Art of Another Kind: Guggenheim Inaugural Exhibition

2:30 | Published on June 8, 2012 | 263 Views

A culminating achievement of James Johnson Sweeney’s tenure as director of the Guggenheim was the exhibition Inaugural Selection (October 21, 1959–June 19, 1960), the first exhibition in the museum’s new Frank Lloyd Wright–designed building on Fifth Avenue. This exhibition presented Sweeney’s vision for the Guggenheim collection, one that integrated nonobjective painting and other modernist works from Solomon R. Guggenheim’s original gift and purchases for the museum with an equal number of contemporary acquisitions from the 1950s. Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Tracey Bashkoff discusses the show and its negative reception by Sweeney’s predecessor Hilla Rebay, who was shocked to find new work by Willem de Kooning, Georges Mathieu, Jackson Pollock, and Pierre Soulages alongside the museum’s hallmark works of nonobjective painting. For Sweeney, the exhibition was an opportunity to demonstrate that the Guggenheim possessed a living, growing collection of art.

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

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Tracey Bashkoff, Curator, Collections and Exhibitions: When the Frank Lloyd Wright building opened in 1959, a project that [Guggenheim director James Johnson] Sweeney had shepherded along, the first exhibition exhibited works that were integral to our history as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, but [also] an equal number of works that were contemporary works that Sweeney had just recently purchased. And so Sweeney was putting forth his mark at this time when the museum was very much in the public eye to show that the museum was a growing and living collection engaged in contemporary art but also had a history in modernism. Sweeney showed both works from the history of the collection—the [Vasily] Kandinskys and [Robert] Delaunays and [Marc] Chagalls—but also an equal number, really, of works from the ’50s—Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, alongside Pierre Soulages and Georges Mathieu, both American and European artists of his day that he was actively collecting.

When the building opened and [former Guggenheim director] Hilla [Rebay] realized that Sweeney had chosen works for the first exhibition of the new Guggenheim museum that were not only coming from Solomon [R. Guggenheim]’s original gift and purchases for the museum, but also included works that he was actively buying in the 1950s, she was very disappointed and upset about the first exhibition, about his selection. And she let him know so in a telegram that she sent shortly after the opening in 1959, where she referred to these works that he added to the collection as “aftermath trash.”