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Guggenheim Exhibition on Kandinsky Offers Insight into Artist’s Creative Process

August 21, 2011

Vasily Kandinsky, Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913. Oil on canvas, 100 x 78.4 cm. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Gift from the Estate of Katherine S. Dreier, 1953 © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP.

NEW YORK, NY.- Completed nearly 100 years ago, the canvas Painting with White Border (Bild mit weissem Rand, May 1913) by Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) was inspired by a trip the artist took to Moscow in fall 1912. Upon his return to Munich, where he had been living intermittently since 1896, Kandinsky searched for a way to visually record the “extremely powerful impressions” of his native Russia that lingered in his memory. Over a period of five months, he explored various motifs and compositions in study after study, moving freely between pencil, pen and ink, watercolor, and oil. After he produced at least sixteen studies, Kandinsky finally arrived at the pictorial solution to the painting: the white border. This focused exhibition, co-organized with the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., will reunite for the first time the Guggenheim’s final version of the painting from May 1913 with twelve related drawings and watercolors and one major oil sketch and will feature the results of an extensive conservation study of the Guggenheim and Phillips paintings. This study revealed a previously unknown painting beneath the surface of the Phillips’s Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow) (Entwurf I zu Bild mit weissem Rand [Moskau], 1913). A rare glimpse into Kandinsky’s creative process, this presentation reveals the gradual and deliberate way the artist sought to translate his ideas into a bold new language of abstraction.

Kandinsky’s Painting with White Border is organized by Tracey Bashkoff, Curator, Collections and Exhibitions, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Elsa Smithgall, Curator, the Phillips Collection. It will be on view at the Guggenheim Museum from October 21, 2011, to January 15, 2012, following its presentation at the Phillips Collection from June 11 to September 4, 2011.

This exhibition is supported by a grant from the Joseph and Sylvia Slifka Foundation. The conservation study, research, and treatment of Painting with White Border have been made possible through the generous support of Friends of Heritage Preservation.

This focused exhibition traces Kandinsky’s working method through a roughly chronological display of twelve drawings and watercolors and one major oil sketch related to Painting with White Border. According to a May 1913 essay Kandinsky wrote about the picture, later published in an album titledKandinsky 1901–1913 (1913), the artist executed the first oil sketch (owned by the Phillips) “immediately upon my return from Moscow in December 1912.” The orientation of his preliminary studies evolved from a vertical to a horizontal format, and he used pencil, pen and ink, and watercolor throughout the many iterations. Kandinsky explored key motifs reminiscent of his native Russia, including the troika (a three-horse sled) and Saint George. Ultimately the artist executed more studies than he had for any of his previous paintings before resolving the composition with a soft, undulating white border that he compared to a white wave. In his seminal 1911 treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Insbesondere in der Malerei (On the Spiritual in Art: And Painting in Particular), Kandinsky wrote that the color white expresses a “harmony of silence. . .pregnant with possibilities.”

In preparation for this presentation, a team of conservators from the Guggenheim and the Phillips, led by Gillian McMillan, Associate Chief Conservator for the Collection, Guggenheim Museum, and Elizabeth Steele, Head of Conservation, the Phillips Collection, worked with scientists Narayan Khandekar and Erin Mysak from the Straus Center for Conservation, Harvard Art Museum. The group undertook new technical research on the painting and its related oil study, offering further insight into Kandinsky’s creative process. The conservators examined Painting with White Border (owned by the Guggenheim) and its study Sketch I for Painting with White Border (Moscow) (owned by the Phillips) side-by-side for the first time. With techniques including infrared imaging, X-radiography, and crosssectional and chemical analysis of the paints Kandinsky used, conservators scrutinized both paintings, comparing the brushwork, mediums, and development of the compositions.

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