“If fate grants me sufficient time, I shall discover a new international language that will be eternal, and will develop infinitely . . .
It is called painting.”
Vasily Kandinsky

So reads a wall text at the entrance to the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Kandinsky, serving as a reminder that the artist’s aspiration towards the spiritual in painting was not solely a matter of self-realisation, but reflected a monumental ambition to shape the future of art. Eighty years after Kandinsky’s death, the world abounds with abstract painters who owe much to the ideas that he and others like Piet Mondrian articulated in the first half of the twentieth century.

But if the visual dynamics of Mondrian’s paintings seem only an arm’s length away from the art of the twenty-first century, Kandinsky’s treatment of shapes and colours, like words in a sentence, produced coded pictures that have not become any easier to penetrate with the passing of time. While his early landscapes and experiments towards abstraction are highlights of the first decade of the twentieth century, the full embrace of abstraction sometimes brought him to the point of over-thinking the art of painting. The circularity of Kandinsky’s experimentation is another factor that makes him difficult to fathom. While some artists are fortunate to find an image that encapsulates their searching, it’s not easy to say where he ended up, or which paintings are supposed to be the best, especially in his middle and later phases.

Kandinsky offers the prospect of a proper evaluation of his achievement. The AGNSW has billed it as a comprehensive survey and set its ticket prices higher than the National Gallery of Victoria did for Bonnard in 2023. This assembly of works is, however, less impressive. Drawn almost entirely from the Guggenheim Museum’s collection, which is extensive and does include many key works, there are significant moments in Kandinsky’s development that needed to be better represented for the artist to be seen at his energetic best.

The most consequential omission is of the watercolours of 1910 to 1913, works that are unmatched in conveying the sense of unlimited potential in his early encounters with non-representation. In the tantalisingly titled Untitled (First abstract watercolour), 1910, held by the Centre Georges Pompidou, and MoMA’s Watercolour No. 14, 1913, Kandinsky turned the intangible world of the imagination into a sheet of suggestive, graphic touches with such phenomenal acuity, the word visionary is justified. In their absence the AGNSW’s Study for ‘Painting with white border,’ 1913, is not a strong alternative. The Tate Gallery’s Cossacks, 1910, would have shown Kandinsky translating the freshness of his watercolours into oil painting, but instead we have the laboured Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912. Bringing the best works of this phase to Sydney would have made this a very different show.

The exhibition’s strength lies in its presentation of the artist’s later phases, in which a steady evolution becomes apparent. Pink Sweet, 1929, is one of several serenely perfect paintings from this period, executed with a restrained touch made possible by the artist’s total faith in what his mind’s eye had revealed to him; when you’re painting the truth, there’s no need for flourish. In Around the Circle, 1940, we encounter the paradox of luminous darkness, a light that is neither terrestrial nor alien. It is no small feat for a picture with a flat, dark-green ground to achieve such air and mystery.

Paintings like these provide some sense of culmination in the exhibition. While Kandinsky never divested his work of worldly associations (examined closely, the forms of the later work resemble a strange synthesis of amoebas and puzzles) he succeeded in orienting painting away from everyday reality towards a rarefied realm of his own creation. The older artist did overcome the finicky self-consciousness that sometimes afflicted his work; perhaps the demonstration of that fact is enough to have made the show worthwhile.

Yet Kandinsky must be the most ambivalently staged, single-artist survey I’ve ever seen. Priced like a blockbuster but buried two floors beneath entrance level in cramped quarters, at a time when the AGNSW has never had so much space, I’m not sure whether the show amounts to an honour or a slight for its subject. The placement of a substantial group of Georgiana Houghton’s drawings behind sheer, black curtains just near the entrance encapsulates the Gallery’s equivocation. Here (Kandinsky) is the mainstream view of art history (which we’re not quite ready to abandon) but on your way in, what about this artist?

Houghton’s drawings are intriguing and beautiful. Precisely what her practice of contacting spirits as a source for artistic inspiration has to do with Kandinsky’s vision of a spiritual art requires thoughtful consideration. The question of whether her drawings necessitate a substantive re-telling of how abstract art evolved is also complicated. But presenting these two artists in proximity as a gesture towards a revised history is an inadequate way to broach the issues, planting a doubt about the value of Kandinsky while consigning Houghton to a position on his periphery.

Images courtesy of the artist, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection.

4 November 2023 – 10 March 2024 
Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney 

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