Vasily Kandinsky. Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 2. 1914 506

Oil on canvas, 64 1/8 x 48 3/8" (162.6 x 122.7 cm). Nelson A. Rockefeller Fund (by exchange). © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Curator, Leah Dickerman: We're looking at the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky's panels that he made for Edwin R. Campbell, who was the founder of the Chevrolet Motor Company. And these panels were made for the entrance foyer of Campbell's Park Avenue apartment.

And Kandinsky is often discussed as having made among the first abstract pictures. It's hard for us now to think about abstraction as something that was invented, but it may have been Modernism's greatest invention. And around the years of 1911 or 1912 there are a series of abstract pictures made by different artists in different places. So there is something about this moment in which suddenly there's an incredible imperative to make abstract pictures for a modern age.

These were made in 1914. And he's quite ambitious here. It's not just one image, but four. They're designed to be installed in the foyer of Campbell's apartment so that they would surround the viewer in this kind of immersive way. So it's about stepping into a space that would be fully abstract.

When you look at these panels you see that forms tend not to be defined completely. Instead there's this waving, calligraphic line that scans the surface of these panels and there's brilliant color. And there are hints of recognizable imagery without it ever being a fully coherent image of the visible world. He's interested in that cusp momentthat moment when you're on the verge of breaking with the natural world.

For Kandinsky, music served as a very important model. It was seen as the form of art that was most abstract and detached from the material world. He was trained as both a pianist and a violinist. His musical knowledge was deep. He engaged in a long conversation with the musician Arnold Schoenberg about the issues of modern music but one of his key references was, in fact, the composer Richard Wagner.

Wagner had been important in breaking down the traditional sonata structure, that structure in which you have a very definable beginning, middle, and end. And instead the piece would be knit together by leitmotifs pieces of music that would carry through the composition and reappear again and again in trailing musical lines and notes. And this is very important for Kandinsky.

Director, Glenn Lowry: At some point these four panels became separated. Two of the four panels were rediscovered in Florida in the 1940s.

Conservator, Jim Coddington: A house was being cleaned out. The, housekeeper of the house found two paintings in the attic this was during World War II. She called an artist friend of hers and said, Ive got two paintings here, I know canvas is hard to come by because of the War, perhaps you can use these. The artist who took them recognized that, in fact, these were two Kandinskys, which he later sold to the Guggenheim Museum.

Glenn Lowry: In the 1970s, our Museum was able to acquire the Guggenheim paintings, reuniting them with the other two, which MoMA had purchased at auction in the 1950s. But layers of protective varnish had been added to three of the four canvases.

Jim Coddington: If you look at the four paintings, the large whitish one was basically untouched. The other large painting, which has more dark passages in it, had a very light varnish on it, just a misting of spray varnish. The two narrow pictures had both been varnished with a brush varnish. So the surfaces of these paintings looked rather different, and what is very important here is to understand that the one, which was untreated, which had not received any varnish, was like the touchstone for us.

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