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.
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.
A century later, Stella all but acknowledges the core envy of music that has bedeviled abstraction since Kandinsky: “Music doesn’t have to defend itself much about abstraction,” he told the Phillips curator.
The problem with music as inspiration or metaphor for visual art becomes painfully clear if you begin to push the artist to say a little more about it. Stella has labeled his works with what musicians know as the K numbers, a reference to the catalog of Scarlatti’s sonatas created by the music scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick. The largest of the Stella sculptures is labeled K. 43, for a dark but energetic sonata rich with the Iberian flavor that Scarlatti adopted after going to work for the royal court of Spain. But it seems no more or less related to this particular sonata than any of his other K sculptures are to the Kirkpatrick catalog entries they reference.
Stella has said that he was inspired by the sense of motion in Scarlatti’s sonatas. Almost all music moves, or seems to move, so this is a bit like a composer saying that he was inspired by the colors in a Picasso. It adds a negligible amount of information to our understanding. It would be more interesting to know certain key facts, such as, does Stella listen to Scarlatti performed on the piano or the harpsichord? The former produces gradations of sound and a wealth of colors depending on the speed with which the key is depressed and released. The harpsichord, by contrast, produces a uniform burst of sound that often seems white, or bright, or monochromatic, though full of energy. That energy, the initial blast of sound, is a burst of overtones; not the metaphorical ones that inspired Kandinsky, but real ones related to the physics of how a plucked string produces sound.
Stella’s sculptures, often repetitive but always appealing, well-made and dynamic, seem to represent the harpsichord’s basic tonal palette more than they suggest the relatively simple, two-part structure of a Scarlatti sonata. They offer a burst of brilliance that resolves quickly, that overwhelms and delights and occasionally (depending on your taste) grows cloying. By referring to Scarlatti, Stella makes his work seem deeper, until you begin to analyze the reference, which makes the allusion seem both simplistic and all too revelatory: Maybe Stella really knows his Scarlatti and is subtly cluing us in to the way in which his sculpture mimics the mechanical, aggressive, showy splashes of sound that define a brilliantly performed Scarlatti sonata.
Music doesn’t liberate, or clarify or deepen visual art. It merely puts a cloak over the visual object itself, which ideally needs no further dressing. Kandinsky’s work of 1913 contains no actual overtones, and even the metaphorical ones are dubious. His “Improvisation No. 31,” also on display, works just as well or better without its reference to the free-form musical fantasies that were popular at the time (Kandinsky grouped his art work of this period into “improvisations,” “impressions” and “compositions,” all of which suggest musical ideas). So, too, Stella’s work chafes under the silly weight of his Scarlatti titles. The best of it, including three small works in titanium labeled k. 454, k. 419 and k. 478, and the giant K. 43 with its Pop Art sunburst of hippie colors barely hidden on its underside, work without explanation or apology.
If nothing else, the Phillips exhibition offers a succinct tour of a thought that has haunted abstract art from its origins to its present: What if it’s empty? This terrifying idea, which artists have often tried to hide under a carapace of pseudo-intellectual philosophizing (see Kandinsky’s “On the Spiritual in Art”) or a mantle borrowed from music, literature or architecture, is rather like the idea that haunts each and every one of us everyday: What if I die? And the answer is the same. Of course it’s empty, and of course we all die. Now enjoy the present moment, like a C Major chord on the harpsichord, a burst of consciousness-obliterating sonic sunshine.
Both through Sept. 4. The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8:30 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For admission fees, go to www.phillipscollection.org.