New York — It's no secret that Vasily Kandinsky was one of the pivotal masters of 20 th-century modernism - as well as one of its most influential guiding lights.
His early 1911-14 abstractions helped pave the way for a manner of painting that severed all dependency upon the appearance of physical reality. It established theoretic and painterly premises and precedents for generations of painters, including those of our own day.
He was also one of the prime intellectuals of modern art, a restless and innovative creative spirit whose curiosity about everything pertaining to art led him to investigate not only painting but many of the other arts as well.
He was a superb craftsman, designer, and illustrator - as well as an excellent printmaker and costume designer. There was hardly anything having to do with the arts that he didn't approach imaginatively and with passion, a fact beautifully brought out in ''Kandinsky in Munich: 1896-1914,'' the Guggenheim Museum's exhibition here.
It's the first of three major exhibitions devoted to the art of Kandinsky that will be shown at the Guggenheim at approximately two-year intervals. Each will examine a definable period in his creative evolution as seen in the context of the artistic, social, and intellectual developments of his time. Part 2 of the series will be ''Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years: 1915-1933''; and Part 3, ''Kandinsky in Paris: 1933-1944.''
The current exhibition consists of roughly 300 works by Kandinsky and by some of his contemporaries - including Kubin, Munter, Klee, Marc, Macke, and lesser-known artists and craftsmen. It covers the period beginning with his arrival in Munich from his native Russia in 1896 to study art and ending when he left that city in 1914, already firmly established as a major avant-garde artist.
It is, without doubt, a major art event. It examines the cultural roots and ideological sources, the probings and projections, as well as the social and political contexts of Kandinsky's first period in extraordinary detail. Guest curator Peg Weiss's painstaking research is evident everywhere - as is her clear perception of Kandinsky's identity and growth. And the show itself is beautifully hung.
The only problem with this show is Kandinsky himself. He just doesn't come across as an artist of great quality. In point of fact, with a few exceptions among his smaller works and such an oil as the 1913 ''Painting With White Border ,'' my overall reaction to these earlier works of his is that they represent a minor talent too often overextending itself. And that, historical importance notwithstanding, his true talents lay in design, decoration, and illustration.
I must add - even though my doing so takes me beyond the scope of this particular exhibition - that his later works merely underscore that reaction - interesting and charming as many of the later works are.
This issue of importance vs. quality in Kandinsky's art has hounded me ever since my first contact with his work in the late 1940s. At that time, his 1911- 1914 paintings - among those I saw were a few included in this exhibition - seemed not only tremendously alive but also important in that they served to legitimize some of the wilder threshings-about of the then-emerging abstract-expressionists.
Even so, something about them disturbed me. For all their exuberance, they never, for me, quite worked as art. The more I studied them, the more rhetorical and artificial they became.
Try as I would, I haven't been able to shake off that original reaction. If anything, their quality - as opposed to their historical importance - diminished in my eyes as the years went on. It did so in direct proportion to the degree later art responded to the promises inherent within them. By the 1950s Kandinsky's early abstract canvases seemed drained of most of their substance - and by the late 1960s they began to look increasingly like scrawlings and splotches from which most life had been drawn. They looked empty and flat, like a cornfield after harvest.
Unlike the work of the other important modernist innovators which seemed to become stronger, richer, and more alive over the years, Kandinsky's early extravaganzas became increasingly dated and nonvital. They had promised much, had inspired others to strike off on their own, but had eventually fallen flat because they were more rhetoric and posture than they were living art. Kandinsky , I'm afraid, produced a passionate and exciting ''honeymoon'' art that never quite made it into marriage.
I went to this show sincerely hoping to be proven wrong, hoping that seeing the full context within which his art evolved would help me see quality where I had seen little before. If anything, however, this exhibition convinced me more than ever that Kandinsky was inherently an intimist, that his talent was essentially for the precious, the precise, and the fragile - despite the largeness of his vision. Such smallish works as the 1900 tempera and gold-bronze ''Comet (Night Rider?),'' several 1901-03 oil sketches including ''Munich,'' the 1908-09 watercolor and charcoal ''Four Musicians in a Landscape,'' as well as several of his small 1903-09 woodcuts and illustrations strike a note of formal integrity and authenticity his larger and more abstract works of 1911-14 seldom achieve.
I know it's not fashionable to say so, but it's time we once again took the size and scale of talent into account. Paul Klee did, and utilized his talent to produce magnificent art. Kandinsky, I believe, did not, and produced more storm and fury in these early works than genuine art as a result.
This by no means challenges his achievements as a major creative influence and catalyst. Those are art-historical facts. But it does point up something about which we of this century have been very unclear. And that is our confusion between newness, excitement, novelty, promise - and true quality and genuine achievement. We have too often assumed that anything new and exciting, anything that pointed in new directions, was automatically art.
When the full picture of 20th-century modernism takes shape, it is my belief that Kandinsky will be listed among its great prophets and teachers, as one of its seminal forces. He will not, however, be seen as one who produced any of its major masterpieces. Like Moses, he never entered the promised land.
After its closing at the Guggenheim Museum here on March 21, this fascinating and extremely important exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where it will be on view from April 22 through June 20.