When he was 99 years old, eminent art historian Peter Selz talked with me about his perspectives on, and historic first-hand experiences of, Kandinsky’s work and life.
In the field of modern art, Peter Selz seems to have known everyone and been everywhere interesting things were happening. His career has been so singular that it defies attempts to efficiently summarize it. Born in Munich, he came to the U.S. in his teens when Hitler’s power was on the rise. Pursuing his interest in art, he introduced himself to the famed art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, to whom he was distantly related and who became his mentor. After earning his Ph.D. (U. Chicago) and a professorship at Bauhaus master Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design “New Bauhaus,” Selz became the youngest curator of Painting and Sculpture ever hired at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There, from 1958 to 1965, he stood his ground against various art world trends, organizing original shows featuring those we now consider the pantheon of modern artists: Francis Bacon, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean
Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning, Nathan Oliveira, Jackson Pollock and Jean Tinguely, among too many others to name. The New York Times called him “Mr. Modern Art.”
Selz went on to found and direct the Berkeley Art Museum, to hold a U.C. Berkeley professorship, and to direct Christo’s infamous 24.5-mile Running Fence project; he has curated countless shows, championed the work of countless artists—it is because of Selz that the important West Coast Funk artists are known—and published countless articles and reviews, along with fifteen books, from the classic German Expressionist Painting (1957) with its foundational section on Kandinsky, to the timely The Art of Engagement (2005).
It was our common enthusiasm for Kandinsky that first sparked our friendship in the mid-1980s, and has fed it since then.
On April 8, 2018, Peter and I met at Berkeley’s legendary restaurant, Le Bateau Ivre, a plaster and stone house built in 1898, when Kandinsky was 32. There, Dr. Selz reminisced as I interviewed him over dinner, on subjects formal and informal pertaining to Kandinsky. Leaving our meeting, he said with some fervor that as a child growing up in Munich, he was very aware of where Kandinsky lived, not far from his own home.
Dr. Selz turned 100 on March 27, 2019—with a who’s who party, of course—so it’s a special pleasure to share his critical responses and first-person accounts now, his having refined them over a century.
Has your thinking about Kandinsky changed over the years?
No, I knew from the very beginning, from the early work, what a great artist he was. And I don’t think my opinion has changed that much. You know, he stands out as this giant, and all this stuff has been written, that other people did non-objective paintings at the same time or earlier, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. The important thing is how good his paintings were. And they look so incredibly good. And when I go back and see some exhibited at the Guggenheim, I mean, they are just such wonderful paintings, and they don’t look like anybody else’s.
Who do you think is the heir to Kandinsky’s painting? What painters have carried on Kandinsky’s work?
My god! In a way, all the Abstract Expressionists. I mean, they all looked at Kandinsky, I know that. I mean, when I talked to the artists in New York, whether it was de Kooning, or Mark Rothko, they were very much aware—especially de Kooning—they were very much aware of Kandinsky. And, you know, Abstract Expressionist art, non-figurative art, all owes a major, major debt to Kandinsky. And of course, in New York, with all the Kandinskys at the Guggenheim, they were very familiar with the work. The people I knew, they talked about Kandinsky—Kandinsky was very, very well-known by then, because he had all the Guggenheim paintings. They weren’t always shown, but they were there.
And I remember when I first saw the Kandinskys at the Guggenheim—they had a temporary space, on E. 54th Street [it opened in 1939 –ed.], and there was Hilla Rebay, the woman who ran the Guggenheim—and they were hung there on very thick, gray carpets, with low light, paintings hung very low. And there was great silence in these spaces, and she would say, something to the effect that: as far as non-objective, abstract expressionist painting go, Kandinsky was the prophet, was the hero. Kandinsky and Bauer. She bought a huge numbers of Rudolf Bauer paintings—they don’t look so bad now. They look pretty good. You know, he was glorified, as far as anybody knew… Hilla Rebay—she had an affair both with Guggenheim and with Bauer—and she got the Guggenheim money to buy the Bauers. Anyway, Kandinsky was well-known because of that: the New York painters, they
saw his work, these paintings, at the temporary Guggenheim. They didn’t talk all that much about Kandinsky, but they were clearly aware of his work and knew it well. I remember, I knew Rothko pretty well, and he spoke with great admiration about Kandinsky.
You met Nina Kandinsky.
I originally met Nina in 1950, when I was on a Fulbright to work on German Expressionism. I was in Paris, and naturally, I sought out Nina. And I spent quite a bit of time… I saw Nina three or four times, up in Neuilly, where they lived. And I don’t remember too much about that. What I do remember is, some years later, when there was a big Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim. And the two guests of honor were [Hans] Roethel, from the Kandinsky museum in Münich, and Nina. And Tom Messen—he was director of the museum—I knew him very well… He said: keep Nina away from Roethel—Roethel was the director of the Kandinsky Museum—so it was a big thing. And I talked to Nina, keeping her away from Roethel. And she told me all kinds of unbelievable things, like—I think she was a little bit gaga at that point—she said, “All these so-called Kandinsky paintings, in the
museum in Münich, are not… they are done by Gabriele Münter”— because if they had been done by Kandinsky himself, she would own them! So I said, ”Mrs. Kandinsky—you didn’t know him at that time.” [Laughing.] So, she disregarded that.
Oh, there’s one more story about Nina. She owned at that point quite a few of his late paintings. So I asked her, “What are you going to do with these paintings?” And she replied, “I will keep them until the Tsar is back, and then I will give them to Russia.” Put that down [referring to my note-taking, laughing] “I will keep them until the Tsar is back, and then I will give them to Russia.” Put that down [laughing]! I don’t think she was all that clear-minded at that point. Telling me these crazy stories, like the ones you’ve written down. I mean, how can you pay attention to that? It was nuts.
I spent time with her and with Münter.
Tell me about Gabriele Münter.
Oh, I liked Gabriele Münter a lot. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon with Gabriele Münter, at her house, at Münter’s house, up in the Alps, and I really enjoyed that. Everything very simple, coffee, good conversation. Her husband was there, too. They lived in Murnau. And Murnau was in the foothills of the Alps. About 60 or 70 kilometers south of Munich. A lovely village, in the foothills. And Kandinsky spent a lot of time there, in Murnau. She was married at that time, and she lived there—it was maybe 1957 or ’58. And I had a really good time; she was a good woman.
What did you talk about?
We talked about Kandinsky. There was nothing else! And what she said about him I don’t remember. But they had a relationship that lasted quite a few years. They were very, very close. They lived together, more or less, all those years.
In her photos she often looks a little… dour. And in her letters…
I found her very, very agreeable.
That’s nice to hear.
She was married afterwards.
Yes, to Johannes Eichner, an art historian.
And she was a good artist! Oh, she was a very good artist. And a lot of her paintings are in the Kandinsky Museum.
Do you think Kandinsky was influenced by Münter? They influenced each other?
Well, they lived together, and they probably influenced each other—a very close relationship: they were both painters, and their friendship… They influenced each other. I can’t identify how. She was younger, and in a way she was a student as well as his lady friend. She was both.
Before we met today, you mentioned Kandinsky and religion. Tell me about that.
Well, OK. When I first looked at the Kandinskys, these paintings, these wonderful abstract expressionist paintings—in those days, no one talked about their spiritual quality. And this was overlooked, and this cannot be emphasized too much. I mean, he really believed that art was a matter of the spirit. I actually think he was a religious man; I think he belonged to the Theosophical Society.
I want to ask you about that. I often feel people are over-emphasizing his Theosophical interest. I mean, it was only early in his life, in his career, yes?
I mean, he didn’t talk about Theosophy throughout his Bauhaus period, his Paris period.
That’s right, right. It was early. I mean, he wrote The Spiritual in Art—what year was that? 1912? Before the war. Before the Bauhaus. I think after the war, the spiritual was less important. Yes, I think so. He looked at other things at the Bauhaus. And, you know, he was the great master at the Bauhaus, from beginning to end. Other Bauhaus artists came and went, but he was there until the very, very end. By that time, he’d achieved great international fame.
[Taking a bite of his food] This is very good.
Can you say more about his Bauhaus period? After his second Russian period, when he went back, and the Revolution—then we have the Bauhaus, and then the French period, the last years.
At the Bauhaus, his work changed from the free-form expressionism to a more severe, increasingly geometric painting. Which was very much in keeping with the Bauhaus ideas. I mean, there he was, working in this geometric, Gropius building-–it may have had an impact, I don’t know. Working with other artists… In general, things moved from the more free-form expressionism to a more geometric abstraction. Not just with Kandinsky, but in German art in general. And he was very much part of this. Maybe what he did had a great affect on what other people did—he was really seen as a master.
What do you know about Schoenberg’s falling out with him—when Schoenberg accused him of being anti-Semitic?
Now, as far as I know, Gropius considered appointing Arnold Schoenberg to the faculty of the Bauhaus. And I believe that Schoenberg felt that Nina Kandinsky was anti-Semitic, and that, in a way, kept him from accepting. I’m not sure about this, but that’s what I’ve read. It could be true.
I read that it was [Gropius’s wife] Alma Mahler who started the rumor. And that was embarrassing for Gropius.
I think that’s right. Yes, this is a rumor that goes back to Alma Mahler. That may or may not be true.
On a more personal note: tell me one thing you like about Kandinsky’s work, and one thing you don’t like, or think is not successful.
I personally like the free-form abstract paintings the most. The pre-war paintings. And there’s nothing I don’t like. I like the late paintings—many people don’t like his late paintings. But I understand the late paintings, and I like the late paintings very much. I mean, they don’t, obviously, affect me emotionally as the more emotional earlier paintings. My emotional response to the emotional quality of his 1915 paintings… But I respect the Bauhaus and the Paris pictures, very much.
Yes, I do, too; I love them.When you were in Neuilly, did you see Kandinsky’s studio?
Lissa, he didn’t even have a studio. He painted in their apartment in Neuilly, as far as I know. There was a room—I’m not totally sure now, but I seem to remember—but I saw Nina several times in their apartment in Neuilly, and I think this is where he painted. I’m pretty sure.
What was it like?
I don’t remember, but I’m sure it was all neat and clean. It was not what you’d think an artist’s studio would look like. And I’m almost certainly sure that he painted with his necktie on. You know, that’s what his late paintings look like: they’re very formal.
I think he was pretty isolated in Paris. I think he had an affect on what was going on, but he was not really part of the Paris situation.
Yes, partly because of his painting life, and also [for personal reasons].
I think that’s quite possible.
Is there anything you feel the scholars have misunderstood about Kandinsky?
Well, I don’t know if people really realize what an important master he was. Maybe they do know—but I don’t know… art history gets re-written all the time.
I would have liked to know him.
He was kind of a private person.
Yes, a different kind.
Note: An earlier, different version of this piece was developed for Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.
Cover photo by the interviewer, Aug. 10, 2018