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The First Five Books

Hilla Rebay, director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, was not one to underestimate the power of abstraction—the nonobjective—in art:

For thousands of years astronomers, as well as laymen, believed that the earth was the center of the universe, around which all other planets revolved. . . . For an even longer period of time there was a belief that the object in painting was the center around which art must move. Artists of the Twentieth Century have discovered that the object is just as far from being the center of art as the earth is from being the focal point of the universe.

This confident proclamation was the first paragraph of her "Definition of Non-Objective Painting," the first text in the first publication of Solomon R. Guggenheim's collection of nonobjective paintings, in 1936. It was an auspicious beginning.

Guggenheim's collection was well known before the Museum of Non-Objective Paintings even opened its doors. Rebay had organized a traveling exhibition of artists who comprised the founding collection, with stops in Charleston, South Carolina; Baltimore; and Philadelphia. The tour, building up to the museum's New York opening in 1939, was the occasion for a series of enlarged catalogues known as the First Five Books.

For each of the books Rebay penned a new essay further developing her philosophy of nonobjective painting, which she believed possessed transformative or spiritual qualities: "Definition of Non-Objective Painting," "The Beauty of Non-Objectivity," "The Value of Non-Objectivity," "Non-Objectivity Is the Realm of the Spirit," and "The Power of Spiritual Rhythm." The books were each characterized by a silver cover framing a different work by collection artist Rudolf Bauer. The interior pages notably contained full-sized color plates, a rarity for the time. Rebay closely involved herself in their production, and the images were of such high quality that they were also sold individually.

Rebay's faith in nonobjective painting has certainly paid off, and today the First Five Books offer an invaluable window into the birth of a world-class museum.

Detail of the cover for the 1939 publication Art of Tomorrow: Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings illustrating Rudolf Bauer's Invention (Composition 31) (1933). Catalogue © SRGF. Artwork © Rudolf Bauer

Required Reading

Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings

Hilla Rebay
Published in 1939
44 pages with 20 color illustrations
Hardcover, 8.5 x 11 inches
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Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings

Contributions by Yarnell Abbott and Hilla Rebay
Published in 1937
88 pages , fully illustrated
Softcover
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Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings

Contributions by Hilla Rebay
Published in 1936
64 pages , fully illustrated
Softcover, 8.37 x 11.12 inches
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Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings

Hilla Rebay
Published in 1938
122 pages , fully illustrated
Softcover
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The Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim

Contributions by Vivian Barnett, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Robert Rosenblum, Brigitte Salmen, Karole Vail, and Roland von Rebay
Published in 2005
300 pages , fully illustrated
Hardcover and softcover, 8.5 x 11 inches
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The Museum of Non-Objective Painting: Hilla Rebay and the Origins of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Edited by Karole Vail with contributions by Tracey Bashkoff, John Hanhardt, and Don Quaintance
Published in 2009
336 pages , fully illustrated
Hardcover, 10 1/2 x 8 5/8 inches
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Also of Interest

Visit the Findings Blog to see Hilla Rebay's mock-up for the fifth catalogue.