Inflated art-world reputations are very peculiar things. They can disappear in a matter of months, or linger for decades. John Singer Sargent, for instance, was assumed by most of his contemporaries to be one of the truly great painters of the 19th century - if not of all time. This inflated reputation was so at odds with his true worth that the art world turned violently against him after his passing and refused for almost 50 years even to acknowledge his genuine qualities as painter and watercolorist.
Sargent was not an isolated case. Art history is studded with examples of great reputations that ended dramatically upon the artist's passing - or that became the objects of ridicule the moment a new painting style became fashionable. Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean Louis Meissonier, for instance, were the possessors of awesome reputations a century ago but lost all semblance of respectability once Impressionism and Post-Impressionism won the day.
Modernism itself has a few reputations that would diminish considerably should another great art movement supersede it. Stripped of their aura of modernist near-sanctity, and no longer supported by their own self-serving theories, a good half dozen of our major figures would be hard put to face the clear light of art history without some loss of reputation.
There is only one major modernist figure, however, whose reputation is dramatically out of proportion to its owner's true worth as an artist. Wassily Kandinsky, for all his ''art historical importance,'' his near-sanctification by modernist art historians, museum curators, writers on art, and art critics, is, I believe, at best a painter of charming but basically minor works.
I do not state this opinion lightly. Kandinsky was one of my greatest heroes during my art-school days, and even 20 years later I found several of his earlier canvases of the 1909-13 period truly exciting and inspiring. However, 40 years of looking at, studying, and thinking about his overall production has diminished my respect for him considerably, and two recent major exhibitions of his work have caused me to reconsider his importance altogether.
I have read and reread his writings, as well as many books and articles about him and his work. I have discussed his art and his theories with Kandinsky specialists and have asked several artists for their opinions of his work. But, most of all, I have looked at as many of his paintings and works on paper as I could, and I have honestly done my best to counter the erosion of respect I felt for him as a major artist.
It has done no good. Confronted by the work itself, I increasingly sense the paucity of his creative endeavors, and his inability to translate his theories into truly significant art.
I wonder how many others would feel this way if they really looked at his paintings, if they tried to forget how ''important'' an artist he is supposed to be, and let the work speak entirely for itself. It's difficult to do, I know, considering how solidly entrenched he is in the pantheon of modern masters, and how many millions of words have been written on his behalf.
The way things stand now, every dot, line, plane, or color that Kandinsky placed on canvas or paper is supported by countless books, articles, PhD dissertations, and critical reviews. It has become almost as difficult to really see one of his works as it is to really see the Mona Lisa. Everything he painted or wrote is ringed about by ''defenders of the faith'' who consider even one negative word directed at him evidence of the most serious form of art-critical heresy.
There were roughly two dozen outstanding works among the more than 300 in the current Kandinsky exhibition (at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York). All but six or seven were by his contemporaries Klee, El Lissitzky, Feininger, and Itten, artists whose work was included to help illuminate the cultural context within which Kandinsky worked. And of those six or seven, not one was typical of the ''important'' Kandinsky.
It says something crucial about one of modernism's ''greats'' if he can be outclassed in a major exhibition of his work by such excellent but lesser artists as Feininger and Itten - although it certainly is no disgrace to fail to surpass Klee and El Lissitzky. And it makes one
shudder to think what would have happened had Mondrian been included in depth or at all.
It all goes to prove that even a first-rate intelligence cannot will first-rate art into existence if all it has to work with is a second-rate creative sensibility or talent. It's that simple, and nothing will change it, no matter how tempting it may be to think otherwise.
There is no question that Kandinsky was an important theorist, but there also is no question - at least not in my mind - that as an artist he was merely an excellent illustrator of his ideas. He could present his theories brilliantly in words, and could then transcribe them quite precisely into shapes, lines, and colors on canvas or paper. But when it came to the production of art, of work, in other words, that not only represented theory, but transcended it holistically to reach and reveal a higher level of consciousness, he almost always fell far short.
What he did have was a pleasant, smallish talent for color and decoration. Some of his very early pieces are quite charming, and a few of his somewhat later works such as ''Red Border,'' ''Accent in Pink,'' ''Massive Structure,'' ''Levels,'' and ''Calm'' are excellent if minor works of art. Unfortunately, such paintings are rare in his overall production, and tend to be overlooked in the face of his much more purely theoretical - and emptier - paintings such as ''In the Black Square'' and ''Multicolored Circle.''