A century later, Stella is less concerned with spiritual revolutions than the game of making inanimate objects appear to move, to contain meaning, to perform visual tricks for the viewer and status bumps for the collector. If Kandinsky was tentatively removing as much of the so-called real world as he dared from his “Painting with White Border,” Stella is testing the tolerance of his viewers (and the capacity of his work) to incorporate coy allusions to the world Kandinsky hoped to leave behind. Kandinsky sought an “absolute” form of the abstract, while Stella allows the world back in, through reference, allusion and, of course, titles such as the Scarlatti K Series.
But it is their mutual and similar relation to music that becomes the compelling narrative of these exhibitions. The Kandinsky show focuses on a single work, uniting the large, horizontal “Painting with White Border” held by the Guggenheim, in New York, with the Phillips’s own, vertically oriented “Sketch I For Painting with White Border.” Sketch is misleading. The Phillips painting is a complete, holistic work unto itself, though it clearly explores closely related ideas to the Guggenheim canvas, which Kandinsky considered the result of a long series of experiments and “sketches.”
The show also includes 10 other preparatory studies and at least two works that may have been made after the “final” painting was completed. Taken together, they reveal the evolution of Kandinsky’s private language of reference to visual ideas he gleaned from an inspirational trip to Moscow in 1912, including a troika (a Russian conveyance drawn by three horses) and the figure of St. George and the Dragon, ubiquitous in Russian religious iconography.
Music would offer appealing metaphors and inspiration to Kandinsky long after his creative well had begun to dry up in the 1930s. On display nearby is his 1935 “Succession,” in which the painter arranges his jazzy but empty ciphers along horizontal bands that suggest the staves of a musical score. In a short essay about his 1913 painting, Kandinsky wrote of wanting to limit the specificity of objects, so that their innate “overtones” could be felt. This was a pretentious way of saying that a vague suggestion of a man on horseback could be more emotionally satisfying than a literal representation. Music, which seemed to have both irrational power and systematic structure, was central to this pretension, the dream that visual art could aspire to the visceral but non-representational force of a fugue or a symphony.
Kandinsky was clearly at pains to make it seem as if he was working with the same, almost scientific process of trial and error that often defines musical thinking. His essay on the “Painting with White Border” is filled with insufferably literal visual description, and a lot of self-justifying nonsense aimed at giving the reader a sense that his creative process wasn’t based purely on inspiration: “I used this technique quite correctly and once again, with a clear sense of purpose . . . ” he writes of a certain type of brush stroke.