Art of Another Kind: Director James Johnson Sweeney's Legacy

7:18 | Published on June 8, 2012 | 201 Views

Since its beginnings as a private collection, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum collection has evolved to reflect the progress of modern art and the visions of the institution’s leaders. Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Tracey Bashkoff and Assistant Curator of Collections and Provenance Megan Fontanella explain the seminal role of Hilla Rebay, the first director and curator of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which opened in 1939, in steering the fledgling collection toward abstract or “nonobjective” art. A major shift occurred after Guggenheim’s death in 1949: Rebay resigned, the board changed the museum’s name to honor its founder, and James Johnson Sweeney came aboard as director. Sweeney brought to the institution his zeal for contemporary art, relationships with emerging artists of the 1950s, and a desire to collect representational art, all of which transformed the collection’s previously niche reputation.

For more information, visit Art of Another Kind: International Abstraction and the Guggenheim, 1940–1960.

Download the Transcript (PDF)

Megan Fontanella, Assistant Curator, Collections and Provenance: The story of the Guggenheim Museum’s collection really begins with Solomon R. Guggenheim and his encounter with Hilla Rebay, a German-born artist who was commissioned to paint his portrait around 1928. And at that time Guggenheim and his wife Irene were already collecting “primitive” art, Barbizon paintings, but they weren’t really looking to what was then contemporary art. After this encounter with Hilla Rebay, the course of the collection really took a dramatic shift, and he started looking at the art of his time. So works by Vasily Kandinsky, Rudolph Bauer, both favorites, but also representational paintings, Marc Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Pablo Picasso—works by these artists then entered Guggenheim’s collection. And then it was in 1937 that Guggenheim, together with Hilla Rebay at the helm, established the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. And then of course in 1939 together they opened the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York.

In 1949, Solomon R. Guggenheim passed away, and this really was the beginning of another shift in the institution’s history. In 1952 Hilla Rebay, our founding director and curator resigned.

Tracey Bashkoff, Curator, Collections and Exhibitions: The board changes the name of the museum to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and this really signals a change away from this very specific form of abstraction to a broader view of modernism in the 20th century.

And at that time, James Johnson Sweeney is hired to run the Guggenheim Museum. James Johnson Sweeney had been working in New York with the Museum of Modern Art and organizing exhibitions for them. He was well versed in European modernism but also very interested in the contemporary art scene both in New York and in Europe, and that’s very much what he brings to the table when he comes to the Guggenheim Museum as the director in 1952.

When Sweeney starts at the museum, the museum has a very specific niche and reputation in New York. Hilla Rebay was well known for a very specific type of installation and a specific type of artwork. She had the walls covered with drapery and fabric, and the paintings hung very low on the walls. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting appeared to be an important place, but a kind of very mysterious art-viewing experience. And when James Johnson Sweeney started at the museum, he removed all these dark walls and dark curtains. He removed the very heavy, large frames that Hilla Rebay had put around most of the painting and replaced them with very thin frames or no frames at all in many cases. He painted the walls white and really changed the look and the feel of the museum.

At the same time he was charged with broadening the collection and looking to representational paintings that Hilla Rebay had not shown at Museum of Non-Objective Painting because they didn’t fit within her ideas about abstraction. And so Sweeney was known for what people called “taking things out of storage” and bringing them to the forefront.

Fontanella: Something else that Sweeney very quickly sought to address was the expansion of our sculpture collection at that time, so he brought in works by [Raymond] Duchamp-Villon. By 1958 we had brought in some nine works by Constantin Brancusi, creating a very large holding at the Guggenheim of that artist—[Alberto] Giacometti, Jean Arp, all of these artists that really Hilla Rebay hadn’t been collecting.

So besides collecting modernist sculptures, Sweeney also brought into the collection many works by contemporary sculptors, among them Pietro Consagra, Eduardo Chillida, and Theodore Roszak, to name a few.

And then in terms of modernist painting, I think one of the greatest contributions that Sweeney did was bring in works by the Russian avant-garde, by [Kazimir] Malevich, [Natalia] Goncharova, [Mikhail] Larionov, which really allowed us to more fully tell the story of prewar modernism.

In the 1950s under Sweeney’s leadership, the museum began to bring in works of contemporary art, of artists working both in New York and abroad to really continue this focus on the art of their time. So not unlike the mission of the museum’s founders, he sought to identify living artists that would really enhance the collection.

Many of the works at the Guggenheim Museum brought into the collection in the 1950s are really a testament to James Johnson Sweeney’s personal relationships with the artists so whether it was relationships he came to the museum with, such as Alexander Calder, who he had known from the 1930s, or relationships that he really cultivated in the 1950s. So for instance when the Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies first came to the United States in the early 1950s, Martha Jackson of the Martha Jackson Gallery really made a point of introducing James Johnson Sweeney and Tàpies. And this was really a critical relationship. We brought into the collection Great painting [Gran pintura] from 1958 in that period. Alberto Burri is another example. When James Johnson Sweeney was organizing the Younger European [Painter: A Selection] exhibition in 1954, he actually visited Burri in his studio in Rome. And after the exhibition, he acquired Composition [Composizione] from 1953. And then Sweeney continued that relationship, so in 1955 he authored a monograph of Burri’s work. And then in 1958 for the presentation of the Venice Biennale, Sweeney wrote the catalogue essay, so it’s really wonderful that he had these relationships and that the museum was able to benefit from them in terms of our collection growing and expanding.

In 1960, James Johnson Sweeney said, “a museum should be a vital organism. It should constantly prod the observer to reach out from the familiar to the unfamiliar.”