BWW Reviews: Kandinsky Headlines an Interdisciplinary Showcase with BLAUE REITER TO THE BAUHAUS
Vasily Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus, 1910-1925 is a more venturesome show than its title lets on. It doesn't confine itself to 1910 to 1925, and it doesn't confine itself to Kandinsky and his deliriously colorful abstractions. Instead, the Neue Galerie's current exhibition is a group portrait: Kandinsky square in the center, of course, but his colleagues in painting, design, and theater clustering and occasionally cluttering the frame. Blaue Reiter painters like Franz Marc and August Macke, Bauhaus impresarios like Paul Klee and Marcel Breuer, even Kandinsky's art students all make it into the picture, and with good reason. Curated by Jill Lloyd, this showcase is designed to investigate "the evolution Kandinsky's concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art," a conception that yielded some delectable multimedia collaborations and enormous, enormously inspired canvases during the Bauhaus and the Blaue Reiter years. Thus the emphasis on community across the arts; thus the works from before 1910 and beyond 1925, which chart the build-up to the total works and trace the eventual cool-down.
Yet I can't help wishing that Kandinsky, and the Neue Galerie, had been somewhat less ambitious. As an easel painter, Kandinsky seldom failed to balance ebullience and exactitude--a balance that was much harder for him to maintain once his images got larger, headier, once the "total work of art" idea kicked in. Nor is the Neue Galerie perfectly in command of its materials. A room of theater designs here, a room of abstract paintings there, ambient music, random chairs--all this adds up to a show that's weirdly oblique, that repeatedly and incessantly indicates Kandinsky's Gesamtkunstwerk ambitions but doesn't (with one or two major exceptions) deliver a totalizing experience. However, taken for what it is--a collection of thought-provoking odds and ends, rounded off by a couple rooms of substantial pieces--Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus takes you entrancingly far into Kandinsky's creative processes. His ambitions, his failures, everything.
Some of this "get into Kandinsky's head" business is a matter of happy circumstance. As you climb the stairs to the top floor of the Galerie, where Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus is located, you will be greeted by a few expanded photos of Kandinsky himself: first a younger version, bespectacled, goateed, at ease in house slippers; then a later Kandinsky, severe, businesslike, holding the tools of his painting trade. Either man would be at home in the 5th Avenue mansion that the Neue Galerie occupies, as would any and all of Kandinsky's paintings, even the town and cottage scenes he crafted before turning to full abstraction. In these, mundane themes meet aristocratic color: the mellow golds, wine reds, and velvety indigos of Murnau: Street with Women and Murnau: Street with Horse-Drawn Carriage, two works that Lloyd and her fellow organizers have chosen for display.
There's another happy circumstance that Kandinsky aficionados will appreciate. Some of the better abstract paintings that Kandinsky devised between 1911 and 1918 can be entered at almost any point, and can lead you from inch of canvas to inch of canvas, association to association, along myriad routes. Navigating this exhibition is a similar experience; you have five or so numbered sections at your disposal, but they fan out from a central hallway, allowing you to wander, return, and wander some more in almost any order you please. My suggestion is to start with the easel paintings. Some sorting out is necessary; one long wall is dominated by the mysticizing accomplishments of Blaue Reiter (including more than enough of Franz Marc's kindly, corny, primary-colored animals), while the opposite wall is mostly Bauhaus geometries and Bauhaus utilitarianism. These contexts and contrasts elevate a few of the Kandinsky canvases on display, such as Divided and Pink--Bauhaus-era creations that look a lot like lab specimens, but that have something distinctly ethereal, distinctly Blaue Reiter about them.