When Peggy Guggenheim started her gallery, ”Art of This Century,” in the wartime year of 1942, no one was standing on line to buy avant-garde art. But that didn’t faze this flamboyant apostle of the new, who at the gallery’s opening wore one earring by Calder and one by Tanguy to demonstrate her equal regard for abstraction and Surrealism.
In the dramatically innovative arena on West 57th Street, created by the architect Frederic Kiesler, she counterpointed the work of such European stars as Arp, di Chirico, Giacometti and Picasso with that of then unknown American talents: Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still. She was the first and prime patron of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement, and her gallery thus played a key role in New York’s displacement of Paris as the capital of modern art. During its five-year run on 57th Street, ”Art of This Century” mounted more than 50 exhibitions. Among them was a show devoted to collage, for which Peggy invited Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and William Baziotes to submit work. Neither Pollock nor Motherwell had made collages before; Motherwell today credits the ”identity” he found in the collage medium to her initiative. Two exhibitions were devoted entirely to women artists (among them the ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, who contributed a self-portrait); one show explored the relationship between insane and Surrealist art, and no less than four solo shows were devoted to the gallery’s rising star, Jackson Pollock. He had been working at the Guggenheim Museum as a carpenter, and came to Peggy’s attention through Howard Putzel, one of her close advisers, and the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta. In her autobiography, ”Out of This Century,” she wrote that Pollock ”immediately became the central point” of her gallery. And until she returned to Europe in 1947, settling in Venice, she devoted herself to promoting the work of the artist who, in her eyes, was ”to become, strangely enough, the greatest painter since Picasso.”
Now, 40 years after the closing of ”Art of This Century” in 1947, the Guggenheim Museum – founded by Peggy’s uncle Solomon – is paying tribute to her ”profound influence on the art world of her time.” On Friday it will open ”Peggy Guggenheim’s Other Legacy,” (through May 3) a show of some 60 works of painting and sculpture originally exhibited at ”Art of This Century,” or given by her to institutions across the country in an effort to spread the gospel of modernism. (The ”other legacy” in the show’s title refers to these works, as distinct from Peggy’s own collection of modern paintings ensconced in her Venetian palazzo and given to the Guggenheim Museum. at her death in 1979.) It’s not easy to realize today the impact of the gallery – and Peggy’s donations – on the public acceptance of modern art in this country. At a time when – despite the inroads made by the Museum of Modern Art – the avant garde was still considered suspect by most right-thinking people, even in Manhattan, ”Art of This Century” was a vigorous outpost for the new and controversial. Harboring a rich mix of refugee artists from Europe and ambitious local vanguardsmen, its ”erratic setting” – recalls Fred Licht, adjunct curator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and co-organizer of the exhibition with Melvin P. Lader – provided ”a recklessly liberal point of encounter and discussion. One never knew which artist would be arguing loudly with what other artist or critic.” The idea was conveyed, he adds, ”that contemporary and indeed all art was not simply to be enjoyed, respected, admired and studied. It could and should give rise to further adventures, to polemics, to the expression of still more, still newer ideas.”
Not content with showing new work in New York, Peggy tried to extend the gallery’s sphere of influence from 57th Street to the rest of the country. Among other works, she gave away some 20 Pollocks, which she later regretted. One of her more difficult bestowals was that of a 1943 Pollock mural 23 feet long and 6 feet wide, painted for the entrance hall of her apartment. ”It consisted of a continuous band of abstract figures in a rhythmic dance painted in blue and white and yellow,” she writes, ”and over this black paint was splashed in drip fashion.” When she decided to donate it as a ”seed gift” to the University of Iowa in 1948, university officials jibbed at the shipping and insurance costs of $100, and wondered whether they could find a suitable place for it. Finally they concluded it would be ”useful for teaching purposes.” Yet a decade later, in 1961, they politely refused Peggy’s bid to exchange the mural for a Braque still life.
Other gifts went to such places as the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Museum of Art of the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Seattle Art Museum. When the Seattle museum’s curator, Edward B. Thomas, visited Peggy at her palazzo in 1954, she took to him immediately. Turning away from a pompous visitor who was considering a work for purchase, Peggy said to Thomas in a stage whisper, ”Stick around, honey, and I’ll give you one.” When the visitor left, she offered the curator his pick of five Jackson Pollocks. Later Thomas noted that this gift and others from Peggy helped ”underline the need to expand the museum’s modern holdings,” and that their quality and the prestige of the giver provided ”an excellent inducement to other collectors to become involved in the museum.”
When she unveiled ”Art of This Century” here in 1942, Peggy was in effect a wartime refugee from Europe, where she had cavorted wildly for more than 20 years. As the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim, the copper-mining heir – he died in the Titanic disaster of 1912 – she had grown up in considerable luxury on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But, rebelling against the longueurs of life amid New York’s Jewish upper crust she fled to Europe in 1921, a well-heeled Bohemian ripe for love and adventure. She fell in with such glamorous expatriates as Djuna Barnes and Man Ray – who took a famous photograph of her – and married a tempestuous young painter, Laurence Vail, by whom she had two children.
Several liaisons later, in the late 1930’s, Peggy was in London, free for the moment of husbands and lovers, and rather bored. Neither ”creative” nor terribly intellectual herself, but surrounded by people who were, she took up a friend’s suggestion that she open a gallery of modern art. She was undaunted by her minimal knowledge of the subject, since she had as a mentor no less than the artist Marcel Duchamp, whom she had met in Paris. Though the London gallery – called Guggenheim Jeune – only lasted for a brief time, it mounted some vivid shows, among them the first presentations in England of Kandinsky and the Surrealist Yves Tanguy. It put on sculpture and collage exhibitions that included the work of Pevsner, Moore, Picasso, Schwitters and Miro. And it also paid attention to young, unknown English artists such as the abstractionist John Tunnard.
Duchamp, as Peggy noted, not only taught her the difference between Surrealism, Cubism and abstract art, but introduced her to artists and more or less took charge of the show’s arrangements and installations. And willy-nilly, Guggenheim Jeune spurred her into collecting. ”Gradually I bought one work of art from every show I gave, so as not to disappoint the artists if I were unsuccessful in selling anything,” she wrote. ”In those days, as I had no idea how to sell and had never bought pictures, this seemed to be the best solution and the least I could do to please the artists.”
Concerned over the gallery’s money losses, Peggy opted out, after a year and a half, to involve herself in a far more ambitious project – a museum of modern art. She asked Herbert Read (later Sir Herbert), then editor of what Peggy saw as the ”stuffy” but highly respected Burlington Magazine and the leading authority in England on modern art, to become its director. ”He treated me the way Disraeli treated Queen Victoria,” Peggy reported. Together, the two drew up an ideal list of artists whose works they would try to borrow for an opening show. The project came to a halt with England’s entry into World War II. But Peggy kept Sir Herbert’s list (later revised by herself, Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, widow of the Dutch abstractionist Theo). With the money she’d set aside to establish the museum, she embarked on an art-shopping spree in Paris. ”My motto was, ‘Buy a picture a day,’ and I lived up to it,” she wrote.
The splendid collection that Peggy thus acquired, despite the onset of the war (”The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Leger’s studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for $1,000,” she has noted) is today on view, under the auspices of the Guggenheim Museum, at Peggy’s Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice. But back in 1940, as the Nazis marched toward France, Peggy realized that her acquisitions would be regarded as ”degenerate” art. She shipped them off to a friend’s barn near Vichy; then three days before the occupation of Paris, she left with her children and some friends for a house near Annecy. The pictures were forwarded to her, and stored for a year in the museum at Grenoble by its reluctant director. Finally, in the spring of 1941, packed as ”household goods,” they were shipped to New York. Their owner arrived shortly after, on a Pan American clipper with an entourage of 10 fellow refugees, including the painter Max Ernst, with whom she was shortly to share a brief and tumultuous marriage.
With Ernst, his son Jimmy, and her daughter Pegeen, she traveled all over the country trying to find a proper place for the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Disappointed, the party came back to New York, where in 1942 she commissioned Kiesler to design ”Art of This Century,” a combination ”museum” and commercial gallery which would display her collection as well as temporary shows of European and American art. The results were suitably spectacular. A gallery for Surrealism had flashy lighting and concave walls with wooden arms projecting from them on which to hang pictures. In the Cubist gallery, there was cooler illumination and a system of ropes and wedges to support the pictures and sculptures. Displayed in this manner, the works from Peggy’s own collection served as a background for the new American art she sought out and promoted. ”The only trouble,” Peggy complained, ”was that the decor rivaled the pictures. Kiesler told me I would not be known for my collection in the future, but for his installation.”
She saw the gallery, she wrote in its first press release, as ”a center where artists will be welcome and where they can feel that they are cooperating in establishing a research laboratory for new ideas.” And as New York became the temporary home for such creative refugees as Breton, Tanguy, Mondrian, Duchamp, Lipchitz, Ernst, Chagall, Matta, Archipenko, Masson and others, ”Art of This Century” became a magnet for the avant garde. The presence of the European elders, Peggy noted, greatly stimulated the young American talents who came to the gallery. Some of the first works by ”unknowns” were represented at the collage show in 1943, and Motherwell and William Baziotes had their first sales, to the Baltimore collector Sadie May.
At the first of three annual spring salons, judged by among others, Duchamp, Mondrian and Peggy, Pollock scored with the jury, and became the first and only artist to whom Peggy offered a contract. The penniless young artist got $150 a month, plus a settlement at the year’s end determined by the sale of his paintings. His monthly stipend was later raised to $300, and soon Peggy had so many Pollocks she didn’t know what to do with them. Not forseeing the enormous sums his work would eventually bring, she gave many of them away. ”Now it all makes me laugh,” she wrote in her autobiography. ”I had no idea what Pollock paintings would be worth. I never sold one for more than $1,000. When I left America in 1947, not one gallery would take over my contract. And so now Lee (Pollock’s widow) is a millionaire, and I think what a fool I was.” In the 1960’s, she sued Mrs. Pollock for $122,000, on the grounds that the artist had defaulted on his promise to give her all works produced during the contract period. But the suit was finally dropped.
Preferring life in Europe, where she had lived for two decades before the war, Peggy closed the gallery in 1947 and settled in Venice. To house herself and her collection, she bought the unfinished Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, built by the Veniers, a patrician Venetian family whose lineage included two doges and who, legend had it, kept lions in the garden. Eventually, she soured on the art scene, its frequenters and its products, writing shortly before her death in 1979, ”I do not like art today. I think it has gone to hell, as a result of the financial attitude. People blame me for what is painted today because I had encouraged and helped the new movement to be born. I am not responsible. In the early 1940’s there was a pure pioneering spirit in America. A new art had to be born – Abstract Expressionism. I fostered it. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock, or rather, Pollock produced it. This alone justifies my efforts.”
Although she was a pioneer, her efforts did not go unheralded at the time. Reviewing Peggy’s closing show in 1947, the burgeoning critic Clement Greenberg wrote: ”In the three or four years of her career as a New York gallery director, she gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country. I am convinced that Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes and as the artists she encouraged mature.” He was not wrong.