Art Preview: Wassily Kandinsky and Frank Stella at the Phillips Collection

Two new exhibits showcase the musical inspiration behind the art

By: Sophie Gilbert

"Sketch 1 for Painting with White Border" by Wassily Kandinsky, and K.54 by Frank Stella are two of the works currently on display at the Phillips Collection."

Music might be the food of love, but according to two new shows opening at the Phillips Collection this weekend, it’s the food of art, too. Wassily Kandinsky, who once wrote of art that “color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings” gets a close-up in Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence: Painting with White Border, which includes one of the Russian artist’s most famous and studied works along with 12 preparatory studies. And in Stella Sounds: The Scarlatti K Series, Frank Stella’s music-inspired Scarlatti Kirkpatrick series of sculptures gets its first museum show, comparing Stella’s innovative fusion of artistic mediums with Kandinsky’s trailblazing experiments with form.

“Sketch 1 for Painting with White Border” has been a part of the Phillips’ permanent collection since 1953, where, “if you didn’t know it, you’d assume it’s a finished painting,” says curator Elsa Smithgall. A whirl of jumbled figures and zigzag lines, it’s illuminated by comparison to the final painting, on loan from the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The painting was inspired by a trip Kandinsky took to Moscow, and features what Smithgall describes as “veiled references” to Russian symbols, such as a three-humped form of St. George (a popular Russian saint) on horseback, brandishing a lance, and a troika, or horse-drawn carriage. Long considered one of the first abstract painters, the exhibition reveals how Kandinsky toyed with the concept, distorting objects rather than abandoning them. Musical influences are clear in his rhythmic spontaneity combined with a rigorous approach to structure, as well as in a photograph of the artist with Paul Klee, another classically trained musician who discovered a freedom in painting that he couldn’t find within music.

Stella’s works, inspired by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalog of Scarlatti sonatas, are an intriguing counterpoint to Kandinsky in their fusion of sculpture, painting, and music. The whirling, extravagant lines resemble a mess of notes and figures, but with the measured specificity of Kandinsky’s studies, and a thoughtful approach to rhythm and movement. Stella “draws” with metal, creating small, handcrafted middles first before fleshing them out on a computer. His sculptural final pieces are sometimes brightly colored, sometimes technical, but always balanced. One piece, “K.54,” has organic elements resembling plant skeletons, while another, “K.51,” suggests an automobile engine fused with a giant bug. Each line seems to have a different tactile sense, where elegance is somehow combined with weight. These are focused shows, but they offer some broad insight into the fluidity of art, and a nuanced look at the originality of both artists.

Both exhibits are at the Phillips Collection June 11 through September 4; admission is $12. For more information, visit the Phillips Collection’s Web site.

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