Surrealist biomorphism: “Capricious Forms” (1937), a work from Kandinsky’s Paris period, is part of a retrospective at the Guggenheim. (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris)

The Guggenheim Museum is not exactly thinking outside the spiral with its sleek Kandinsky retrospective. But maybe that’s as it should be.

The Russian avant-gardist Wassily Kandinsky — who dressed like the college professor he had trained to be and sounded like a mystic when he wasn’t thinking like a scientist — is the central god in the Guggenheim pantheon and genesis myth. The museum owns more of his work than of any other major Modernist and mounts some form of full-dress Kandinsky show like clockwork every 20 years or so.

It’s that time again. The Guggenheim’s last excursion into Kandinsky occurred in the early 1980s with three context-heavy exhibitions that examined his activities in all mediums, including his Art Nouveau embroidery and works by contemporary artists and designers. This one takes the opposite tack. It distills Kandinsky’s momentous career to about 100 paintings, with a large side order of works on paper displayed in an adjacent gallery. The canvases and almost nothing else fill Frank Lloyd Wright’s great rotunda from bottom to top, sometimes at the magisterial rate of one painting per bay.

This looks sensational. Organized with the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich and the Pompidou Center in Paris — sites of the world’s other major Kandinsky collections — it contains stupendous loans from all over.


Roberta Smith
New York Times