Guggenheim Wouldn’t Be Museum If Not For Hilla Rebay

For anyone with a serious interest in modernist painting and its role in shaping the course of 20th-century American art, the current exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has a fascinating story to tell. The show is called Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim, and it focuses our attention on the intellectual origins of the museum and on the person directly responsible for defining its early mission.

The museum was founded in New York in 1937 as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and from the outset its guiding spirit was the German painter Hilla Rebay (1890-1967), who came to the United States in 1927 armed with a program to spread the gospel of Vasily Kandinsky’s mystical abstraction. And spread it she did, with remarkable results, by enlisting the support of Solomon Guggenheim, a wealthy industrialist we probably never would have heard of if not for Rebay’s powers of persuasion.

At her behest, Guggenheim acquired over 150 paintings by Kandinsky, and a good many paintings by Rebay herself, in addition to an assortment of abstract and semi-abstract paintings by European and American modernists-among them, Juan Gris, Ferdinand Léger, Ben Nicholson, Paul Klee, Jean Xceron and John Ferren. It was with this nucleus of paintings by Kandinsky and his circle and a somewhat random selection of other modernists that the Guggenheim Museum was established.

What has to be understood about this audacious project is that abstract art was then either unknown to the mainstream art establishment in New York or regarded with a good deal of suspicion and incomprehension. The Metropolitan Museum of Art did not either acquire or exhibit avant-garde art at that time. The Whitney Museum of American Art did exhibit some American abstractionists early on, but its policy prohibited the showing or acquisition of European art. As for the Museum of Modern Art, which was founded in 1929, it wasn’t until 1936 that its director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., mounted its first survey of abstraction with the exhibition called Cubism and Abstract Art. It’s a curious fact, moreover, that the first major painting that MoMA acquired for its permanent collection was a realist painting by Edward Hopper.

Outside the museums, to be sure, there were some important initiatives in support of abstraction. At his “291” gallery, Alfred Stieglitz exhibited the early abstract paintings of Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley, and in 1920, Katherine Drier-in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray-founded the Société Anonyme, Inc., which functioned as a kind of traveling museum show of abstract and other varieties of modernist art. Before the Société shut down in 1950, its collection went to the Yale University Art Gallery.

Yet throughout this turbulent period, the Guggenheim Museum-even though it had ceased to call itself a museum of non-objective painting-remained a citadel for abstraction and, in that capacity, exerted a crucial influence on 20th-century American modernism. It’s not to be doubted that the rise of the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painting owed a great deal (if not quite everything) to Kandinsky’s abstractionist aesthetic. Kandinsky was, in fact, the first artist to be described as an Abstract Expressionist, and it was from this aesthetic, combined with the automatist conventions of Dada and Surrealism, that the New York School derived its pictorial program-the program that put American art on the map of the international avant-garde.

It’s one of the many virtues of the current exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum that it pays appropriate tribute to the key role played by Hilla Rebay in this interesting history while at the same time affording us a rare opportunity to see some excellent examples of her own paintings. That her paintings owe much to Kandinsky was to be expected, yet they’re by no means merely imitative. They’re the work of a mature talent, and in her watercolors she achieves a quality that’s very much her own.

What’s sad about the Guggenheim Museum nowadays isn’t this exhibition but the museum itself, which is now so devoted to establishing satellite museums in distant places that its home base has degenerated into a shabby parody of itself. For those of us who are old enough to remember the museum in its heyday, it’s a very unhappy dénouement indeed.

Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim remains on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through Aug. 10.