Art of Tomorrow
13 May - 10 Aug 2006
Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim
May 13 to August 10, 2006
Hilla Rebay’s reputation as a committed proponent of non-objective art, an advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, and the founding director of the Guggenheim Museum, has overshadowed her accomplishments as an artist, but her elaborate and adventurous work provides clear evidence that she was an original artist with a singular voice and an unusual freedom of expression. Throughout a long career, Rebay (1890-1967) produced a prolific array of non-objective and figurative works, many of which convey her pursuit of spiritual fulfillment and social progress. These include self-portraits and portraits of friends and colleagues; theater and dance drawings demonstrating her progress toward greater reduction of form; expressive and sophisticated non-objective and figurative collages; and large non-objective paintings dedicated to the infinite possibilities of pure color, line and space within a spiritual cosmos. Her non-objective works, paintings and works on paper alike, reveal tireless spirit, intensity of emotion, and infinite passion for art and life.
Born in Strasbourg, the daughter of a Prussian officer, Rebay used her gifts to attain a solid academic training as a painter, well beyond the artistic dabbling expected of an aristocratic young woman. She studied art and exhibited in Cologne, Paris, Munich, and Berlin, and became a skilled colorist. She also became interested in Theosophy and diverse religious and spiritual ideas.
Thanks especially to the artists Hans Richter and Jean (Hans) Arp, she began to explore radical directions in painting in the 1910s and early 1920s. Arp gave Rebay copies of Vasily Kandinsky’s seminal treatise On the Spiritual in Art (published 1911) and the almanac Der Blaue Reiter (1912). Arp, whose reliefs, collages, and papiers déchirés (torn papers) inspired her to develop her own distinctive Klebebilder, or “paper plastics”, as she called her collages, encouraged her to leap into the realms of abstract and non-objective painting, urging her to handle line more freely and experiment with all forms of collage and printmaking. Arp also introduced her to the DADA movement in Zurich and to Herwarth Walden - founder of the influential journal Der Sturm and the gallery of the same name - in Berlin. Rebay became an active member of the European avant-garde, participating in several group exhibitions and creating a woodcut for the cover of the February 1919 issue of Der Sturm. At Galerie Der Sturm, Rebay met the artist Rudolf Bauer, whom she considered to be the foremost exponent of non-objective painting and with whom she would enter into a long personal relationship that proved by turns artistically fruitful and inhibiting.
Following her upbringing and artistic training in Europe, Rebay sailed to America in January 1927. When she moved to New York, she met the copper king Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861- 1949) and his wife Irene, subsequently forming a productive relationship with them that would change the history of modern art in America. She encouraged Guggenheim to collect non-objective art, especially to acquire works by Bauer and Kandinsky in depth, but also paintings by Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, László Moholy-Nagy, and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, among other abstract and non-objective artists. From 1936 to 1939 Rebay organized exhibitions of Guggenheim’s collection in Charleston, South Carolina; Philadelphia, and Baltimore. In 1937 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was established and Guggenheim began to envision the construction of a museum in New York.
In 1939 Guggenheim rented a former automobile showroom at 24 East Fifty-fourth Street, and Rebay transformed it into the exhibition space for what was then called the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. After opening on June 1, 1939, with the exhibition Art of Tomorrow, the museum became a great success with New York’s art community, particularly the young generation of abstract artists. As a “temple to non-objectivity,” the museum offered a special atmosphere in which to view art: paintings were hung low on walls decorated with pleated fabric, the floors were thickly carpeted, and classical music could be heard throughout the galleries. A selection of works by European and American artists collected by Guggenheim with Rebay’s advice – and which were included in the Art of Tomorrow catalogue celebrating the Museum of Non-Objective Painting’s opening – is featured in the present exhibition.
In addition to presenting exhibitions of non-objective works by European and American artists at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, Rebay relentlessly organized traveling exhibitions throughout her tenure at the museum, sending works from the Guggenheim collection to museums, schools, and civic organizations around the country, and she distributed stipends, scholarships and care packages to artists.
In 1943 Rebay commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright—in whom she perceived a kindred spirit in matters of art and spirituality—to build the museum of her dreams. In the interval, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting moved to a townhouse located at 1071 Fifth Avenue where Rebay continued to organize exhibitions. Renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the new museum would finally open on October 21,1959, ten years after Guggenheim died, six months after Wright’s own death, and seven years after Rebay had resigned from the museum.
The extraordinary collaboration between Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim resulted in one of the finest collections of early twentieth-century modernism. Indeed, the historical importance of the collection today is a testament to the prescience of Rebay and Guggenheim.
Organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in collaboration with the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, and the Schloßmuseum Murnau. The presentation of this exhibition in Berlin, New York, and Murnau has been sponsored by Deutsche Bank. Special thanks to The Hilla Rebay Foundation for its assistance in the realization of this exhibition. Prior to Berlin, the exhibition was on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, at the Museum Villa Stuck Munich, and Schloßmuseum Murnau.
© Hanne Darboven / Deutsche Guggenheim
Photo: Michael Danner