By Peter Plagens
The Guggenheim Museum in New York has just opened a retrospective (continuing through Jan. 13) of Vasily Kandinsky, the man who—so legend has it—invented modern abstract painting. Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky was a lawyer who was offered a university teaching job before he took up the study of painting at 30. He fled the Bolsheviks' stifling cultural policies to teach at the revolutionary Bauhaus art school in Germany. Barely a dozen years later, in 1933, the Nazis shut down the school and Kandinsky escaped to France, where he died in liberated Paris in December 1944. In this photograph, Kandinsky sits before a later abstraction (yes, those early modernists sometimes did wear suits when they painted), in which his shapes had crystallized from earlier, brushier forms into precise, hard-edge configurations that look like microbes in outer space.
Although Kandinsky is credited with inventing abstract painting by gradually simplifying the houses, horses, trees, and hills from his expressionist phase, the ingredients in Kandinsky's abstractions were always intended to mean something in and of themselves. In 1911, he published a book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which explained, for instance, that a triangle was the shape of humanity's upward struggle to reach perfection, that blue was the color of calm, that red signified force, and that white was the hue of a silence brimming with possibilities. Painters today take many of these meanings for granted, but it was Kandinsky who first demonstrated that colors, shapes, and lines could convey powerful emotions all by themselves. Painters who came after Kandinsky took that ball, so to speak, and ran with it. Here's a look at how Kandinsky's aesthetic DNA has continued and thrived in painting right to the present day.
By Peter Plagens