. I don't know if that's the museum's Lost Child Alarm or what, but no one seemed to be responding to it or attempting to turn it off. All this chaos was enough that about half the museum visitors--including myself--had gathered around the inside of the spiral to see what the hell was going on. It didn't appear that the child had been reunited with her parent, but she eventually stopped screaming. I assume she's in an orphanage or something now.

It was very busy that day, on top of it all. Since, as I said, every part of the museum is basically open to the entire space, when it's busy there, there really is no way to get away from all the noise. And with the screaming child and the alarm, I decided to ask this museum attendant when the quietest time of the week is there. He said Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, which isn't a surprise, probably the best time to go to any New York museum. But the Met says first thing in the morning, so I was like, "really? the afternoon?" He reminded me that the big school groups come in the mornings.

He was very nice and said he noticed I was looking at the paintings relatively closely. He asked if there were anything I wanted to discuss about the pieces. I couldn't really think of anything but just said the show was fantastic, and I've long been a fan of Kandinsky. It's really true. One of the things that initiated my love of architecture was learning everything I possibly could about the Bauhaus when I was, like, fourteen--a long, looong time ago. I mentioned reading of the suspicion that Wright very much had these works in mind when he designed the building, since the Guggenheim's Kandinsky collection is so extensive. We both agreed that the paintings look really fantastic there.

I do look closely, as closely as I can. I mean, I get my eyeballs right up in there. The brushstrokes of a painting, the thinness and thickness of the paint, the textures, all those things absolutely tell the story of how the work was created. It's indispensable to understanding a painting, in my opinion. It's bad enough that the museum is set up in such a way that you can't get closer than about three feet from some of the paintings. But I just don't get these people. I was constantly walking in front of people to look more closely, always keeping etiquette in mind, of course; I don't block anyone's view. But these people are looking at these paintings from like twenty-five feet away. How can you possibly even see anything from that distance? Weird. And there are certain important things Kandinsky was doing that you could not even fathom if you don't look very closely for them.

Then, as I was waiting on a bench by the park to catch the bus to come home, a woman passed by me with her dog. Something had happened to the dog's back legs, so they were mostly lame. It was able to walk on its front legs and kind of put the back ones one in front of the other, but they were mostly dragging. It had to have booties on its back paws so they wouldn't get all scratched up on the pavement. The dog had a harness on its hind-quarters with a handle the woman was holding up to help it walk. It did look like the kind of physical therapy for the dog that would eventually allow it to walk perfectly after some time. Still, I'm an animal lover, and my heart just completely broke seeing that. It made me so sad.

Finally, in the 59th Street N & R subway station, I almost smacked right into this ex-coworker of mine from Rockefeller Center, this great guy Don. Coincidentally, he also worked at Lincoln Center before me, so he knows all of these same people that I do. He's this totally hilarious, like, eighty-year old male hustler who's always hanging out with these Park Avenue billionairesses who take him to Paris or Tokyo for the weekend or out on their yachts. I'm kidding about the hustler part, but the stinking rich old ladies just seem to adore him. I think it's because he's always telling dirty jokes, so they think he's a bad boy or something. He's just a plain old riot. It was great to bump into him.

But see what I mean? The whole day was just weird.

And into this mix falls the amazing Kandinsky show. On to the paintings...

Wassily Kandinsky was born just three days after me (in an earlier year), so perhaps there's some astrological reason I've always been a huge fan of his work. It's interesting that the show starts in 1901, when the artist was already thirty-four years old. It's fairly obvious his work wasn't particularly striking or perhaps important until he was forty or forty-one. But I'm still tempted to wonder about his early years as a painter, to the point of what his work was like when he was still a student, for instance. In any case, I prefer his later works by far, so I'm going to pass over a few of the earlier ones.

Riding Couple (1907, all works oil on canvas except where otherwise noted). Most can be clicked for larger views.
--This and following image courtesy Wassily Kandinsky.
I'm really not all that crazy about his representational works. Maybe I'm a Modernism Snob, I don't know. They do make him a fascinating link between the Impressionists and the Expressionists. But more than that, his later work makes infinitely more sense when you look at how he got there. Suddenly, his precise, geometric explorations become landscapes and objects and people in them.

Improvisation Gorge (1914, oil and tempera on canvas)
At center foreground is one of the only things one might grasp onto in seeing this as a landscape, aside from the title. It's a bit difficult to see in this small file, but it's fairly easily identified as a couple walking arm-in-arm along a sort of boardwalk or sidewalk. It's quite subtle in this one, but I think what I dislike about the inclusion of this is that it takes me outside the realm of the painting itself, distracts me. When I think of abstraction, I think of a personal expression, a dialogue about the nature of the medium, the nature of what it means to paint. After photography and especially film, it was no longer necessary for painting to concern itself with either recording ways of seeing or with narrative.

In Gray (1919)
--This and following image courtesy About.
This was one of the first truly abstract pieces in the show that I really liked. It's hinting at landscape, and isn't all that far off from Gorge, but without distractions. Still, Kandinsky hadn't really found his voice. I don't think it's too big of a stretch to say this could have been Gorky. He hadn't yet found the precision to fully describe his formal understanding of the canvas.

Red Spot II (1921)
Here's where it all starts to happen. As with most paintings, this looks far better in person. But he's started to break apart all the disparate elements that can and do make up a work of art: proportion, weight, composition, line, color, texture, and he's begun to treat each one individually. He has so much less ambiguity than O'Keeffe. Everything is clearly marked out.

Composition 8 (1923)
--Image courtesy Beacon Hill Academy.
It's this period in Kandinsky's career that I love most. So precise, so diagrammatic, so beautifully geometric. It comes out quite prominently in the Bauhaus show (which will need its own separate post) that much of his work during this time, and Paul Klee's also, is so intimately connected to their studies and experiments for educational purposes. Kandinsky wasn't just creating a painting, but fully plotting out the nature of composition. It's also a moment where we are suddenly catapulted eyes first into an exuberant celebration of the Machine Age.

Yellow, Red, Blue (1925)
--Image courtesy UCLA Genetics.
Although his work and László Moholy-Nagy's had some things in common, Moholy-Nagy was a bit more focused on how the perception of an imagined three-dimensional environment would affect the "objectness" of his forms. With Kandinsky, it remains a bit more difficult to pin down because his forms aren't trying to be three dimensional. It's the way that a number of adjacent fields of color are arranged in such a way as to suggest two objects overlapping one another. But is the one on top of the other or vice versa? Furthermore, what space in depth does this relationship occupy?

Moholy-Nagy's work seems to abide by a more formal logic: one object overlaps another to lighten its tone, an object of one color overlapping one of another color affects the intersection in a predictable way. Kandinsky's color choices, on the other hand, are more arbitrary, drawing even further contrast with the viewer's desire to "objectify" the forms. And maybe this is the point. The desire, perhaps even the necessity, to interpret cues in our field of vision as objects in space is so very primary to human vision and visual cognition in general. By getting so close to this phenomena and yet adeptly thwarting it all the while, Kandinsky was exploring the very notion of how seeing operates.

Light (1930, oil on cardboard)
--Image courtesy Princess Rada.
This was one of my favorite pieces in the show. It's relatively small compared to most of the others, but it's really beautiful. I actually suspect that its diminutive size helps it to be a very interesting transitional work. He couldn't work at his usual scale and fit quite as much into this comparatively small area. He'd been heading in this direction, already, gathering his compositional elements together into discreet, organized bundles. But here we get just this one singular and isolated object dominating the scene. The darker blue lines and red spots I read as either auxiliary, orbiting bodies intimately related to the larger one or, extrapolating perhaps too far, the remnants of its motion. The darker red rectangle we may understand later to be a kind of key, placard, caption, or sidebar, which effectively nullifies its participation in the greater image.

All of this becomes suddenly more fine-tuned and developed when he moves to Paris and starts interacting with the surrealists there, namely Arp, Ernst, Klee, and Miró. [And since clearly nobody heard me the first time: somebody really needs to do an Arp show.]

Blue World (1934, oil with sand on canvas)
--Image courtesy Centre Pompidou.
The use of the sand is especially interesting for him, because it's not used as an isolated bit of texture to highlight one area against a smooth background. Rather, he's used it uniformly throughout the entire piece. It gives the work a textural, three-dimensional presence, but then negates that quality at the same time by offering nothing else in comparison. The objects in the scene have become fully realized, discreet surrealist objects. His surrealism is far tighter and clinical than his Parisian contemporaries, and decidedly more scientific as well. It almost looks like a twisted rendering of a biology laboratory as seen from above.

Succession (1935)
--Image courtesy C-Monster.
This goes even further, in presenting a very rigid cataloguing of various forms. These are types, however, not tokens. In other words, these are no more the "real" versions of these objects than would be a drawing of a seagull in a biology textbook. It isn't an actual seagull, it's an example of a possible, hypothetical seagull, a type of bird. The fact that what Kandinsky is cataloguing are types of things that have no tokens makes this piece about the cataloguing process itself. There's also something hieroglyphic about the treatment, another thread that begins to run through his work.

Dominant Curve (1936)
--This and all following images courtesy About.
This is one of my favorite pieces of his. Here at top left is another one of those "keys" or "captions." But captioning this as what? Is it a landscape, an object, or a landscape filled with objects? And just as the quality of being a key nullifies the presence of that rectangle from the depicted scene, it also casts a shadow of clinical doubt over the rest of the canvas. Does this depict an actual (imaginary) something or merely a type of something?

Grouping (1939)
A "grouping" of squiggly Martian biological things.

Various Parts (1940)
This is performing many of the same functions but goes even further. The field of brown at left is particularly striking since it's so different in tone from the rest of the piece. There's something ancient, almost anthropological about it, like something found on the wall of some forgotten temple. But then two of the spikes from the object in it cross over into what is clearly a different realm: the distinction is not absolute. The white strip above the blue bar at center also has a kind of hieroglyphic quality. But the forms, "objects," throughout are not all that different in character from one another. One might be inclined to suggest that this depicts actual (surreal) things, two-dimensional renderings (as in line drawings) of those things, and descriptions of them, that is, generalized symbols representing those types of things. Once again, it all fits together into a sort of diagram as if from a science textbook. This chapter, I suspect, is about the nature of symbolic painting and how it communicates with the viewer.

Sky Blue (1940)
More weird creaturey things swimming around.

I suspect most everyone has seen this by now, but the show goes on until January 13th, 2010.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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