Whitehot Magazine

Making Spiritual Sense Again: Abstract Painting In Sacred Space by Donald Kuspit

Ellsworth Kelly, Austin (2015). Interior view, facing south. ©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin.

By DONALD KUSPIT January 2, 2024

When I finally entered the room, I felt surrounded on all sides by painting, into which I had thus penetrated.  The same feeling had previously lain dormant within me, quite unconsciously, when I had been in the Moscow churches, and especially in the main cathedral of the Kremlin.  When I  next visited these churches after returning from my journey, the same feeling sprang to life inside me with total clarity.  Later, I often had the same experience in Bavarian and Tyrolean chapels.  Of course, on each occasion the experience was quite differently colored.                   

Wassily Kandinsky, “Reminiscences, 1913”(1)

Abstract art has lost its bearings, it has become entertainment, luxury decoration for the rooms and walls of the wealthy, as the Marxist sociologist Max Horkheimer argued, and with that no longer credible aesthetically, emotionally, cognitively—no longer a perceptual epiphany but a novel, expensive piece of furniture, its great cost testifying to the greatness of its owner.  The money spent on it confirms the importance of the buyer not the work.  Perhaps more pointedly, the prominent American painter and sculptor Frank Stella, noted for his minimalist and post-painterly abstractions, deplored the commercial degradation and “pointless, clueless and soulless” exhibition of modern art in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Modern Starts” exhibition in 2001.  It “rivals the weekly promotions at Macy’s,” Stella declares.  “A wall of Cezanne landscapes is totally convincing as a display of framed reproductions ready to be charged to your Visa card and taken home.  Rodchenko’s ‘Spatial Construction no. 12’ could be a new colander borrowed from the Williams Sonoma Collection.  And poor Picasso is trivialized again as his ‘Glass of Absinthe’ (1914), one of the most original sculptures of the 20th century, second only, perhaps, to his own ‘Guitar’ of 1912-13, is humiliated in a tableware display.”  Noting the Director Glenn Lowry’s remark that “art is entertainment,” Stella suggests that MoMA should become “the Museum of Mickey’s Art,” its logo remaining the same. (2)   

Rothko Chapel. courtesy Houston CVB.

If what Horkheimer and Stella say is true, then the private space of a wealthy art collector’s home and the public space of a prestigious museum are not places conducive to the feeling and experience that Kandinsky had in the Kremlin Cathedral and in Bavarian and Tyrolean chapels.  They are sacred spaces; a collector’s private space and a museum’s public space are profane places.  I suggest that only in a sacred space can one have a religious experience of abstract art, that is, experience it as sacred in itself or as the catalyst of a numinous experience.  “It can only be evoked, awakened in the mind,” the theologian Rudolf Otto writes.  “He describes it as a mystery that is at once terrifying and fascinating,” more broadly a “spiritual or religious emotion, mysterious or awe-inspiring,” “appealing to the aesthetic sensibility.”  Aesthetic experience is numinous experience in an artistic nutshell, or at least a catalyst of numinous experience, the spiritual experience that Kandinsky had in the Kremlin Cathedral and Bavarian and Tyrolean chapels, where he was surrounded on all sides by painting.  

Sean Scully, Opulent Ascension, 2019
. Felt on wood, 10.4 x 3.6 x 3.6 m © Stefan Josef Mueller

In the Rothko Chapel one is surrounded on all sides by Rothko’s depressing paintings; in Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin chapel, 2018 one is surrounded by an array of luminous colors; in Zurich’s Grossmunster cathedral colored light from the stained glass windows of Augusto Giacometti and Sigmar Polke inform the space; Sean Scully’s Opulent Ascension, 2019, a monumental painted sculpture—a kind of abstract totem pole built of massive blocks of color—installed under the dome of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice seems to bless the space with its pontificating presence.  All of these works of abstract art are set apart in a sacred space to confirm their own sacredness.  They are experientially incompatible with the profane world of everyday experience.  They are “otherworldly” spaces where art and religion are inseparable, forced into dialectical intimacy, spaces not for socializing with others but for being alone with oneself, open to the possibility of having a special experience, unworldly if not otherworldly, a numinous experience, catalyzed by the art.  Alone with the abstract works in socially sanctioned spiritual spaces, one is forced back on oneself as one attempts to make sense of them, and with that experiences their uncanniness, their unconscious appeal.  Trying to fathom the spiritual meaning the space in which they are installed forces on them one realizes one’s own spirituality, more pointedly realizes that we are as significant as they are.  Our consciousness of them catalyzes our self-consciousness.  More pointedly, our aesthetic experience of them transcends them.  The sacred space is the alembic, the abstract art is the philosopher’s stone, the numinous aesthetic experience is the emotional gold created by the distilling of the work of art in the solitude of one’s alchemical unconscious.  Kandinsky in the solitude of his sacred spaces came into his emotional own and with that had the confidence to make abstract art that codified and conveyed his feelings, that is, sanctified his narcissism. WM


(1) Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds. Kandinsky:  Complete Writings on Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 369

(2) Frank Stella, “Mindless play and thoughtless speculation,” The Art Newspaper, No. 114, May 2001, pp. 62-64

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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