Like many other museums, the Solomon R. Guggenheim is filling space in their schedule in a fiscally prudent way by showing works owned by the museum. But the Guggenheim collection is no ordinary one, and this exhibition, Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim, exemplifies its depth and range, featuring works from six stellar collectors, each with a fascinating back story. I encourage anyone with a love of Impressionist, Expressionist, and Modern art to visit the museum and make use of the audio tour. Visionaries is a narrative of post-industrial Western civilization told in pictures by the greatest artistic minds of the 20th century.
The first of the six collections is, of course, that of the founder himself. Solomon R. Guggenheim began building a collection of Non-Objective abstraction in the late 1930s. In 1939 he established The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which later changed its name to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The early portion of Guggenheim’s collection is represented in this show by fantastic works by Wassily Kandinsky, Rudolf Bauer, Rolph Scarlett, John Ferren, Alice Trumbull Mason, and Penrod Centurion.Centurion is an all but forgotten artist, yet his compositions hold up remarkably well next to works of equal scale by his contemporaries of much greater fame. I was especially captivated by Centurion’s 1938 watercolor, Composition (les moments heureux d’un saphir). The range of Kandinsky’s career is well represented with Improvisation 28 (Second Version) from 1912, and later works such as Composition 8, July 1923.
There would probably not be a Guggenheim collection, nor a museum, if it were not for the Baroness Hilla von Rebay. Hilla Rebay was a painter and champion of non-objective abstraction. With Rudolf Bauer’s encouragement Rebay set off to America to find an individual with the money and vision to collect and promote these artists and their unique vision for the future of the plastic arts. Rebay encouraged Guggenheim to build a collection, and to share it with the public. The museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in 1939 with Hilla Rebay as the first director. Rebay was not only an advocate of and participant in the non-objective painting movement, she also was vested in the artists’ works. The collection went into the Hila Rebay Foundation and is now part of the Guggenheim collection.
Hilla Rebay served as the director of the Guggenheim from 1939-1952 and was at the helm through the transition from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She also commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the current New York facility. The museum established a global status under the directorship of Thomas Messer, who served as director from 1961-1988. During his tenure the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation acquired the collections of Justin K. Thannhauser and Peggy Guggenheim.
Justin K. Thannhauser was an important German art dealer. Much of his family’s early collection had to be sold when he fled Germany during World War II. He settled in Paris, and after the War relocated to New York. In 1963 he bequeathed the majority of his art to the Guggenheim, thus expanding the collection into Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and early modernism. The Thannhauser Collection is housed in its own wing and is a wonderful diversion from the flowing spiral of the main gallery. I was captivated by Eduard Manet’s Before a Mirror, painted in 1876.
Peggy Guggenheim, the estranged niece of Solomon, built an exceptional collection of her own. Through extraordinary feats of diplomacy and salesmanship, Thomas Messer convinced Peggy Guggenheim to allow her collection, and the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, to be folded into the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Her collection broadens the base of early Modernism in the museum’s holdings with works that complement the Non-Objective collection such as El Lissitzky’s Untitled work painted circa 1919-20, and carries it forward into the era of Post-War art. One work among the many great examples in her collection is a breakthrough 1947 painting by Jackson Pollock, Alchemy.
An acquisition early in the life of the Guggenheim museum was made following the tragic death of the prominent art dealer, Karl Nierendorf. The brothers, Karl and Josef Nierendorf began trading in art in 1920 from their gallery in Cologne. Karl moved to Berlin and took over the J. B. Neumann Graphische Kabinett in Berlin in 1923. The gallery eventually became Galerie Nierendorf. Karl traveld to New York in 1936, where he established Nierendorf Gallery. He died suddenly in 1947 without a will, so the State of New York assumed ownership of his gallery, and the following year his collection was purchased by the Guggenheim for $72,000. Among the Nierendorf collection are marvelous examples of German Expressionist works, among them Franz Marc’s Stables, 1913; Paul Klee’s Flower Bed, 1913, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Dancers, 1908, and Oscar Kokoschka’s Night Errant, 1915.
The last of the six collections on view is that of Katherine Dreier. Dreier was an artist, art patron and co-founder of Societe Anonyme. During her life she believed in the Modernist movement, and lent her support as a patron. Her collection and papers were donated to Yale University upon her death, but she also gifted many works to the Guggenheim Foundation. I particularly lingered while viewing Piet Mondrian’s Composition, 1929, Kurt Schwitters’ Mz199, 1921; and Constantin Brancusi’s Little French Girl (The First Step [III]).
Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim
On view through September 6, 2017
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1071 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10128