For me, the province of art and the province of nature thus became more and more widely separated, until I was able to experience both as completely independent realms. This occurred to the full extent only this year.Vasily Kandinsky, in 1913

The birth of abstract art—art that makes no direct, immediately discernible reference to recognizable objects—has long been recognized as a fateful event in the history of art. Yet the intellectual origins of this event, which promptly established abstraction as one of the central traditions of twentieth-century painting and sculpture, have remained a vague and little-understood subject for the vast public that now takes abstract art for granted as part of the familiar scenery of modern cultural life. That the emergence of abstraction early in the second decade of this century represented for its pioneer creators a solution to a spiritual crisis; that the...


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