An introduction to the GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION, the PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION and the LIFE OF PEGGY GUGGENHEIM.
THE GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1937 and opened in 1939; its first New York based venue for the display of art, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. With its exhibitions of Solomon Guggenheim’s somewhat eccentric art collection, the unusual gallery was designed by William Muschenheim, at the behest of Hilla Rebay; the foundation’s curator and the museum’s director. It provided many visitors with their first encounter of great works by artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and his followers; including Rudolf Bauer, Alice Mason, Otto Nebel, and Rolph Scarlett.
The need for a permanent building to house Guggenheim’s art collection became evident in the early 1940’s and in 1943 renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright; gained the commission to design a museum in New York City. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened on October 21st 1959 and in 2019 celebrates 60 years as an architectural icon and “temple of spirit”; where radical architecture and art meet.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of modern and contemporary art, through exhibitions, education programs, research initiatives, and publications. The Guggenheim international constellation of museums includes the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York; the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice; the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; and the future Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi.
THE GUGGENHEIN EXPERIENCE IN VENICE. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, is among the most important museums in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century. It is located in Peggy Guggenheim’s former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni; on the Grand Canal in Venice. The museum presents Peggy Guggenheim’s personal collection, masterpieces from the Hannelore B. and Rudolph B. Schulhof collection; a sculpture garden, as well as temporary exhibitions. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is owned and operated by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which also operates the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao.
LIFE OF PEGGY GUGGENHEIM. Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979), niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was a self-described “art addict”. She sought to distinguish herself from her business-oriented relatives, making her mark on the world; through collecting and traveling in avant-garde circles. Peggy’s collections, galleries, and museum were all stamped with her distinct tastes and style.
Her singular career spanned the modern era, linking the Dada and Surrealist movements with Abstract Expressionism. She collected and championed artists from Vasily Kandinsky to Jackson Pollock to Yves Tanguy and made few distinctions between her business and private lives. Her two marriages were to artists, Dadaist Laurence Vail and Surrealist Max Ernst; amid a string of liaisons and intrigues, with the likes of Samuel Beckett and Constantin Brancusi.
Her taste for Surrealism in particular, set her in opposition to Guggenheim Museum curator and director Hilla Rebay, who was dedicated to nonobjectivity; finding both Surrealist symbolism and the gallery business crass and materialistic. Rebay, and through her influence, Solomon Guggenheim, were dedicated to art and the creation of a public museum as a spiritual pursuit. Peggy however, according to her granddaughter curator Karole Vail, quoted that “her life and art collecting were completely intertwined.”
Largely self-taught when it came to art, Peggy was guided by her interest in creativity and iconoclasm. She found her way to her metier, through her personal connections in the avant-garde world; after arriving in Paris in the 1920’s. Moving in the same circles as Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, writer and artist Djuna Barnes and painter Romaine Brooks; she was photographed by Man Ray and dressed by the legendary designer Paul Poiret.
As she described in an interview in 1969, it was while visiting a foundry with Jean Arp where she held his small bronze Head and Shell (Tête et coquille, ca. 1933) in her hand; that she was moved to collect her first piece of art.
It was not until she moved to London in the late 1930s, fleeing the Nazi occupation of the continent; that Peggy opened her first gallery, the Guggenheim Jeune. Around this time, Samuel Beckett told her that “one should be interested in art of one’s time”. This became one of her mottos and lent itself to the name of her celebrated second gallery; the Art of This Century in New York. From Paris to London, she quickly amassed one of the most prominent collections of Cubist and Surrealist art; during a period when few others (including her uncle and Rebay), held these works in high regard. Her initial collection, acquired at a rate of one painting per day on frenzied trips to Paris during World War II, cost her only $40,000 for a group of works by Brancusi, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, Ernst, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso, among others.
As curator Megan Fontanella recounts, the Musée du Louvre in Paris declined to store Peggy’s collection to shelter it from the war, despite protecting gallery owner Justin K. Thannhauser’s Impressionist and Expressionist works. Her now-invaluable inventory was ultimately crated up as “household goods”, with a non-Jewish name replacing “Guggenheim” on the customs declaration documentation and shipped across the battleground of the North Atlantic; arriving safely in New York.
Peggy’s efforts protected not just her collection, but also the livelihoods of her artist, who were among those branded “degenerate” by the Third Reich and had to flee; many settling in New York. By opening the Art of This Century gallery in 1942; Peggy had created an American outpost for the European avant-garde, providing artists in her circle with connections, sales, and commissions. She soon forged relationships with a new generation of American artists, such as Robert Motherwell, Pollock, and Clyfford Still; who had their first notable gallery shows at Art of This Century. Peggy counted Pollock’s success, as among her proudest achievements.
Peggy’s flair for the dramatic shaped the design of her gallery (the Cubist gallery had turquoise floors, blue canvas walls, and the art on pulleys). In the Surrealist gallery there were curving walls, amorphous wooden furniture designed by architect Frederick Kiesler, flashing lights and recordings of trains that played intermittently. Just four blocks away from the Museum Non-Objective Painting, Art of This Century was everything that Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim’s museum was not. There was no love lost between Rebay and Peggy, to whom the former once responded about a sales inquiry – “Your gallery will be the last one for our foundation to use, if ever the need should force us to use a sales gallery. You will soon find you are propagating mediocrity, if not trash”. For her part, Peggy later opined that – “The Baroness (Rebay) was a friend”.
Art of This Century, had a rather short run. By the late 1940s, with the war over; Peggy had tired of the pace of the gallery business and embarked on a third chapter in her career, as museum owner. She relocated to Venice and displayed her collection in the 1948 biennale, helping to re-establish the exhibition series after the war. Many of the artists she championed had never before been exhibited in the Giardini and one pavilion that year was specifically dedicated to artists repudiated by the Nazis. A few years later Peggy acquired the 18th-century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, to house her art and thus set up shop as one of the city’s most celebrated patrons and eccentrics.
The relationship between the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Jenny Holzer
The relationship between the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and Jenny Holzer is long-standing, dating back to the 1990 Venice Biennale, when Holzer and the US Pavilion; managed by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, was awarded the prestigious Leone d’Oro. In 2001, Holzer presented the Peggy Guggenheim Collection with the site-specific Garden Bench, an Istrian stone bench inscribed with her ‘Florence’ text. The text was light projected onto the walls of the Arno in 1986. From September 2003, she projected a selection of her most famous texts the “Truisms”; on the façades of the Grand Canal frontage of both the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and the Ca’ Corner Grand
The “Florence” Text – by Jenny Holzer (as inscribed on the Istrian stone bench in the museum garden)
I WATCH YOU – I SCAN YOU – I WAIT FOR YOU – I TICKLE YOU – I TEASE YOU – I SEARCH YOU – I BREATH YOU – I TALK
I SMILE – I TOUCH YOUR HAIR – YOU ARE THE ONE – YOU ARE THE ONE – YOU DID THIS TO ME – YOU ARE MY OWN – I SHOW YOU – I FEEL YOU – I ASK YOU – I DON’T ASK
I DON’ T WAIT – I WON’T ASK YOU – I WON’T TELL YOU A LIE – I WAS CRYING ALOUD – THERE WAS BLOOD – NO ONE TOLD ME – NO ONE KNEW – MY MOTHER KNOWS – I FORGOT YOUR NAME
I DON’T THINK -I BURY MY HEAD – I BURY YOUR HEAD – I BURY YOU – MY FEVER – MY SKIN – I CANNOT BREATHE – I CANNOT EAT – I CANNOT WALK – I AM LOSING TIME
I AM LOSING GROUND – I CANNOT STAND – I CRY OUT – I BITE – I BITE YOUR LIP – I BREATH YOU BREATH – I PULSE – I PRAY ALOUD
I SMELL YOU ON MY SKIN – I SAY THE WORD – I SAY YOU NAME – I COVER YOU – I SHELTER YOU – I RUN FROM YOU – I SLEEP BESIDE YOU – I SMELL YOU ON MY CLOTHES – I KEEP YOUR CLOTHES