The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1937, and it opened the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939, its first New York–based venue for the display of art. The unusual gallery—designed by William Muschenheim at the behest of Hilla Rebay, the foundation’s curator and the museum’s director—was built in a former automobile showroom on East Fifty-fourth Street in Manhattan. With its exhibitions of Solomon Guggenheim’s somewhat eccentric art collection, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting provided many visitors with their first encounter with great works by Vasily Kandinsky—such as In the Black Square (June 1923)—as well as works by his followers, including Rudolf Bauer, Alice Mason, Otto Nebel, and Rolph Scarlett. Hung low to the ground on walls covered with thick drapery, these paintings were to be surveyed while the music of Bach and Chopin played on the sound system.
The need for a permanent building to house Solomon Guggenheim’s art collection was evident in the early 1940s; by this time, an elderly Solomon had amassed a vast number of avant-garde paintings. Hilla Rebay has been credited as giving the commission for the museum building to Frank Lloyd Wright in 1943. Over the next twelve years Wright would create seven designs for the museum that opened on October 21, 1959, several months after Wright’s death and ten years after Solomon’s. Once it shed its narrowly focused name, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was poised to grow well beyond the original intention of its founders.
The guiding principle often attributed to Hilla Rebay was to collect the most important examples of nonobjective art available, including Kandinsky’s Composition 8 (July 1923), Fernand Léger’s Contrast of Forms (1913), and Robert Delaunay’s Simultaneous Windows (2nd Motif, 1st Part) (1912). In 1948, the Guggenheim Foundation’s collection expanded by some 730 objects with the purchase of the entire estate of Karl Nierendorf, a New York art dealer who specialized in German paintings. The Guggenheim collection now included a rich array of major Expressionist and Surrealist works with paintings by Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, and Joan Miró. But in 1953 the institution’s collecting boundaries would extend further by its new director, James Johnson Sweeney, when he rejected Rebay’s earlier dismissal of sculpture and acquired Constantin Brancusi’s Adam and Eve (1921), thus opening the way for the acquisition of works by other great modernist sculptors, including Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, and David Smith. Sweeney would also dispense with the notion that the Guggenheim collection needed to be limited to twentieth-century art with the acquisition in 1954 of Paul Cézanne’s Man with Crossed Arms (ca. 1899).
The next leap forward occurred in 1963, when Thomas M. Messer, who had succeeded Sweeney as director two years earlier, acquired a large group of works from art dealer Justin K. Thannhauser’s private collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces, including important works by Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and Vincent van Gogh, as well as 32 works by Pablo Picasso. With the Thannhauser Collection, which now numbers 73 works, the Guggenheim Foundation’s holdings gained significant historical depth.
Messer surpassed that achievement in the 1970s by convincing Peggy Guggenheim to donate her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and entire collection—more than 300 important abstract and Surrealist works—upon her death. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection includes masterpieces by Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, a rare Kazimir Malevich Suprematist painting, various Picasso masterpieces, and perhaps most importantly, 11 works by Jackson Pollock.