I was fortunate to arrive in Los Angeles just in time for a symposium on ``The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985.'' Visitors need all the help they can get if they want to grapple with the extraordinary exhibition that has opened the lofty new Robert O. Anderson Building of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. What definition of ``the spiritual'' embraces the deep ethereal glow of ``Red Light, Spherical Composition'' (c. 1923), by Russian avant-gardist Ivan Kliun - and the ``ready-made'' tangibility of the spinnable ``Bicycle Wheel'' (1913), by French innovator Marcel Duchamp?
It is a definition that goes far outside the concept of spirituality in established religion. It includes such beliefs as mysticism, occultism, theosophy, monism, alchemy, and the variously interpreted ``fourth dimension.''
Alchemy's combining of contrary elements, in fact, is cited in connection with Duchamp's movable bicycle wheel on a stationary stool. The fourth dimension is related to the open spokes that, when spun, form a solid plane. For viewers who want to join the debate over what means what, the massive catalog is full of information and speculation connecting the signs and symbols of abstraction to the esoteric beliefs of many artists involved.
A central figure in the show is Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian artist who both articulated his beliefs and pioneered the art of abstraction. The exhibition's title echoes that of his 1912 volume, ``On the Spiritual in Art.'' On display is a copy that belonged to Duchamp. The book is linked to several other artists represented here.
The evolution of Mr. Kandinsky suggests how many meanings ``the spiritual'' can have even for one person. When the canvases range from Kandinsky's circles to Barnett Newman's stripes and Ad Reinhardt's solid color fields, the possibilities multiply.
Here is where that symposium came in handy. One of the visiting art scholars, Konrad Oberhuber, suggested that a departure in art usually comes from some surge of idea or emotion - but then the resulting art is seen in formal terms. In other words, so I took it, we in the museum respond to the outward shapes and colors of what we see, not necessarily to what profundities or quirks were in the mind of the artist.
So there's no reason not to go and enjoy or berate these more than 200 varied works by more than 100 artists without worrying our heads about why. But suppose we want to see what the exhibition is driving at. Here is an ``avalanche of new data,'' said Robert Rosenblum, another art scholar in the symposium.
A common philosophical thread seems to have combined a rejection of materialism, an aspiration for improvement of the world, a sense of something beyond visible matter, though usually another form of matter. Abstract painting - or objectless painting, as the Russian artists so precisely said - is seen to have developed as the response of artists trying to convey such thoughts, not to mention, in some cases, the abracadabras of specific arcane systems.
Automatic drawing was part of the approach of the ``find'' of the show, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944); her work, with its striking cubes and spirals, has never been publicly shown outside Sweden before. The celebrated Piet Mondrian's elegant geometry is accompanied by his simple general statement:
``As matter becomes redundant, the representation of matter likewise becomes redundant. We arrive at the representation of other things such as the laws which hold matter together.''
One of the fillips of the catalog is the relating of Mondrian to a currently in-demand artist, Anselm Kiefer, to illustrate the assimilation of abstraction into contemporary art. Kiefer's painting ``Piet Mondrian: Arminius' Battle'' (1976) represents a tree growing out of a Mondrian abstraction. Mondrian had transformed the tree image into abstraction, and now Kiefer reverses the process, starting with antimateriality and then evoking the meaning of a tree in winter.
Or so exhibition organizer Maurice Tuchman explains it in his catalog essay. For all the data and discussion about the mystical sources of abstraction, Mr. Tuchman recognizes abstract artists who were not interested in such issues. One of them was the Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky, whose ``Proun 3A'' happens to be a recent acquisition by the museum. He tried to relate his art to idea systems and architecture, writes Tuchman.
And a note explains the conspicuous omission of Richard Diebenkorn from such an encompassing exhibition of abstract art. Some of his strong, serene, imaginative paintings do seem to express powerful intangibles. But Diebenkorn takes the position that ``abstract painting was a formal invention.'' It was a vehicle made to order for the mystics but not originated by them.
So the debate goes on, and what a visual feast accompanies it! Here in Los Angeles to March 8; at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, which helped to initiate the exhibition, April 17 to July 19; and the Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, Sept. 1 to Nov. 22.