By October 1942, Peggy Guggenheim was ready to open in New York a new gallery, Art of This Century, surely the most eccentric pleasure dome ever decreed for the inspection of art. Lights flashed on and off, with great rushes of sound pulsing rhythmically, walls were concave, paintings swung from mid-air from strings, and the critics reeled as though on a storm-tossed ocean liner.
As it happened, he appearance could not have been more perfectly timed from the standpoint of the painters who comprised America’s own avant-garde. It was as though they had rubbed the magic ring, and lo! here was the fairy godmother. For the group that was to become known as the Abstract Expressionists, Peggy Guggenheim’s outrageous gallery was a home away from home. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, Clyfford Still and others; one by one she tendered them their first one-man shows.
With the end of the war Peggy Guggenheim removed once again to Europe, this time to her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice. If her Uncle Solomon had been miffed by the way she had upstaged him in the field of abstract art, he gave no sign. In any event, he had a surprise of his own up his sleeve: a new museum to house his collection, and to be designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The commission held interest, in part because Wright’s views both on modern art-It is “crime without passion”- and on museums- “what is the museum but a kind of morgue?”- had some currency.
Never a man to be cowed by inconsistency, Wright drew the plans fro the celebrated hollow cylinder of concrete that now crouches beside New York’s upper Fifth Avenue. Wright reported that tears stood in Solomon Guggenheim’s eyes when he first looked at the design. “Mr. Wright, this is it!” he exclaimed. “I knew you would do it.” The museum was completed in 1959.
Solomon Guggenheim, Simon Guggenheim and niece Peggy, daughter of Benjamin were all great patrons of the arts;but clearly part of an eccentric at best Jewish family. In her memoir, Peggy describes that some of her relatives enjoyed the status of “nearly normal,” though most were written off as, “peculiar, if not mad”. This cast included an “uncle [who] lived on charcoal” to another one who “spent all his time washing himself,” and several who were “inveterate gamblers”; not surprisingly, they were often at each other’s throats.
“Exegi monumentum aere perennius,” sang Horace. “I have built me a monument more enduring than bronze” which evokes a sardonic note of self ridicule. For while Horace may have hoped that his lines would lilt along for centuries, he also knew he sang them thanks to the patronage of a certain rich man called Maecenas. The patron is remembered today only because he supported Horace and Virgil and a few other poets.
Today, the fact that some men named Guggenheim over a hundred years ago gouged a fortune out of the earth is almost forgotten. But it seems likely they they will, after all, also be remembered for their patronage; it will be more enduring than their copper and lead, and smelters, even than their silver and gold.
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