Hilla Rebay & The Origin of the Guggenheim Museum

by Franklin Hill Perrell

Hilla Rebay & the Museum of Non Objective Art: The Origin of the Guggenheim Museum Exhibition at Leila Heller Gallery

Out of a wealth of excellent exhibitions this month in Chelsea, this portrayal of a crucial episode in the introduction of modernism to America must not be missed. For anyone who cares to gain insight into the art of the 1950’s and the ultimate globalism of artistic endeavor, this is essential fare.

Hilla Rebay, Orange Cross, c. 1947, Oil on canvas, 44 1⁄8 x 37 in. (112.28 x 93.98 cm.) © 2017 The Hilla von Rebay Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Both Hilla Rebay, artist, curator, collector, and mentor to Solomon Guggenheim, and Guggenheim as a patron, present a fascinating story apart from the art itself. Rebay, born a German baroness, grew up in the atmosphere of a high ranking Prussian military family- under the old German empire- Wilhelmine Germany, comparable in stuffiness to the Victorian era of Britain, as unlikely a setting for the production of great innovative art as would be possible. She was driven to a fiercely independent viewpoint and art career that ultimately led her to NY as an artist in the 1920s, where she met Guggenheim, whose portrait she was commissioned to paint. Precisely what their relationship was, or became, is a source of endless speculation, but the inescapable fact was that he trusted her judgment supremely. Under her tutelage, he assembled the greatest 20th

century collection of Kandinsky’s with even more works by Rudolph Bauer (German modernist), along with an extraordinary selection of American artists from Ilya Bolotowsky to Rolph Scarlett, Penrod Centurion, Alice Mattern, Alice Tr


umbull Mason, John Sennhauser, John Ferren Charles Green Shaw, and several others now regarded as essential figures in the American Abstract Artist group.Rolph Scarlett, Unititled, 1942, Oil on panel, 30×42 in., (76.2×106.68cm) work should read, Courtesy of Portico New York, Inc. Photo by Bryan Buckley.

The premise that Bauer was an equal artist and perhaps even more important than Kandinssky is a view rightly or wrongly associated with Rebay. Certainly they were comparable in style and it is clear that Bauer exhibited early with top German galleries like Der Sturm. Sorting this out will be the work of future art historians, but certainly the repute of Bauer is on a renewed upswing.


Rudolf Bauer, Symphony, 1919-1923, Oil on canvas, 37 1⁄2 x 43 1⁄2 in. (95.25 x 110.49cm.) © Rudolf Bauer Estate and Archive, San Francisco


 Rudolf Bauer, Colored Swinging, 1935, Oil on canvas, 51 3⁄8 x 61 1⁄4 in. (130.5 x 155.6 cm.) © Rudolf Bauer Estate and Archive, San Francisco

In the present exhibition at the Guggenheim, Visionaries, which is a wonderful counterpoint to what proves to be an extraordinary and major exhibition at Leila Heller, a comparable story is told. At the Guggenheim, Rebay and her contribution is presented in context with other elements in the collection such as the impressionists and cubists from Justin Tannhauser. Certainly, to understand what is shown at the Guggenheim right now (surely one of their best exhibitions ever) we would all profit to see the Rebay exhibition at Leila Heller. It’s truly an eye opener. At the Guggenheim, there are two impressive Bauer oils on display. You will see a great selection of them at Leila Heller. They have a fresh and lively presentation of geometric form and color exquisitely pigmented pastels and stronger hues that project or recede spatially in intriguing ways. There is much to enjoy visually, with the works of Bauer and his American counterparts, and a selection of archival materials from art reviews and exhibition catalogues. Notable is the presence of Bauer images as the cover art of several Guggenheim catalogues.

Also notable is the fact that Frank Lloyd Wright credits Rebay for the spiral architectural concept of the Guggenheim Museum, along with other positives, asserting that likely her crucial role wouldn’t be acknowledged by others. The first incarnation of the Guggenheim Museum was called the Museum of Non Objective Art, with Rebay as its head. After Solomon Guggenheim’s death, her leadership role was submerged, apparently at variance with the patrons’ prior instructions. This exhibition is a strong tribute to her importance. Read some of her written text describing Non Objective art: abstraction without any reference to actual objects, whose arrangement of forms and colors project a state of being that is emphatically spiritual. Remember that Kandinsy wrote


a famous essay “On the Spiritual in Art” which is consistent with this attitude. Rebay’s view suggests that human betterment on many levels would arise from exposure to this type of art. This gathering of fine examples at Leila Heller Gallery is certainly a joy to look at – if not also, an idealistic paradigm of artistic hopes and visions for a better world.


Hilla Rebay , Rondo, c. 1943, Oil on canvas, 94 3⁄8 x 78 1⁄2 in. (239.71 x 199.39 cm.)
© 2017 The Hilla von Rebay Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved

Hilla Rebay’s own paintings, several strong examples, are a prominent feature of the exhibition, situated in comparison to Bauer and their American colleagues. Rebay’s paintings can feature some biomorphic elements, in one case suggestive of underwater forms, but of course this association, or any similar, would be speculation on the part of the viewer since such references were clearly not intended based on Rebay’s aesthetic philosophy as evidenced by quotes in the exhibition’s archival materials. Like Baauer, she is a strong colorist, and also follows a line of development in which the earlier works have a more expressionist tone and over time simplify into clear flatter forms. The purity of her abstract concept is evident throughout.


This exhibition does much to advance the case for Rebay herself as a significant artist, and the curatorial emphasis on the spiritual aspirations of the art, all of it, further elucidates in what ways Rebay’s concept of non-objective art differed (or had affinities) with later modes of abstraction including the American Ab-Ex artists. It appears that modernism, in abstraction, can be traced through a number of routes which evolved largely independently from one another; one thinks of the diverse paths of the Stieglitz group; Non-Objective/American Abstract Artists; constructivism; abstract expressionism; hard-edge from the 60s; and minimalism. Each had an attitude to fit its own generation. The story of Rebay and her group is a fascinating and crucial component of this story.

Leila Heller Gallery is located at 568 West 25th Street, New York NY 10001.
Visit www.leilahellergallery.com for more information.

Special Thanks to Leila Heller Gallery!
Lauren Pollock, Director
Brooke Herzog, Curatorial Director
Laila Jabban, Gallery Associate
Photo Credit: Installation Photography by Brian Buckley


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