Russian born Alexei Jawlensky (pronounced Yavlensky) gets almost no respect in much of the critical literature, including the ones for the recent show of his work at the Neue Gallerie in New York. Generally his work is considered derivative in relation to the other Blue Rider expressionists surrounding Kandinsky during his period in Munihc and Murnai. It could be too that his paintings reek positively of religion in contrast to the more subtle (?) spiritual variations of Kandinsky, Münter, Klee, and Marc. What I think distinguishes his work is the thickness of his color. Already in the “Variations,” the light in the landscapes are darker as if buried in more deeply into the material of the paint. For my part, I immediately liked his “mystical heads,” “Faces of the Saviour,” and “Abstract Heads,” and “meditations” when I first saw the ones collected and shown at the Norton Simon in Pasadena, California.
While some of them seem to work better than others, the faces and meditations signal the face as a spiritual icon. Trading on the idea of incarnation, they do so in ways that remind me of Franz Rosenzweig, who concludes his theological libretto The Star of Redemption with a mystical vision of a face, schematically figured, at once human and divine, envisioned at the gates of death. Jawlensky’s heads either work or the don’t. My preference is for the ones in which they eyes are closed and where the palette is darker. By the time of the last “Meditations,” the facial figure has been so radically simplified as to be recognized as such. These remind me of the dark glow of David Bowie’s last videos or the last songs of Leonard Cohen, conceived and performed with death very much in view. Created just before his own dying, these last paintings by Jawlensky radiate a persuasive mystical color. It is a deep color impacted in darkness, drawn from another world.
The Neue Gallerie is not the most welcoming of places. I understand why the museum directors don’t want visitors snapping digital photos. The prohibition creates a more intense looking experience. All the same, it creates a distinctly unpleasant experience. I’m always on edge there. The mood is consistently snobbish and suspicious, enforced by the museum guards who are on alert in a constant policing action. In assembling this post, I went online to find examples of what I saw. The paintings are grouped into three:  variations,  faces,  meditations. On the other hand, maybe they came out better than my own digital photos.