The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Chart

Summary of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

While technically the museum had its beginnings as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in 1939, the official Solomon R. Guggenheim opened in 1959, and contains one of the most impressive and comprehensive collections of Modern art, spanning mid-19th-century Realism to Postmodern sculpture and installation. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is now one of the wealthiest museums devoted to Modern art in the world. Its parent organization, the Guggenheim Foundation, is today a global network of museums that includes world-class facilities in Berlin and Venice.

Key Ideas


Solomon R. Guggenheim Background, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Museum of Non-Objective Art

Born in Philadelphia, PA in 1861, Solomon Robert Guggenheim was the son of Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss-born businessman who made his family fortune in mining and smelting, and his wife Barbara Guggenheim. Solomon had three brothers, including Benjamin Guggenheim, who was the father of Peggy Guggenheim, who owned and ran the Art of This Century Gallery.

In 1919 Solomon retired from the family mining business and from his Yukon Gold Company in Alaska (which he founded), and in 1937 started the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a non-profit corporation dealing in philanthropy and the arts.

The foundation's first museum was the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which opened in 1939 in a rented former automobile showroom on East 54th Street in Manhattan. The gallery space was designed by Lewis Muschenheim, and the founding curator and director was Hilla von Rebay. Rebay was an Alsatian-born abstract painter and art collector who Guggenheim greatly admired for her meticulous taste in Modern art, particularly the paintings of L├ęger, Delaunay, Klee and Kandinsky. She was referred to by many as "The Baroness," and as far back as 1929 was instrumental in convincing Guggenheim to begin acquiring artworks that favored abstraction. Rebay also happened to be a relentless self-promoter who insisted that her own artwork be included in the museum opening. (Reportedly, other members of the Guggenheim family referred to Rebay as "the B," which apparently didn't stand for Baroness.)

At the museum's opening, visitors viewed paintings by Kandinsky, Rudolf Bauer, Alice Mason, Otto Nebel, and some by Rebay herself. Most of the works were part of Solomon Guggenheim's personal collection, which he had been amassing for years. Both Rebay and Mischenheim had elected to hang all of the paintings low to the ground and mounted on walls covered in thick drapery, a rather unorthodox choice for its time. A sound system was also installed, so that visitors could listen to Bach and Chopin while they viewed striking new works of art.

As Guggenheim's art collection grew, so did the need for a larger location for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting.

Frank Lloyd Wright is Commissioned

In 1943 Hilla Rebay commissioned the notoriously stubborn but brilliant American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, to construct a permanent home for Guggenheim's museum. Rebay penned a now-famous letter to Wright, dated June 1, 1943, which read, "I want a temple of spirit, a monument!" The choice of Wright was considered risky at the time, since the architect famously disliked urban settings.

Altogether, Wright composed six or seven different comprehensive plans for the new museum, and a total of 749 drawings for the interior and exterior design. With World War II still being waged overseas, the cost of building materials continued to rise, causing frequent delays in planning the construction of the new museum.

In 1949 Solomon R. Guggenheim passed away, resulting in even further delays. Shortly after his death, the museum's board of directors agreed to change the name of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. In 1951, Solomon's son Harry, who had taken over as chairman of the board of directors, forced Rebay to step down as Museum Director (Solomon was apparently the only Guggenheim who held Rebay in any favor). In 1952 former MoMA curator James Johnson Sweeney was appointed as director of the new Guggenheim Museum, a position he would hold until 1960. Construction of the actual building, however, did not begin until 1956.

Once Wright's plans became public knowledge via New York newspapers and other media, many artists and critics reacted with considerable disfavor; many artists collaborated on a letter addressed to Sweeney, expressing that Wright's plans for a spiral walkway and curvilinear slope were "not suitable for a sympathetic display of painting and sculpture." The letter was signed by such notable figures as Adolph Gottlieb, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston. Sweeney himself, incidentally, was known to have had a rather antagonistic relationship with Wright, and the two often clashed over the architect's plans; it is possible Sweeney was sympathetic to the concerns of the aggrieved artists.

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