Nowadays when you say Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, everybody thinks of Frank Lloyd Wright's wedding cake design. But before then, it was the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, in which Peggy Guggenheim's Uncle Sol indulged the passion of his principal advisor, the Baroness Hilla Von Rebay and her sometime boyfriend, Rudolf Bauer, for the art of Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944). In all, the Guggenheim today owns 67 paintings by that Russian-born master, plus several hundred of his works on paper. And it has put approximately 80 of his paintings, watercolors, and woodcuts, as well as a selection of his illustrated books, on long-term display in the upper reaches of its rotunda. The show is called "Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle" and it offers a signal opportunity to reacquaint oneself with this most original and memorable Older Master (through September 5, 2022).
To be sure, not everybody shares Bauer's taste for Kandinsky's later work. By this, I mean the hard-edged, geometric, abstract and often smaller paintings that he created roughly from World War I onward. These were made after he'd left Germany to go back to Russia with the outbreak of the war, plus the brief postwar period when he attempted to fit in with the new Soviet regime in Russia, the period from 1922 to 1933 when he taught at the Bauhaus in Germany, and his final years in France after the Nazis closed the Bauhaus down.
Already by 1941, the beginning of World War II, the New York cognoscenti of the day (including the future abstract expressionists) preferred Kandinsky's earlier work, even his earliest – woodcuts and small paintings made between ca. 1901-02 and 1907. These were painted when he was still young and newly settled in southern Germany near Munich and had only recently completed his studies in art school there; these works are still representational—in somewhat the style of Art Nouveau.
But then – between 1908 and 1913 -- Kandinsky began to evolve, from representational to semi-abstract and finally abstract. One can follow the progression through an extended handful of paintings in this show. In "Blue Mountain" (1908), horses and riders prance across the bottom of the picture, while a semi-abstract mountain rises behind them.
In "Improvisation 28 (Second Version)" (1912) the floating forms are fragmented, and hard to read. There may be a boat, a serpent and a cannon on the left, plus an embracing couple and a candle on the right. Then again, there may not.
"Black Lines" (December 1913) is definitely abstract. To the extent that it resembles anything in the natural world, it looks like a sea of exploding balloons – red, green, white, yellow and blue, embellished with squiggles of black lines – mostly but not exclusively in the upper left hand portion of the picture.
There is a lot of talk about who was the first to paint abstractly, with Malevich in the running along with Kandinsky, and at least a couple of other artists whose names escape me at the moment. But – as I have already hinted a couple of times in recent postings – it is entirely possible to paint a bad abstraction, so the important thing to know is, who was the first to paint a good one – because it's the good examples that persuade other artists to try and follow in somebody else's footsteps.
And I'd say that Kandinsky is definitely in the running, on the basis of the small handful of paintings in this show, and even though one has to climb to the very top of the rotunda to see them. They're more than a century old by now, but there is still something very fresh and spontaneous about them. Maybe this is what the old ab-exers liked.