Classic Modernism, Revisited and Revised

Two new showcases—the first a frenzied grand tour of an era-shaping movement, the second an intimate stroll with a revered abstractionist—place the defining art of the early 20th century in new perspectives. Spanning continents and decades, Surrealism Beyond Borders investigates how artists of divergent personalities and cultures learned to speak a common aesthetic language. Equally grandiose as a study of artistic evolution, Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle walks its visitors through the different stages of its headline artist’s career in painting; here, the exhibition finds coherence and complications in the total output of an artist who perhaps is best considered piece-by-piece.

Surrealism Beyond Borders at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 30, 2022

Despite its psychological and mythical pretensions, surrealism often worked best as a weird, wild carnival of an artistic movement. Surrealism Beyond Borders captures much of this firecracker spirit, often by being as spontaneous as a marquee show at the Met possibly can. The installation relies enough on loosely clustered entries, dusky lighting, and random moments of discovery to feel like the product of a smaller and scrappier museum, or like the handiwork of a 1920s heir with a sprawling Paris apartment and a direct line to the avant-garde. By design, the show itself sprawls over time and space: surrealist offshoots from Argentina, Egypt, Romania, and Korea — some active well into the 1960s — all send small delegations of artworks.

Installation view: Surrealism Beyond Borders, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Marie Kellen

The show inevitably brings in household-name surrealists — Dali, Ernst, Magritte — but performs a greater service in bringing forward half-familiar names. Cuba’s Wilfredo Lam is one artist in exactly this category; with the bone-white background and ghostly outlines of The Eternal Present (1944), he delivers a painting that looks like a condensed, chalked out, calmed down Guernica. It’s superbly affecting but not wholly original art, and much the same can be said of a strong entry by Japan’s Yayoi Kusama, A Circus Rider’s Dream (1955). While the black blotch and jittered line figuration recall Joan Miro’s stylings, the heady blue background of this gouache-on-paper work pulses with life of its own. In a show anchored by nightmare colors and menacing objects, this entry achieves both lightness and depth.

Installation view: Surrealism Beyond Borders, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Marie Kellen

Probably the easiest and most effective criticism of Surrealism Beyond Borders is that it stretches itself over too many artists, cultures, and media. To be fair, surrealism itself was often a group endeavor, as evinced by the “beautiful corpse” collaborative drawings in the entryway and Ted Joans’s 132-contributor version in an adjacent gallery. Though it’s enjoyable enough to see what Frida Kahlo or Andre Breton could do with a little imagination, a few friends, and one piece of paper, it’s hard to imagine an “onto the next guy” mentality producing a masterpiece — or an exhibition that truly lingers. Back in 2005, the Met did stage a lingering Max Ernst retrospective, which captured all the gaudiness and transcendence of that surrealist’s output. Touring that exhibition was like exploring a hypertrophied rock garden, then a hypertrophied junk shop, then the edge of the world itself, as room after room captured and then unleashed a single phantasmagoric imagination.

Installation view: Surrealism Beyond Borders, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Marie Kellen

The tougher criticism has to do with how aggressively and wearyingly surrealism stretched itself. Although nothing on display is exasperatingly bad, too many selections seem to simply be importing a house style to new cultures and new locales — an approach that is part Salvador Dali, part Carmen Sandiego. This is exactly the problem with Mayo’s painting Baton Blows, which the Met is using to advertise the show, and which seems to combine a lot of Dali, a little Yves Tanguy, and — like so much else here — a dash of 1930s Picasso. Here, the more memorable paintings don’t inhabit a milieu of fleshy biomorphs and wonky appliances; Malangatana Ngwenya’s sole paint-on-hardboard entry, for instance, is at once cartoonish and vicious, with thick-outlined and sharp-toothed figures that make the whole composition feel like a Keith Haring from hell. Indeed, each disappointment in the exhibition quickly fades, even though the satisfactions don’t settle and multiply quite as they should. Enough criticism. Go get lost in the funhouse.

Vasily Kandinsky Around the Circle (Autour du cercle)

Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle at the Guggenheim Museum through September 5, 2022

An individual Kandinsky canvas, from virtually any period of the abstract modernist’s half-century career in painting, is often dizzying in its complications of juxtaposition, movement, and cryptic detail. Taking in dozens of these arrangements at once should make your eyes skitter and your intellect throb. Instead, there is a symphonic sense to the way that Kandinsky — who wrote about the “hearing of colors” — works through both individual compositions and entire phases of his output, and that sensibility makes the Guggenheim’s showcase easy to view and bracing to contemplate. Despite his evolution into a master of minutiae, Kandinsky regularly produced harmonies, not headaches.

Vasily Kandinsky Black Lines (Schwarze Linien)

Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle spins backwards, starting with canvases from the 1940s and moving towards the artist’s turn-of-the-century images as the show corkscrews up the Guggenheim’s main ramp. The precise-outlined late works are elegiac and jewel-toned at best, finicky and mold-hued at worst; the early output excels by sheer force of charisma and by suggesting sights — prints, folktales, unearthly tundra skies — from Kandinsky’s Russian upbringing. Somewhere between these extremes, Kandinsky figured out how to reconcile exacto-sharp shapes with a roaming spirit, producing such epic abstractions as Composition 8 (1923) and Dominant Curve (1936) — every-colored canvases that are among his masterpieces.

Vasily Kandinsky Composition 8 (Komposition 8)

“Masterpiece,” though, is a strange word to use with this artist. What you may remember most about Around the Circle are not individual show-stopping canvases but minute triumphs of color and shape. The early composition Black Lines (1913) sets up one of Kandinsky’s signature paradoxes: for an artist who ranged over every color imaginable, he repeatedly found ways to activate basic black. Here, those black lines themselves wiggle into life against bright jelly splotches, while elsewhere canary yellow and parakeet green backgrounds enliven dark geometries. As for the show’s namesake, the 1940 canvas Around the Circle, even this particolored misfire launches against a beautiful background, a lush dark aqua that elevates the better chosen tones — muffled ruby, mulled purple — of Kandinsky’s curving shapes. If a moment of concord or miraculous contrast can be a masterpiece, this show is a menagerie of masterpieces.

Top photo: Installation view Surrealism Beyond Borders Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Anna Marie Kellen

Full credits for Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle –

Vasily Kandinsky Around the Circle (Autour du cercle) May–August 1940 Oil and enamel on canvas 38 1/8 x 57 1/2 inches (96.8 x 146 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 49.1222 © [current year] Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris Painting Photo taken 06/27/2019

Vasily Kandinsky Black Lines (Schwarze Linien) December 1913 Oil on canvas 51 x 51 5/8 inches (129.4 x 131.1 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.241 © [current year] Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris Painting Expressionism Photo taken 01/02/2020

Vasily Kandinsky Composition 8 (Komposition 8) July 1923 Oil on canvas 55 1/8 x 79 1/8 inches (140 x 201 cm) Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift 37.262 © [current year] Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris Photo taken 10/22/2020