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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Kandinsky Meets Spicuzza at David Barnett

20th-century art from Europe and Milwaukee at local gallery

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So it’s 1896, you’re about 30 years old and an associate professor of law at Moscow University. Sounds pretty stable, yes? That is, until you encounter paintings by Claude Monet and a Richard Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin. These move you to change everything and by the end of the year you’re in Munich studying painting.

So goes the condensed story of Wassily Kandinsky’s embarkation on one of the 20th century’s most influential art careers. The Milwaukee Art Museum is host to a major retrospective, which one might supplement with a visit to other galleries.

David Barnett Gallery presents woodcut prints by Kandinsky, dating from the early-20th century to the 1940s. His suite, Klänge (Sounds) is represented in a few pieces. This project, begun in 1909, captures the transitional nature of these years as images morph into more complete abstraction. Klänge was lauded for Kandinsky’s evocative poetry, admired by supremely avant-garde Dada artists including Jean Arp and Hugo Ball.

If Buzzfeed quizzes, “Which famous 20th-century artist are you?” Kandinsky will definitely be on the list. Gallerist and artist David Barnett acknowledges this clearly in his “Famous Artist Series: Homage to Wassily Kandinsky.” Selected woodcut images are copied and then color applied to the quoted forms. His brightness of tone and subtle watercolor layers evoke a stained glass-like appearance. If homage is cousin to veneration, this luminous, sacred quality is quite apropos.

Also on view is Milwaukee artist Sylvia Spicuzza, whose father was the much-admired Francesco Spicuzza. As an art teacher for many years, she was an early inspiration for numerous students, including Barnett. Spicuzza retained a flexible approach, from highly detailed, naturalistic paintings and drawings to explorations of purely abstract, angular forms. Paintings from the 1930s reflect her ability to dive wholeheartedly into a Regionalist style, such as Farm Scene: Farmer’s Wife With Children—Big Cedar Lake. From the porch of a farmhouse we pause for a moment of afternoon tranquility, overlooking rolling green fields and golden afternoon sun. It is worlds away from the esoteric allure of abstraction, but an artistic place Spicuzza moved freely within.

“Wassily Kandinsky: original woodcuts from Klänge,” “David Barnett: Homage to Wassily Kandinsky” and “Sylvia Spicuzza” continue through July 19, at David Barnett Gallery, 1024 E. State St.