Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American Art Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Peggy Guggenheim opened the Art of This Century gallery in New York to display European and American modern art. The gallery became important in the nascent New York art scene, and Guggenheim’s discovery and patronage of Jackson Pollock, among other artists, helped launch a new school of American art known as abstract expressionism.

Summary of Event

The 1942 opening of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery, which showcased part of her remarkable collection of modern art as well as examples of Surrealism seen for the first time in the United States, caused a major stir in New York’s embryonic art world. Her Spring Salon for Young Artists Spring Salon for Young Artists (1943) of 1943 featured the works of avant-garde artists such as William Baziotes Baziotes, William , Robert Motherwell Motherwell, Robert , and especially Jackson Pollock, whose works were free of European precedents. Guggenheim was soon established as one of the major promoters of modern art and as a major force in the promotion of abstract expressionism, the first important modern art movement in the United States. [kw]Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American Art (Oct. 20, 1942) [kw]Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American Art, Peggy (Oct. 20, 1942) [kw]Gallery Promotes New American Art, Peggy Guggenheim’s (Oct. 20, 1942) [kw]Art, Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American (Oct. 20, 1942) Art galleries Abstract expressionism Painting Art of This Century Modernism;art Art galleries Abstract expressionism Painting Art of This Century Modernism;art [g]North America;Oct. 20, 1942: Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American Art[00640] [g]United States;Oct. 20, 1942: Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American Art[00640] [c]Arts;Oct. 20, 1942: Peggy Guggenheim’s Gallery Promotes New American Art[00640] Guggenheim, Peggy Kiesler, Frederick J. Ernst, Max Pollock, Jackson Read, Herbert Duchamp, Marcel

Doing things that were new, different, and controversial had been second nature to Peggy Guggenheim ever since she escaped from the confines of her upper-middle-class background a quarter of a century earlier to join the American expatriate colony in post-World War I Paris. She had inherited the spirit of adventure from her father, Benjamin Guggenheim Guggenheim, Benjamin , a wealthy entrepreneur who had died in the April, 1912, sinking of the Titanic. From her grandfather, Meyer, patriarch of the Guggenheim clan, Peggy inherited business acumen, a willingness to seek and accept advice, and an ability to recognize both talent and value. Although comfortable, Peggy was not rich. Her art collection, which would come to be valued in the tens of millions of dollars, was created on a shoestring budget.

Although she mingled with outstanding artists and writers, Guggenheim’s life in Paris lacked form and purpose. While she was seeking to recover from an unhappy marriage, a friend in London suggested to her that she open an art gallery there. Fortunately for Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, the noted Dadaist artist, provided the needed advice and helped assemble the first exhibition for her new gallery, called Guggenheim Jeune Guggenheim Jeune , which opened January 24, 1938.

Guggenheim Jeune was one of a handful of galleries featuring modern art in London and became the prototype for Guggenheim’s New York gallery. Among the artists exhibited were Wassily Kandinsky (sometimes called the founder of abstract art), the Surrealist Yves Tanguy, and the artist and film director Jean Cocteau. Her most important exhibit was a show of sculpture Sculpture that included works by Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder, Antoine Pevsner, and Henry Moore. So strong were the contemporary prejudice against and the ignorance of modern art that British customs officials at first refused to consider many of the works as art but rather classified them as dressed stone and metal, subject to tariffs.

At this time, Guggenheim also gained the services of Herbert Read, a professor of art history, the editor of Burlington art magazine, and one of England’s most forceful champions of modern art. Read advised her to buy a selection of the works she exhibited in order to build a permanent collection of her own. He provided her with a list of important modern artists whose works were essential to a comprehensive art collection. He also completed the work Duchamp had started of making Guggenheim aware of the movements in modern art and its possible future directions.

By 1939, Guggenheim’s collection was of museum quality. She cast about for an appropriate place to exhibit it, but the outbreak of World War II in September changed her plans. With her collection, she left for Paris. In the hectic days preceding the fall of France, Guggenheim was engaged in one of the most exciting and profitable periods in her artistic career, assembling the nucleus of her collection. With Herbert Read’s list and cash in hand, she went from studio to gallery collecting first-rate works by artists such as Paul Klee, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Piet Mondrian Mondrian, Piet , Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, and René Magritte. Guggenheim boasted that the day Adolf Hitler marched into Norway, she bought a major work from artist Fernan Léger for one thousand dollars. It would later be worth millions. Guggenheim found the experience of collecting Parisian art on the eve of invasion exhilarating; she was oblivious to the danger involved. As a Jew, had she fallen into the hands of the Nazis, she might well have died. Her position in Vichy, France, to which she fled shortly before the fall of Paris, was not much more secure.

Guggenheim had approached the Louvre Louvre to provide secure storage for her collection, but the museum’s officials informed her they did not think her collection worth saving. Getting the collection out of Paris with all roads and rail lines clogged with refugees required herculean efforts. She finally reached Grenoble, in southeastern France, as a way station on her return voyage to the United States via Spain and Portugal.

Leaving France at that time was subject to frustrating delays, and Guggenheim was forced to remain in Grenoble while she negotiated passage. During her involuntary stay in Grenoble, she became acquainted with Max Ernst, who was to become a major influence in both her personal and her artistic life. A German who detested his country of origin because of what it was doing to Europe, Ernst not only was an accomplished artist but also possessed a brilliant intellect. He was identified with Surrealism, but he believed that it was to be the last major European art movement. With a barbaric twilight descending over Europe, Ernst thought, the further development of modern art must take place elsewhere. Therefore, he decided to travel to New York, the United States’ most cosmopolitan city.

After numerous and frustrating delays, Guggenheim and Ernst arrived in New York on July 14, 1941, with the famous art collection packed into an old automobile and shipped as “household goods.” They were ready to sponsor a new direction for modern art—a direction divorced from that of Europe, which many in addition to Ernst believed had ceased to be an artistic force in Western civilization. Thus, immediately upon her arrival in New York, Guggenheim searched for space for a gallery in which to display her collection. She found it above a grocery store on Fifty-seventh Street, just west of Fifth Avenue.

Trusting to the instinct that had served her in the past, Guggenheim hired Frederick J. Kiesler, an innovative designer from the Columbia School of Architecture, to mount her collection. Kiesler did his work brilliantly. He divided the space into four separate galleries; he pulled out all the stops to make his staging the real innovation of the gallery’s opening. The artwork was displayed without frames, and the dingy loft space became a veritable theme park of gadgets, protrusions, serpentine walls, roaring sounds, and light shows. By consensus, it was Kiesler’s mounting, more than Guggenheim’s collection, that made the impact when Art of This Century opened on October 20, 1942. Fine as it was, Guggenheim’s collection of the works of twentieth century European artists duplicated on a smaller scale exhibits that the Museum of Modern Art had been mounting since 1929 and that her uncle Solomon Guggenheim’s new museum had started in 1939.

At the opening, Peggy Guggenheim remarked that her undertaking would serve its purpose only if it succeeded in serving the future instead of recording the past. Eager to advance the careers of unknown American artists, she dedicated one of her gallery’s display spaces, the Daylight Gallery, to new artists. In addition, she consulted with authorities such as Alfred Barr and Piet Mondrian to plan a larger exhibition dedicated entirely to such unestablished artists. The resulting show, the Spring Salon for Young Artists, opened at Art of This Century in May, 1943. It was through this exhibit and those related to it that Guggenheim’s gallery had its greatest impact, profoundly changing the course of American art.

The stars of the 1943 show were William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, and particularly Jackson Pollock. Pollock, as American as the hills of Wyoming where he was born, had been recommended by Mondrian, who found Pollock’s work terrifically exciting. Guggenheim was equally enthusiastic, and she became one of Pollock’s great champions. For Pollock, the most important element in the creation of a work of art was the physical act of creation, which in his work revolved around the application of paint. With the canvas on the floor, Pollock energetically, even violently, dripped, swirled, spattered, and daubed paints of various colors in what initially seemed an uncoordinated, irrational manner but that created highly sophisticated works of art. Because it was not representational—in that no physical object was represented on the canvas—but it was still meant to express the feelings or temperament of the artist, Pollock’s style of art became known as abstract expressionism.


Guggenheim claimed that her greatest achievement—even greater than the assembling of her collection—was her discovery of Pollock’s work. She followed the group show with a one-man show devoted to the artist, and she delighted in the resultant barrage of criticism—even howls of outrage—as she promoted him with almost messianic fervor. Further to encourage his work, she gave Pollock an income so he could paint undisturbed in his Long Island studio.

In retrospect, Pollock was the first painter of his generation of American abstract artists to bring the United States into the mainstream of the international tradition. During the artist’s lifetime, however, it was only with the greatest difficulty that Guggenheim could sell his work. She received his paintings in return for her financial support and often gave them away. It was because of her generosity that many smaller art museums and educational institutions acquired works by Pollock now valued in the millions of dollars.

Guggenheim also gave one-man shows to Motherwell, Baziotes, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and David Hare. In other group shows, she included the work of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Hedda Sterne, Joseph Cornell, Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, Robert de Niro (the actor’s father), Richard Pousette-Dart, and Ad Reinhart. The designation of these artists as “abstract expressionists” proved increasingly uncomfortable, however. Some, artists such as Willem de Kooning, were not strictly abstract; others, such as Robert Motherwell, were not strictly expressionist. What they did have in common was the vigorous, even athletic manner of creating their art—the idea that the artist grasps authentic being through the act of creating rather than through the finished product.

A new name, the Action Painters, was increasingly used for these artists, and as their art became more widely known and appreciated, the group became known as the New York School New York School (painting) —the first American modern art movement divorced from European influence. The movement helped make New York the world’s art capital. Guggenheim’s gallery and her tireless, enthusiastic support were the catalysts in the creation of this school. She could indeed say with conviction that it was in her gallery that abstract expressionism was born. Art galleries Abstract expressionism Painting Art of This Century Modernism;art

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ashton, Dore. The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Sets the development of the New York School in a broader context, attempting to relate it to parallel movements in other arts such as literature and poetry. Illustrations add to the book’s usefulness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davidson, Susan, and Philip Rylands, eds. Peggy Guggenheim and Frederick Kiesler: The Story of Art of This Century. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2004. Catalog accompanying a 2004 exhibition of works from Guggenheim’s collection. Includes original documents, designs, and photographs of the gallery from Kiesler’s archives, as well as scholarly essays on Guggenheim, Kiesler, and Pollock.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dearborn, Mary V. Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Biography of Guggenheim tying her life inextricably to her relationship to and advancement of modern art. Sixteen pages of photographic plates, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guggenheim, Peggy. Confessions of an Art Addict. New York: Macmillan, 1960. A frank appraisal of Guggenheim’s personal and artistic life, especially her unhappy childhood. Guggenheim is always ready to admit her limitations and to give full credit to those who helped her in her career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Out of This Century. New York: Dial Press, 1960. Guggenheim’s original assessment of her personal and artistic life reads like a roman à clef with personages only thinly disguised. The author is particularly candid about members of her family and those who influenced them, who are often presented in an unflattering light. She is, however, as unkind to herself. The work gives a candid insight into her personality and the reasons for both her fame and unhappiness.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudenstine, Angelica Zander, ed. Peggy Guggenheim Collection. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985. A beautifully produced and illustrated work covering the collection as it is displayed in Venice under the auspices of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum. Pertinent editorial material gives additional information on the works and their relevance to modern art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Saarinen, Aline B. The Proud Possessors. New York: Random House, 1958. A series of essays on famous American collectors. One essay’s title, “Appassionata of the Avant-Garde,” is indicative both of Guggenheim’s impassioned approach to life and her love of Italy, where her collection is now housed. A recommended introduction to the life and career of Peggy Guggenheim.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weld, Jacqueline Bograd. Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986. Probably the best single work on Peggy Guggenheim and her collection. The illustrations are numerous and well chosen. An appendix lists in chronological order the artists in the various exhibits at both Guggenheim Jeune and Art of This Century. Copious footnotes and a valuable index.

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Categories: History