Postcolonial Thoughts: Kandinsky in Search of Pure Abstraction

By Christopher Hutchinson

This article began with a studio visit to a friend, Julio Mejia, during a critical analysis of his latest work. We got into a discussion about abstraction and the lack of a present rubric to qualify what is actually pure abstraction. We were both troubled by the loose interpretation and application of the term “abstraction.”  The term “abstraction” has been used as a catch all that implies that abstraction is not a specific practice, when it is just that, very specific. Our conversation brought about Kandinsky and early definitions of non-objective work.

(noun) – Nonobjective art is another way to refer to Abstract art or nonrepresentational art. Essentially, the artwork does not represent or depict a person, place or thing in the natural world. Usually, the content of the work is its color, shapes, brushstrokes, size, scale, and, in some cases, its process.

Kandinsky is widely read and is one of the most respected artists especially in the topic of non-objective art. Kandinsky wrote extensively on the subject and dedicated his work to defining the spiritual practice of non-objective painting. Kandinsky’s definition had a rubric that was rigid. His rubric defined and denounced “art for art’s sake”.

The phrase ‘art for art’s sake’ condenses the notion that art has its own value and should be judged apart from any themes which it might touch on, such as morality, religion, history, or politics. It teaches that judgements of aesthetic value should not be confused with those proper to other spheres of life. The idea has ancient roots, but the phrase first emerged as a rallying cry in 19th century France, and subsequently became central to the British Aesthetic movement. Although the phrase has been little used since, its legacy has been at the heart of 20th century ideas about the autonomy of art, and thus crucial to such different bodies of thought as those of formalism, modernism, and the avant-garde. Today, deployed more loosely and casually, it is sometimes put to very different ends, to defend the right of free expression, or to appeal for art to uphold tradition and avoid causing offense.

While Kandinsky is credited with being avant-garde during his time, his artwork does not live up to his writings. Under examination his work does qualify as formulaic; it does qualify as art for art’s sake. Kandinsky’s work currently fits the standardized problems present in a loose definition of abstraction/non-objective work. His abstraction is still based on the rules of traditional realism.

 Bad Abstraction

Portrait of the determined Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who reigned from 527 to 565, in San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Portrait of the determined Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who reigned from 527 to 565, in San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Abstraction with traditional painting applications is one of the easiest ways to detect bad abstraction. Bad abstraction is filled with retouching and modeling. This retouching and modeling is no different than any portraiture from the Byzantine to present. Portraiture employs a technique of using the most brushstrokes on an object to make it the most important, often times the face. Rembrandt and many artists often employ these techniques, allowing the background to be out of focus while the face is precious. There is no place for this type of application in pure abstraction. In the basic beginnings, when attempting abstraction, this portraiture tradition must be identified and then broken to become free enough to achieve pure abstraction. Kandinsky’s overworked blended areas in his Composition VII 1913 are no more intuitive than a color by number setup–put a line/shape, then fill it in.


Another indicator of bad abstraction is also a tie to portraiture. The painting may be non-objective but the all the energy and paint is in the center. The rest of the piece is just filler and clearly not important. Kandinsky’s pieces are filled with these centrifugal bad abstractions, leaving almost a mat border around the image. This border is problematic in the pursuit of pure abstraction.


Wassily Kandinsky, Transverse Line, 1923

Wassily Kandinsky, Transverse Line, 1923



: to reduce to or compare with a standard <standardize a solution>

2: to bring into conformity with a standard

3: to arrange or order the component items of a test (as of intelligence or personality) so that the probability of their eliciting a designated class of response varies with some quantifiable psychological or behavioral attribute, function, or characteristic

In this essay the term “standardization” refers to the general marks, shapes, and colors one makes to feel safe when one is uncomfortable. It refers to a conscious, contrived placement of elements to be discussed rationally. Pure abstraction is a scary proposition that requires an existential immediacy that should not be rationalized. The standardized process can be seen in Kandinsky’s carefully constructed arrangements. Geometric shapes are classic signs of wanting to control the spiritual. Kandinsky covers his desire to break these rules in order to access this spirituality in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

Kandinsky, the academic critic, emerges in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. His version of spirituality is standardized to death. It becomes an illustration of spirituality, not the spirit itself.   Even if one is successful at accessing the spirit/pure abstraction, that pure spirit may be standardized and formalized until it is no longer free. Most abstraction fails in achieving the spirit. Anyone who accepts the challenge to pursue pure abstraction must be confident and willing to follow the spirit unquestionably for it to be free.


Christopher HutchinsonChristopher Hutchinson is an Assistant Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, Archetype Art Gallery Owner in Atlanta, Ga, and Smoke School of Art Founder. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama. He lived in Alabama for 10 years before moving to Atlanta in 2008.

Learn more about Christopher and his work at Black Flight 144.





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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts, Writing


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