The Art of This Century Gallery
Summary of The Art of This Century Gallery
The Art of This Century Gallery, although short-lived, played a key role in launching the careers of many Abstract Expressionists. Opened by Peggy Guggenheim, who was first and foremost a collector of Surrealism and Dadaism, the gallery showcased the works of European artists, including Kandinsky, Arp, Miró, Braque, and many others. Not long after its opening, however, Art of This Century became a champion of many American artists, most of whom were experimenting with abstraction and had been working and struggling for years in New York and elsewhere. Art of This Century gave many of the soon-to-be celebrated Abstract Expressionists their first solo exhibitions, most notably Jackson Pollock.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- While largely showcasing Guggenheim’s own collection, she and her advisors saw the gallery as a laboratory for exhibiting the most avant-garde European and American art of the time. A painting “library” and innovative installations created a way for viewers to physically interact with the art instead of distantly observing it.
- Art of this Century Gallery was one of the few places where one could see European and American artists displayed on the same walls, thus boosting the importance of American art in many critics’ and collectors’ eyes.
- Guggenheim’s willingness to show young American artists working in a mostly abstract vein instilled a confidence within the burgeoning Abstract Expressionists, who were beginning to understand that they could create a dynamic and innovative art here in the United States without relying on Europe.
Overview of The Art of This Century Gallery
In 1898, Marguerite Guggenheim was born into wealth and prosperity. Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, was director of the Guggenheim family's industrial mining and smelting interests, and her uncle Solomon R. Guggenheim was the founder of the Museum of Non-Objective Art, which came to be known as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The Most Important Art in The Art of This Century Gallery
In addition to being Peggy Guggenheim's husband and acquisitions adviser, Ernst also showed several of his works during the first few years Art of This Century was open. His Blind Swimmer was among these exhibited. The mysterious image in the center of the canvas recalls a plant or human biological part, perhaps in cross section. Its placement at the center of concentric circles and radiating lines adds to the sense of looking at a biological specimen. Similar to some of his early Dada-ist collages, Ernst’s painting moves into the Surrealist realm with its unknown, perplexing imagery.
While Surrealism had been seen in New York before Guggenheim’s gallery opened, many of the earliest shows at Art of this Century focused on Surrealism and became a sort of meeting place for those exiled Surrealists, thus introducing the younger American artists to their European idols. While originally in the collection of Art of This Century, one of Henri Matisse’s heirs purchased the painting from Guggenheim and eventually donated it to the Museum of Modern Art.
Peggy Guggenheim commissioned this mural for her new apartment on 61st street. Piet Mondrian encouraged Guggenheim’s patronage of Pollock when he told her at the 1943 Spring Salon at Art of This Century upon seeing his work, “I have the feeling I’m looking at some of the most exciting art that I’ve seen so far in America.” Subsequently she signed a contract with Pollock and paid him a monthly stipend that allowed him to quit his job as a carpenter at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was then known.
She originally planned for the mural to be painted on the wall of her entrance hall, but Duchamp recommended canvas, since it could be moved. The work was supposed to be finished for her exhibition of his work in November 1943, but the artist felt, as he said, “completely blocked.” As months went by, Guggenheim said that he needed to finish it by her birthday in February or she would cut off his stipend. While rumors suggest that Pollock completed the work in one night, just in time to deliver it for her birthday, conservation examination has shown that he had already been working on the painting. The work appeared to great acclaim. Critic Clement Greenberg saw it as the arrival of “a great artist,” and the story of its making became part of the legend that surrounded Pollock. Before leaving for Venice, Guggenheim donated the work to the University of Iowa Museum, marking just one of the many times she donated a number of Pollock’s celebrated works to various institutions.
In 1945, Art of This Century showed The Women, a follow-up to Exhibition by 31 Women in 1943. Many of the original artists participated, but the new exhibition also included works by sculptor Louise Bourgeois and painters Lee Krasner and Charmion von Wiegand. Nell Blaine, a student of Hans Hoffman and one of the younger members of the Abstract Expressionists, was included, exhibiting Red and Black along with several other paintings. While known for her more realistic paintings of landscapes and still lifes, Blaine’s early work explored abstraction. Here, the hard edges of the red, blue, and black forms read as indecipherable shapes on a sign board. Resolutely grounded in the late work of Henri Matisse as well as Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, and Jean Arp, Blaine’s work would have been at home on the wall of Art of this Century Gallery, with its twin emphasis on Surrealism and pure abstraction. Also, in 1945, Blaine had her first solo show at the Jane Street Gallery, one of the first cooperative galleries in Greenwich Village, and other artists such as Leland Bell, Judith Rothschild, and Larry Rivers regularly exhibited there.
The responses to the show reveal the gendered biases of art critics at the time. The chief art critic for the New York Times wrote, "There is nothing save the catalogue to indicate that these artists are women. The work might just as well have been produced by 'The Men.'" And a reviewer in Art News remarked, “The women who Peggy Guggenheim has picked for her string have definitely something on the ball. The most surprising trait here is an almost masculine vigor of ideas ... the works as a whole balance satisfactorily in the Art of This Century Galleries promoting new conception of the weaker sex. Other all-female organizations should have a look-in at a show which is so refreshingly un-ladylike.” While seemingly meant to be compliments, such remarks remind us of the entrenched biases that women — artists and gallerists — have faced through the decades of the 20th century.