The history of abstract art might be called a century-long narrative of envy, sometimes mutual, between the brash, upstart visual form and the older, more established, seemingly more rational discipline of music. As two new exhibitions at the Phillips Collection make clear, a strange inferiority complex has spurred abstract artists to borrow and steal from music, from abstraction’s tentative origins to its current status as (mostly) vitiated decoration for the masses. The results, paradoxically, have been some embarrassing scenes, a lot of intellectual confusion and some magnificent art.
“Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence” and “Stella Sounds: The Scarlatti K Series” are loosely related to each other, and both problematically related to music. The former takes a focused, methodical look at Kandinsky’s 1913 “Painting with White Border,” in which the Russian artist moved resolutely toward “dissolving” clear representational forms into an abstract swirl of assertive color and allusive form. The latter is devoted to an ongoing series of sculptures by Frank Stella, inspired by the more than 500 harpsichord sonatas of the Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti, who was born in 1685.
At first glance, the two artists could not be more different. Kandinsky was working on canvas, and while he was striving toward the future, his work in 1913 was still very much saturated with 19th-century ideas. Stella’s sculptures, some made from titanium and others fashioned from a composite plastic, are bold swirling forms that throw off suggestions of alien life, intergalactic travel and flashy atoms with errant electrons circling crabbed knots of angry protons. But Stella, now 75, acknowledges a direct debt to Kandinsky, and in an interview with the Phillips curator, Elsa Smithgall, he noted a visual kinship between some of his bent metal shapes and the curvy, amoeba-like lines in Kandinsky’s work.
“Kandinsky really stuck with me,” he says, remembering his student encounter at Princeton with the earlier artist’s abstruse and often painfully wooly-headed writing.
But the two artists often relate more as inverse reflections of each other.
In a few short years before he started working on “Painting with White Border,” Kandinsky went from creating colorful, naive landscapes and scenes redolent with Russian kitsch to what are arguably the first decisively abstract paintings in modern Europe. His mind was besotted with the sickly mysticism and ambitious spiritual yearnings that infected artists and thinkers in the last gasp of Tsarist Russia, but his work emerged with boldness and energy, with only a few, almost cartoon-like echoes of the visual language that figurative painters had used for centuries to define reality in two dimensions.
Kandinsky believed, apparently sincerely, that moving the viewer away from objective reality was liberating, and that while art (as he knew it) would ultimately disappear in some indefinite utopian future, it was an essential tool in the coming revolution of consciousness. The Russian creative class, including seminal composers such as Scriabin, was knee-deep in this theosophical drivel, and it destroyed as many creative minds as it inspired. And the revolution, when it came, had little to do with mystical transcendence and everything to do with the kind of terrestrial blood and violence that makes art irrelevant.