Q; So what about the spiritual in art? Why do you think Kandinsky had it wrong?
ReeL: Sir Herbert Read talked about an art of internal necessity. Kandinsky says this internal necessity is spiritual. I don’t necessarily think that is true for everyone. For some, yes; for others, definitely not.
Kandinsky had a specific bias that blinded him to certain alternatives. But that’s OK, those alternatives were not relevant to his own art. It just makes his essay a bit less universal. As we know, Kandinsky had been associated with the Theosophists, so he was pulling core ideas along these lines for his famous essay from an earlier publication written by two theosophists. Kandinsky had to have had access to this publication as it was written by a couple of Theosophists he had to have been aware of … in this publication they proposed a new kind of more truly spiritual painting that was totally abstract, in fact, non-objective.
But they weren’t painters, or at least painters anywhere near Kandinsky’s abilities. Consequently, their samples–their book had color illustrations of samples of this new type of painting they were proposing–their samples were not that persuasive as paintings. Kandinsky was a thousand times better painter, so his breakthrough is still a breakthrough, irregardless these other historical precedents. It is more a tale of how things never really arise from nothing. There are always precedents. It is the genius who sees new possibilities within all the mess that is already here.
Q: Wait a minute. What? [Are you talking about] Non-objective painting before before Kandinsky or Malevic?
ReeL: Yes, several years before either.
Q: … Following on your point, but in a slightly different direction, it seems to me that a lot of the people in the art world get uneasy when it comes to spiritualism or mentioning of the spiritual in any way.
ReeL: Very uneasy … There’s no reason internal necessity can’t be something more purely cognitive, or if that is too narrow, to just talk about internal necessity as an inner manifestation of the psyche, and leave it at that. …
[ the Surrealists also] wanted internal necessity, but of a more psychically charged kind. They wanted the polyvalent sign, not pure painting. They weren’t interested in non-objective painting, so nothing written by Kandinsky was going to ever impinge on their project. The most abstract they got was including Klee in some of their exhibitions, at least until Breton realized Klee was never going to pledge allegiance.
McEvilley made the very important observation that painting could be a critical medium that was about, in part, the very special nature of its limitations. Some artists like to blast through limitations into whole new universes of possible practice, while others are historically important in how they more thoroughly explore within a given set of limitations, often very narrow limitations. Within today’s art practice, painting itself represents a fairly narrow set of limitations. Both orientations can be historically potent, even necessary.