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The Baroness and the Guggenheim

Without her, there would be no Guggenheim Museum as we know it. Along with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the artist and curator Baroness Hilla von Rebay planned the building for the Guggenheim collection in New York. She was passionate and contentious, an iridescent figure who indefatigably fought for non-objective art. Long forgotten, the first director of the Guggenheim Museum is now being honored with a comprehensive exhibition. Sponsort by Deutsche Bank the show has been organized in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich and the Schlossmuseum Murnau. Cheryl Kaplan met two of the curators in New York.

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker and Karole Vail, Curators of
"Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim"

By the time Hilla Rebay set sail for America in 1927 on the President Wilson, she had already been painting seriously for 18 years. Born in 1890 in Strasbourg, Rebay, known as Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, actually came from a family of lesser nobility. Nonetheless, what she brings with her from Europe, and more specifically from Hans Arp and Vasily Kandinsky, is an unwavering belief in non-objective art, that is art without representational links to the material world. This belief is soon to be transferred to Solomon R. Guggenheim, whom Rebay meets shortly after her arrival, along with Guggenheim’s wife Irene. It is Irene Guggenheim who first acquires Rebay’s work, a painting and collage seen at the Galleries of Marie Sterner in New York. It is during this time that Rebay gives painting lessons to a very young Louise Nevelson and meets Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

Hilla von Rebay, ca. 1928, in front of one of her Collages,
Rebay-Archiv Wessling, © 2005 The Hilla von Rebay Foundation

Seemingly assimilated into the New World, Rebay however, has far from abandoned the Old World, where the artist Rudolf Bauer, introduced to her by Arp in 1917 at Galerie Der Sturm, will remain a haunting and elusive romantic figure through much of her life. Rebay’s earlier emotional ties to Arp are, however, quickly discarded by her, though Arp is genuinely supportive and uniquely instructive to her as an artist. Despite Bauer’s continued and often harsh disregard for her, Hilla manages to not only hang onto him, but relentlessly promotes his work to Solomon. It is through Solomon’s generosity that Bauer gains a consulting contract, buying works of art for him in Europe as well as advising the patron’s growing collection. Bauer, turns out to have a keen eye and important access to works Hilla would otherwise did not have. It is thanks to her that Bauer’s work is soon unabashedly acquired into the Guggenheim collection, often en masse.

Summer of 1945: Solomon R. Guggenheim (right)
and Frank Lloyd Wright (left)
with Hilla Rebay in front of the model for the new Museum (AP Photo), © 2005 The Hilla von Rebay Foundation

The timeline between 1929, when Bauer establishes his private gallery-museum, Das Geistreich, in Berlin, again thanks to the support from Solomon, and 1930 when Rebay talks to Bauer about her own ideas for a museum to house Guggenheim’s collection, is useful to note. It sets the stage for Hilla’s bold and determined plan that finally emerges full force in 1939 when along with Solomon Guggenheim’s vision, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting opens in a former automobile showroom at 24 East Fifty-fourth Street in Manhattan. Rebay becomes the museum’s first curator. The process of transforming this early version into the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was inimitably engineered by artist and instigator Hilla Rebay who was nearly unstoppable. (Read an detailed interview, conducted in 1966, with Hilla Rebay here.)

Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim is curated by Karole Vail, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, and Brigitte Salmen. The exhibition has been organized in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum Villa Stuck , Munich and the Schlossmuseum Murnau. After the premiere in New York and subsequent showings in Munich and Murnau, the exhibition will also be seen at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.

Hilla Rebay, Collage on Paper,

CHERYL KAPLAN: How did Hilla Rebay get caught in the cross-fire of being a painter, a curator, an entrepreneur and a champion of non-objective art?

KAROLE VAIL: She certainly wore many hats. She trained as an artist, which is quite unusual for a director and curator of a museum.

JO-ANNE BIRNIE DANZKER: She brought her experience from Europe to America as part of an avant-garde that took roles beyond the production of art.

Did her desire to be an artist and curator start early?

JBD: I don't think it started early because there weren’t many models for it. Looking at Munich in 1910, where she was, there was also the Blue Rider and later Der Sturm — the first groups where artists publish and curate. The artist Rudolf Bauer set up his own gallery. Hilla is unique, acquiring art and later working with Solomon R. Guggenheim for the collection. She came to the museum with an artist’s eye.

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