The County Museum of Art needed a blockbuster to launch its new Robert O. Anderson Building for Modern and Contemporary Art. Not just your ordinary razzle-dazzle strew of twinkly treasures. Something smart. Something with a touch of originality. Something to plant the new LACMA’s banner on the terrain of modern arts movers and shakers.

Fat chance. Concocting such a brew within the harum-scarum din of bulldozers, cranes and cement mixers putty-putting around all that new construction? How could anybody achieve even ordinary cerebral function, much less brilliance, amid such racket and disruption?

Well, some people thrive on adversity, and evidently LACMA’s chief curator, Maurice Tuchman, is among them. In tandem with his associate Judi Freeman and an international team of a dozen scholars, he whipped up “The Spiritual in Art,” a large but not unwieldy survey of some 350 artworks and books dedicated to the proposition that the abstract art made since 1890 actually means something.


Rubbish. Every right-thinking red-blooded American knows that abstract art is a vacuous hoax perpetrated by charlatans and consumed by sissies.

Balderdash. Each properly trained, visually literate person of taste, intelligence and cultivation suckled upon the austere critical doctrines of Clement Greenberg knows that abstract art exists for its own sweet sake. Ars gratia Artis . Has the glorious Frank Stella himself not suggested the equivalent of “What you see is what you get”?

“Benighted error!” intones the exhibition. Abstract art, at least a lot of it and especially in the beginning, represents modern mankind’s search for the transcendent in a world despairing of the promises of conventional religion. This hypothesis is posited, illuminated, illustrated, argued, evoked and cajoled in artworks ranging from the flaming landscapes of Edvard Munch to the ecstatic galaxies of Wassily Kandinsky and the cool structures of Piet Mondrian. It is pressed forward in the monosyllabic images of Russian radicals and the glowing ruminations of American votaries.

If the show had no theme at all it would be illuminating just to contemplate a splendidly assembled group that sweeps from such rarities as delicately enervated Art Nouveau illustrations by Jan Toorop to Marcel Duchamp’s sardonic bicycle wheel or the ritual atonement in Joseph Beuys.

But the show (which spearheads today’s public opening of the new Anderson Building) has a theme that is pursued with remarkable clarity and intelligence in a 435-page book catalogue that establishes itself instantly as the standard work on the subject and a must for every serious art library. In it, Tuchman and the others set forth evidence of linkage between radical abstract art and a wide spectrum of occult and mystical movements that fascinated the modern mind.

Mondrian and Kandinsky were both actively interested in Theosophy. Paul Serusier was magnetized to sacred geometry. Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock were drawn to the rituals behind American Indian art and to Jung’s theories of the mythic archetype. Scarcely a California artist exists who has not been affected by notions of Zen.

Anyone familiar with the lexicon of modernism already knows all this. One senses it early on in the work itself and finds confirming literature in such classic tracts as Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” This exhibition is important for taking a pervasive and obvious idea and delving into it, pro and con. In that way and several others, it resembles the Museum of Modern Arts 1984 “Primitivism and Twentieth Century Art.” Both are landmarks of curatorial aptitude that touch a central nerve in the modernist aesthetic.

“Primitivism” kicked up an intellectual ruckus and with any luck at all “The Spiritual” will do the same because controversy is the blessed fruit of those rare exhibitions that actually set us thinking. “Primitivism” took the noble risk of suggesting that future generations might come to regard the glories of modernism as nothing more than a decadent Euro-American rip-off of tribal art. “The Spiritual” dares to allow us to entertain the idea that our best art is nothing but cult objects from a failed surrogate religion produced by superstitious flakes and isn’t it funny they made the show out there in Lotusland where they once had a chief executive called Gov. Moonbeam, har-har.

What prevents such caricature from congealing into perceived fact is the poetic success of the work itself. At best, it is never about the substance of the various metaphysics that might have inspired it but about some humane essence that transcends specific ideologies. Significantly, virtually none of the cult organizations that fed these artistic imaginations took any interest in the product. The Theosophists didn’t give a fig about Kandinsky’s art.

Meantime, the show is likely to prove chaotic to minds of fastidious neatness. How do you make sense of a smear of art that tries to find common ground between Munch’s sexual charge, the idyllic lyricism of Paul Klee and the mordant objectivity of Jasper Johns?

About the only way to begin is to accept the proposition that any theme show is saying, “Look at it this way for a second. For a change, for instance, look at Art Nouveau and forget all the usual associations of personal neurosis, erotic kink and pristine narcissism. Think instead about Spirituality.”

Look and lo, a pathetically refined longing for disembodied existence emerges from this sophisticated art. Now we have the idea. Everything on wall and pedestal is scanned through the filter of the word “Spiritual.” Funny. “Spiritual” is a pretty vague word but it seems to fit some of this art exactly. Klee, Kandinsky, Weber, Hartley, Dove, O’Keeffe and others slot right in. Others don’t.

The experience of the exhibition turns into a seething mind-game of words tumbling through the mental ether, words that have specific meaning only to specialists. For the layman, terms like Occult, Mystical and Metaphysical only find common ground in Jung’s useful term, “numinous"--spirit-like.

What is this? Is this any way to view an art show? This doesn’t usually happen. Maybe it is in the nature of the Zeitgeist around here. In the beginning was the Word.

In hard-nosed terms, what it really means is that there is much art here that will not knuckle under to a single descriptive term because it just does not all feel or look the same. It begs for some sort of order that is not provided by the classifications within the exhibition dealing with “Duality,” “Vibration” and the like.

Here the pilgrim reaches a crossroad with the exhibition. Down one path lies a long semantic wrangle with the curators about how they should have called the exhibition something else or how they ought not to have included this or that artist. That way lies nothing but a suffocating mess that leads only to more dead language. The other way leads back to this rich trove of art as a thing in itself, an opportunity to sort out the boundaries of what constitutes the spiritual for each votary on his path to Mecca.

The rectangles and crosses of Kasimir Malevich have a mystical intensity, but their absolutism seems to lead only to the poetics of ideology. An illuminating spread of Mondrians offers a wonderful lexicon tracking the artist’s growth from realism through the ritual occult, past spirituality to a structure that speaks more of the poetry of social idealism than the numinous.

The unknown Scandinavian artist Hilma af Klint is a different case. She worked in obscurity until her death in 1944 and this is the first public exposure of her work. She was an authentic spiritualist who had virtually nothing to do with the art world but she produced abstract paintings based on her metaphysical vision. Their spontaneous forms, echoed by professional artists, seem to argue for an essential spirituality of the forms themselves.

But no, finally it is the feelings invested in these forms that count, and the truth is that these spiritual feelings diminish as we move closer to our own time and the terrible commercialization of art. The California Dynaton group still had soul in the ‘40s and survivors retain it to this day. Somehow the mythic concerns of the Abstract Expressionists are more humanistic than transcendent and the metaphysics of Wally Hedrick or Alfred Jensen plop down close to magic and philosophy. The Op Art paintings of Norman Zammit pose the visual question, “Does pure phenomenology have soul?”

Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp are great artists but they no way belong in this exhibition, interests in alchemy and mandalas notwithstanding. (The work of Suzanne Duchamp, on the other hand, has an authentically occult ring.)

The show probably should have been called something else, but how do you get Dad out of the house for “Synesthesia in Modern Art”? The show is really about those crossovers of sensation that made Ralph Waldo Emerson say, “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind.” And vice versa, as universally proven here.

Whatever else, “The Spiritual in Art” is the best workout our brain has had in at least two years. When you add it to those other LACMA landmark exhibitions, “The Avant-Garde in Russia” and “German Expressionist Sculpture,” you think some more. You think, “If this keeps up in the new building New York’s Museum of Modern Art will have a peer in L.A.”

“The Spiritual in Art” remains on view to March 8 and then travels to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague.