Kandinsky: Tactical, Operational, Strategic
Review of Lisa Florman, Concerning the Spiritual and the Concrete in Kandinsky’s Art. Stanford University Press, 2014. 280 pp., 24 color ills., 49 b/w. $90 cloth; $25.95 paper.
Imagine two trees: one rooted in a landscape and one painted on canvas. We see both as beautiful. Yet there’s a difference. The real tree is beautiful as a natural object. We experience pleasure in perceiving its sensuous materiality. But as we regard it, we come to realize that the tree is just one particular incarnation of arboreal perfection. Our recognition of its contingency impinges upon our capacity to apprehend the essential beauty of the tree. Its external form does not sufficiently reveal to us the principle of its internal unity, the essence that constitutes its tree-ness as such. The tree–like all living things–fails, one might say, to fully embody the Idea of the Beautiful. The flesh hides the soul. The tree represented in the painting, on the other hand, creates the possibility of apprehending a beauty that appears beyond the contingencies of any actual tree we might encounter. In rendering the concept of beauty in a determinate but virtual form, the artist produces the concrete appearance of the Beautiful as such.
Imagine two surfaces: one, a flat stretch of canvas secured to a physical support; the other, a picture plane. What’s the difference? The canvas is an actual piece of fabric upon which a painter will apply physical material with brushes, rags, and trowels to render an image, whether abstract or representational. The picture plane is an immaterial and intangible screen of pictorial projection. The image that sustains the virtual reality of the depiction is neither identical to nor reducible to the pigment and canvas that literally constitute its configuration. The picture plane, we might say, is that aspect of the actual canvas that achieves a certain freedom from its materiality and establishes the painting as a work of art (or, to use a term that will become important further on, a tableau). Its “flatness” is of a different order than that of the actually flat canvas: it is flatness, as some might say, that has been re-created.1 To establish the distinction between those two kinds of surfaces–that is, to make paintings that somehow both acknowledge their facticity, yet liberate themselves from the scaffolding of their fundamentally physical nature–is, or so Lisa Florman argues, the dialectical motive that drives the development of Kandinsky’s art.
In a meticulous study that investigates the technical strategies and theoretical articulation of that development, Florman makes a major contribution to our understanding of the history of modernist abstraction. (I use “modernist” instead of “modern” to indicate the appearance within Kandinsky’s art, and voiced by his theory, of a certain commitment to self-criticism carried out in relation to the art and philosophy of the recent past, including his own.) Florman sets out to explain how Kandinsky’s enterprise exhibits a “dialectical logic” (or what the artist dubbed an “inner necessity”), the chief feature of which is demonstrating that the factual determinants of his paintings, including the material out of which they are made, are not constitutive of them as works of art. She balances her impeccable accounts of particular works with equally scrupulous readings of various philosophical texts that help disclose the stakes of that claim–sources which range from Kandinsky’s own writing, to Hegel’s Aesthetics, to an important and heretofore overlooked essay on the artist by Alexandre Kojève. Florman’s analysis is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of modernist abstraction and, indeed, for any writer seeking a model of descriptive exactitude in the face of visual art.
A crucial aspect of Kandinsky’s dialectical logic concerned the degree to which he felt it necessary–after abandoning the security of reference afforded by conventions of naturalistic modeling and three-dimensional perspective, and embarking on a program of radical abstraction–to guard himself against the charge that his painterly configurations were reducible to mere designs on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas. After all, traditional art had succeeded quite effectively in virtually dematerializing the actual planar surface of the canvas through spatial verisimilitude. Because mimetic easel painting presents its viewers with a volumetric world and the objects and bodies contained therein, it seems as if automatically to overcome the physical flatness of the support (as if subsuming it into immaterial, visual illusionism). Yet the turn towards abstraction, with its seemingly flattened, nonrepresentational patterns of shape and color, threatened to undermine illusionism and to reduce art to its tangible, material basis. Should Kandinsky’s picture “collapse onto a single, continuous plane,” Florman suggests, his goal of “creating an imagined. . . depth capable of displacing attention from the canvas and its material presence” would be compromised (76; 89-90). In theory, Kandinsky solved the dilemma by associating representation with materiality, and then transcending it by eliminating all vestiges of representational content (50-51). In practice, it meant developing techniques that would produce the pictorial effect or illusion of the picture’s non-tangibility.
The dialectic of materialization and dematerialization that Florman identifies in Kandinsky’s work was advanced by the artist’s development of his Quetschtechnik around 1912. By squashing the hairs of a brush against the canvas surface during the application of color, Kandinsky produced textured passages of paint that appeared by turns to rest on the physical surfaces of his paintings yet suddenly to be suspended within a shallow yet perceptible spatial dimension. Kandinsky employed the technique consistently for the following decade, and Florman locates its significance in its creation of a “fundamental spatial ambivalence” that enabled the painter simultaneously to assert the medium’s physical characteristics and to transcend them. Quoting portions of Kandinsky’s own analysis of Painting with White Border (1913), Florman explains:
From up close, we are quite aware of the tangible materiality of those “little points and mounds” [left by the Quetschtechnik]. From a distance, however, their tactile presence withdraws–especially in those instances where the brush being “squashed” was relatively dry. There, a “feeling of ‘somewhere’” arises once again: form “blurs” and appears to dissolve into the indefinite, illusory space of the tableau. In these places, the patches of pigment seem to shuttle back and forth in inverse relation to our own position. When we’re standing close enough to see their faktura, they plainly project forward from the canvas. But when we take several steps back, they too recede–into the atmospheric depth of the composition. (89)
Florman is describing painterly passages such as the set of blue “Quetschen” (literally “squashes”) that appear near the upper left corner of the picture, just outside the left-most arc of the troika motif. The areas of paint deposited by the Quetschtechnik have the “ability to take up positions on either side of [the] physical surface [of the painting], to project literally forward of the picture plane, even as, in the next moment, [their] tangible materiality withdraws into the illusionistic space of the tableau” (90). That, in turn, permits Kandinsky to “dissolve [the viewer’s] awareness of the surface as surface, thereby transforming canvas and pigment into… a realized tableau,” or work of art (92).
The oscillation between Kandinsky’s new pictorial mode of abstract space and the canvas’s actual planarity–the latter of which it was his stated aim to overcome–propels his practice over the next decade. Considering Red Spot II (1921), for instance, Florman notices the insistent frontality of its varied elements. Almost all these flattened geometries are contained within a white trapezoid that seems to extend beyond the painting’s framing edges (since it is intersected at its corners, the shape we literally see is an irregular octagon). The presence of such an extensive monochromatic field, against which two-dimensional forms appear fronto-parallel to the picture plane, prompts Florman to connect Kandinsky’s composition to the precedent of Kasimir Malevich, in whose Suprematist works planar shapes often appear to float against continuous grounds. Yet–and this is a crucial point–she understands Kandinsky’s decision to forgo such a continuous ground plane, and to delimit the white expanse in Red Spot II, as a targeted strategy for dematerializing the canvas itself as any kind of “ground,” physical or perceptual. I quote Florman’s unmatched formal analysis at length:
The central white ground doesn’t read consistently as “ground”–doesn’t even read as wholly planar–because we feel as though we’re looking through a kind of aperture into a space behind. The differences among the four distinct components of the frame further deepen the complexity, since each seems to take up a different position vis-à-vis the central section. The purple of the lower left corner can be perceived as either lying underneath (but fairly close to) the white field–that field casting a small shadow upon it–or, alternatively, as a closer, more tangible presence (the darker touches in that instance suggesting the downward slope of its own beveled edge). The brown in the lower right corner includes no really comparable spatial markers, and so appears either flush with the central white field or perhaps laid directly overtop it (in either case, concretizing that central section as a two-dimensional plane). The upper right corner, which Kandinsky treated with his Quetschtechnik, is a great deal more ambiguous, thanks to both its literal tactility and the deliberate blurring of the edge that joins it to the central field. Viewed from close up, we’re conscious that it resides above or on top of that central area, whereas from a distance it seems to lose its solidity altogether, implying the collateral breakup or dissolve of the adjacent monochromatic white plane. The black area in the upper left of the composition suggests the deepest space of all; in describing it, scholars have frequently resorted to astronomical imagery. Together, the composition’s four mismatched corners manage to dislocate the central white section of Red Spot II and render it wholly indeterminate: now it appears as surface (oscillating between near and far), now as infinite abyss.
Florman goes on to say that this perceptual indeterminacy (or as I would prefer to call it, ambiguity) causes the painting’s colorful forms to “shuttle back and forth” between the illusory depth of the tableau and a virtual plane forward of its actual surface.2 It turns out that “illusion” has a lot of work left to do, even after the conventional illusionism of mimetic easel painting has been rejected.3
There are several points in this remarkable description worthy of attention, but I want to excavate one that I think remains latent in Florman’s observations regarding the difficulty in settling what role the white field plays in Kandinsky’s painting. Is it a virtual plane, either near or far, in front of which we are meant to see the picture’s shapes hovering? Or is it a kind of limitless aspect glimpsed beyond the “frame” created by mismatched corners? Provocatively, it is both. But these questions themselves, because they are addressed to judgments of perceptual effect, presuppose that the white field’s variable role–whatever we at any moment decide it to be–is already a pictorial one. In asking them, we have willingly involved ourselves in the imagined order of the fictional world of the work of art. Which is to say, the questions presuppose that Kandinsky has already suspended or overcome a viewer’s awareness of the white field, and by extension the shapes and areas in and around it, as consubstantial with the painting’s material substrate. Perhaps this is as it should be: as Florman has labored to point out, it was precisely the identification of painting with literal flatness that provoked Kandinsky’s project of transcending the canvas’s surface materiality. In Red Spot II, this occurs on two fronts. First, and as we’ve seen, the ambiguous dimensional effects that Kandinsky’s white field and its strange aperture create successfully neutralize a viewer’s sense of the plane as the literal “ground” upon which the compositional elements are physically arranged and to which they ostensibly adhere. But second–and this is the point I find latent in Florman’s analysis–Kandinsky also eliminates the sense that the white field is a perceptual “ground” necessary for the abstract figures to appear in their gestalt integrity (note the play of transparency where the red arch overlaps a blue wedge to bring the “ground” of white into the colored “figure,” as if disturbing the supposed rules of perception from within). The shapes of Kandinsky’s composition achieve an independence that seems to make their momentary assembly an apparently self-legislating affair.
Florman suggests that each division of Kandinsky’s project (painting and theory) is marshaled in support of a fundamental vision of what art and its development might mean as a model of self-governance, self-criticism, autonomy, and freedom. Thus self-legislation–not just how it is present as a theme in Kandinsky’s writings on art, but how he achieves it pictorially and thus renders it integral to the content of his paintings–emerges as a key term by which Florman helps correct our still skewed picture of Kandinsky’s putative “expressionism” and “spirituality” (his interest, easy enough to explain, in fashionable contemporary discourses such as Theosophy, Eastern mysticism, and the occult). His acrobatic enterprise–of thinking about painting, and then thinking about how to make thinking about painting part of a practice that informs how one thinks–is concrete, not otherworldly. As we shall see, the critical autonomy Florman identifies in the dialectic of materialism and dematerialization is central to grasping Kandinsky’s concept of Spirit as he articulated it in Über das Geistige in der Kunst (1909-10, published 1911/12).
It was Alexandre Kojève who supplied the arboreal conceit with which I began this review. Kojève (1902-1968) was a Russian-born French philosopher of aesthetics, particularly Hegel’s. He was also Kandinsky’s nephew. In 1936, he penned “Les Peintures concrètes de Kandinsky,” an essay that was intended to frame a history of painting according to its own logic of development, one that, not surprisingly, had culminated in the “concrete objectivity” of Kandinsky’s art. Attending to the intellectual relationship between the two, or so Florman argues, helps reveal the fundamentally Hegelian structure of the painter’s practice.
From 1933 to 1939, Kojève led a seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the École des hautes études in Paris, where Kandinsky had settled in 1933.4 Kandinsky, having been in regular contact with Kojève since 1929, convinced his nephew to write “Les Peintures concrètes,” a tract that was published only in 1985 (although a shorter, revised version had appeared in 1966). In what must have constituted a tactical intervention on Kojève’s part, the philosopher–although a notable interpreter of Hegel and well aware of Kandinsky’s own deep engagement with Hegel’s precedent–found it expedient to avoid all mention of Geist or Spirit, framing his uncle’s work instead in terms of the Beautiful (“Le Beau”). Why? Perhaps Kojève sought not simply to liberate himself from the burden of having to rehearse Hegel’s complex system to define his terms, but to free Kandinsky’s painting, and art in general, from Hegel’s infamous charge that art had already served its role in the historical development of Spirit. Having studied the work of Vladimir Soloviev, whose philosophical system, unlike Hegel’s, preserved for art a vital role in humanity’s ongoing project of achieving freedom (the “Absolute,” or concrete universality), Kojève advances the centrality of the Beautiful to that collective aim. Especially, he stresses throughout his analysis of Kandinsky’s paintings the significance of the difference between the two kinds of beauty that his allegory of the trees was meant to reveal. The Beautiful comes to function for Kojève as a way of articulating the ontological distinction between Kandinsky’s art and its objecthood.
Recall that Kandinsky’s apprehension, in pursuing an abstract idiom that threatened to do away with the very tradition of naturalistic representation that cast it into relief, concerned the status of the picture plane or tableau in relation to the actual surface of the canvas. A central motif of Über das Geistige–Kandinsky’s opening salvo against the “end of art” aspects of Hegel’s claims–was meant to address the issue. Here is Florman’s gloss:
For Kandinsky’s argument in Über das Geistige, the merest suggestion that the painting was to be identified with–or simply seen as adhering to–the literal surface of the canvas would have spelled its complete undoing. His entire case depended on linking [illusionistic] representation to materiality, and then suggesting that, by getting rid of all representational content, matter could finally be transcended. Yet the materiality of the canvas. . . threatened to trouble that argument by constantly resurfacing in critics’ and viewers’ awareness. Kojève did much to neutralize the issue by locating the moment of matter’s sublation [that is, the overcoming of the actual surface by the pictorial one] considerably earlier, with the rise of easel painting as a medium. The tableau’s pictorial illusionism, he claimed, had already effected the dematerialization of three-dimensional space and tangible form. (51)
Kojève clearly reflected on and responded sympathetically to Kandinsky’s earlier writing. As Florman explains, “Les Peintures concrètes” tacitly proposes a solution to the artist’s conundrum. It is not the painting itself, as a thing or object, that is beautiful (as is the case for a real tree), but the tableau. Weightless, intangible, and immaterial, the tableau is irreducible to the materials that constitute it. The painted tree’s sensuousness, unlike that of the real tree, has been “liberated from the scaffolding of mere materiality” (50). Or so Kojève believed, following Hegel (to whom that quote belongs). Rendering everything that is represented pure appearance, or Schein, painting–even the illusionistic kind that shows us the “real” world–dematerializes space and objects, yielding a mode of sensuousness that obtains uniquely for the work of art in contradistinction to actual objects: an appeal that, in being liberated from “mere materiality,” facilitates the contemplative attitude towards the world and allows us to grasp the mode of presence specific to Geist or Spirit in its “shining forth” from matter.
Insofar as a picture we might regard is conventionally representational, the artist’s capacity to defeat the material flatness of the canvas through techniques of illusionism (modeling, lighting, point of view, diminution, etc.) establishes within the convention of the easel form the dematerialization of the actual surface as a painted thing. The tableau accommodates space to the literal flatness of the plane, which, even as it holds a three-dimensional illusion, remains flat. So, despite the image in them of space and objects, Kojève argues, mimetic easel paintings already exemplify the “sublation,” or overcoming, of the material world towards which Kandinsky’s art strove.5 According to the logic of the tableau, eliminating illusionism (or inversely, pursuing abstraction) would thus have no negative effect on the easel form as art. The turn towards nonrepresentational imagery entails no necessary collapse of the distinction between the virtual and the actual that Kandinsky sought to maintain. One implication of Kojève’s analysis is that it might be better for us to think of Kandinsky’s paintings not merely as eschewing conventional illusionism in favor of abstraction–as if they were opposite poles on a spectrum–but rather as two modalities of representation, disparate though they may be, jointly aligned in the larger project of confronting the inadequacy of matter to the self-reflective demands of Spirit and its modes of self-contemplation. Should Kandinsky’s paintings achieve the effect of being liberated from their materiality, his art would, in a dialectical turn, become fully objective (that is, an incarnation of Spirit). Hence the “concrete” manifestation of “abstract” art.
Even occasional readers of Hegel will register in this gloss of Kojève’s account the special role the Phenomenology of Spirit came to play in early twentieth-century justifications for modernist abstraction. Spirit’s self-reflection proceeds more efficiently, according to Hegel, when it is unimpeded by the sensible. To the degree that art allows the objects it represents to exist on their own account, without eliciting our desire to consume them, it overcomes our appetitive drive and facilitates contemplative, subjective inner life. Painting in particular, since it dematerializes the world despite, or rather because of, its capacity to present us with an illusion, is particularly suited to stripping the sensible of its worldly interference and of letting things shine forth in appearance. By overcoming the deficiency of the tangible by means of depiction, artists render real things intelligible on a spiritual level.
It is revealing to recall that Kandinsky chose to write Über das Geistige in German. Why? Florman contends that the painter intended his treatise to be a direct response to Hegel’s Aesthetics, with its account of the dialectical development of self-conscious Spirit. Kandinsky was tactically motivated to appropriate Hegel’s terminology in an effort to engage him on his own turf, at least insofar as art’s continued relevance was at issue. For Hegel, in famously declaring the history of art as having fulfilled its role in the development of Spirit (and therefore no longer a necessary component of its ongoing historical unfolding), unwittingly antagonized modernist artists like Kandinsky. To be sure, Hegel had argued that art, moving in stages from the symbolic, to the classical, to the “romantic” (by which he meant everything from the Renaissance on) had made great strides in permitting Geist to recognize its independence from material form. That autonomy found its best expression in the profound subjective inwardness of Western illusionistic art. But Kandinsky and Kojève both rejected Hegel’s follow-up claim that the art of the nineteenth-century was the last major step in that spiritual unfolding and disclosure (before the remainder of the task was assumed by philosophy itself). Abstract art, they hoped to prove, remained a vehicle for Spirit. Kandinsky–perhaps out of a professional but also an existential sense of self-preservation–aimed to restore a progressive shape to art history’s dialectical unfolding and to assert painting’s continued viability.
In Über das Geistige, Kandinsky staged a conflict between past and present art. The art of his time, he charged, was unresponsive to the highest needs of the human spirit. Empty and materialist, even the relatively recent skirmishes of abstraction against conventions of naturalism did little but spur a specious debate. Opposing factions were merely fighting over how the world should be represented, not what the content of the work of art should be (the same problem would dog Barnett Newman and his peers just decades later).6 Kandinsky rejected Hegel’s diagnosis that art could no longer prove itself–in a deep sense of that term, meaning to demonstrate its identity as the thing it is, according to the necessity of its own inner nature. He projected that art’s ability to prove itself in the modern world would unfold when painting eschewed naturalistic representation–when it overcame the normative authority of the mimetic paradigm–yet did not for all that descend into normlessness. After a penetrating analysis of Kandinsky’s Punkt und Linie zu Fläche (1926), Florman explains how, formally, the artist’s paintings become even more explicit about the means by which they hold themselves together–how they integrate their structural and organizational oppositions–to convey the impression of the self-legislating nature of the whole. To grasp and explain the structural logic of modernist painting is hard enough, but to articulate how that logic manifests itself in particular works of art through a patient description of their pictorial effects and the techniques an artist uses to achieve them, as Florman does, is nothing less than inspired (and inspiring).
Florman’s précis and analysis of Hegel’s philosophical system in general, and of his aesthetics in particular, strikes me as lucid, reasonable, and insightful. The author diligently handles the relevant secondary literature.7 But her book constitutes more than just an intellectual history. Even less is it a story of Hegel’s “influence” on Kandinsky. Its best moments provide a sustained investigation of how the significance of Kandinsky’s practice of painting can better be grasped through the lens of dialectical and speculative philosophy. In some respects, I find her formal assessment of Kandinsky’s practice able to stand on its own, independent of the other half of the book. For if Kandinsky’s art truly is Hegelian–that is, if it self-legislates the terms under which we are to assess and evaluate its origin, its development, and its degrees of realization–then Hegel’s philosophy (and for that matter Kandinsky’s or Kojève’s) would seem to be secondary to that determination. Is it not all there, in the paintings? Or more precisely, in the specific manner we see Kandinsky responding to and generating the norms by which we acknowledge his painting as a medium of expression, as an art?8 Still, I wouldn’t want the book any other way.
Tactically, Kandinsky’s development of the Quetschtechnik served as a means to preserve, within a radically abstract idiom, the dematerialization of the canvas that conventions of illusionism had afforded in traditional art. But in addition, his dialectical account of art’s history in Über das Geistige allowed him strategically to position himself against Hegel while appropriating the philosopher’s terminology and adjusting it to his own historical moment and personal interests. That in turn set the stage for Kojève’s chance, in “Les Peintures concrètes,” to serve as a voice for progressive forces of abstraction, against those members of the contemporary audience who were predisposed to uncritically accept the central historical convention of painting (i.e. illusionism) as an authoritative truth. According to both of them, nonrepresentational art would establish itself–and establishes itself historically–by demonstrating its own internal logic of development, by proving itself. Painting would be a self-legislating affair.9 Its generative norms, limits, and constraints would derive from the practice of painting in its historical unfolding–at that moment (but surely not forever) best exemplified in Kandinsky’s endlessly transforming abstractions. Preparing the overlapping fields of art practice and aesthetic theory to accommodate succeeding troops of modernist artists, Kandinsky’s and Kojève’s operational maneuvers established the conditions under which future battles might be won.
At the end of her book, Florman asks: “What difference might it have made to the past century or so of art and art history if we had had a different conception of abstraction–seen its origin not in some ‘mystical’ or highly subjective personal experience, but rather in an attempt to enter into a debate about the social and intellectual climate of the modern world and the place of art within it?” All the difference in the world, it’s safe to assume. This new conception of abstraction becomes, after reading Florman’s book, concrete. Her work helps get us back on track.