New York

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum | New York

Granting the eminence of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, one of the things which interests me here is how that same collection has been deserved by its multiple catalogers, including, to my dismay, the most recent one, Works From the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, published by the Guggenheim Museum, New York City, in connection with its installation of the collection in Uncle Solomon’s museum. Quite recently, Harry Abrams brought out The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art by Nicolas Calas, assisted by his wife, Elena. Mr. Calas is well-known as a writer on contemporary art although his affiliation with the Surrealist episode both in Europe and America will perhaps be remembered as his most enduring contribution to letters. It appears that Mr. Calas’s primary attachment, despite the job at hand, was to Surrealist poetics in expiration—if I may be permitted so to characterize it. Doubtless, it was Mr. Calas’s Surrealist affiliations that prompted Peggy Guggenheim to permit her collection to be cataloged by him in the first place, as she, herself, has long been associated with the group and was even at one time, it will be remembered, Mrs. Max Ernst. Unfortunately, the choice of Mr. Calas as the author of the major work on the Peggy Guggenheim Collection produced an inept catalog. Mr. Calas’s critical priority emphasizes interpretations—interpretations which more often than not are merely ludicrous—at the expense of such elementary considerations as bibliographic information, provenances, exhibition history, literary references and the like, issues which Mr. Calas may have regarded from his Surrealist viewpoint as lifeless and pedantic, although they are not. Peggy Guggenheim, herself, had earlier written a catalog, Art Of This Century, in 1942, but this work does not address itself to elementary scholarly issues either. Such questions, inadvertently, are touched on in her celebrated memoir, Confessions Of An Art Addict, 1960, in which, with aristocratic ingenuousness, she informs us that she began to collect out of boredom and loneliness after a suite of failed marriages.

Since common accord admits that Peggy Guggenheim has managed to amass so important a collection, I again return with horror to the ineptitudes of the current catalog prepared by the Guggenheim Museum. Apparently the latest one is a communal effort, as its entries for the work of more than 130 artists are left unsigned. Ironically, should the viewer care for more than regurgitated and falsifying generalizations, he is informed that the entries are “taken virtually without change from the catalog of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, first printed in March 1966.” We are apprised thereby of the existence of still another aborted effort. One would have imagined that the curators and directors of The Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, trained as they all are, would have recognized the gross ineptitudes of the earlier compendia and would have desired to produce something worthy of scholarly attention; but they shrank from this central commitment of curatorial responsibility in exchange for economic and scholarly expedience. And worse, the entries of the New York Guggenheim Museum catalog give, almost without exception, as reference, the objectionable and useless hack work amassed by the Calases for Harry Abrams.

If the reader imagines that I am only going to carp on the inadequacy of all the catalogs of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, let me signal several other disconcerting issues relevant not to the printed word but to the pictures themselves—or more exactly, to the state of the works. They are in appallingly poor shape. Only a few of the glaring examples culled during a most casual inspection down the famous ramp are: Jacques Villon’s Espaces (1920), which is cracked and dirty; Brancusi’s toweringly important Maiastra, the polished bronze version of 1915, has a pronounced nick in the breast; the superbly majestic Albert Gleizes, Woman With Animals (1914), betrays heavy surface scourings at the shoulder and breast and calls out for cleaning (the water stains running down the face of the picture are perfectly evident even in the catalog reproduction, especially in the lower left quarter); the ledge of the table in Juan Gris’s The Bottle of Martinique Rum (1914) is heavily scratched. Rather than continue with this list which threatens to grow nearly as long as the numerous inclusions of the exhibition itself, I pause only before Jean Arp’s Overturned Blue Shoe With Two Heels Under A Black Vault (1925), Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbild (1930) and Georges Vantongerloo’s Construction in An Inscribed And A Circumscribed Square Of A Circle (1924). The catalog illustration of the Arp is completely misleading. The grey ground on which Arp’s automatic shapes play is not the smooth uninterrupted greyness published but is, in reality, a scored, erupted and flaking surface. As to the Schwitters, I would have been grateful to have seen it new because in the piece exhibited there are at least three places on its now dirty surface where ridges of glue and paint point to places where Merz elements once had been but are no longer. Last, that the famous Vantongerloo should be shown cracked and scrappy at its lower edges may in part be answered by the very friability of its plaster substance but I wonder just who has taken the liberty of “refurbishing” it with an indifferent coat of bristly whitewash for the present installation. After all, Vantongerloo died in 1965.

Peggy Guggenheim, herself, gives ample clues to the pathetic condition of her objects. In her description, for example, of her attempts to effect its transfer from a Paris threatened by Nazi occupation, she recalled that in Vichy it spent several weeks unprotected by tarpaulins in an open railroad car. Similar inclemencies must have occurred during its many peripeties throughout France, England, the United States and finally to Italy, where it is now housed in the white marble Palazzo Venier dei Leoni.

Of the “Palazzo Guggenheim,” as it is often referred to, I have many memories but none perhaps stronger than those I noted as an ardent student one sunny day in July almost ten years ago: “. . . surrounded by too many Max Ernsts, some of which are good—and many personal souvenir pictures [dedicated] ‘to Peggy’—in certain respects a fine private collection with good Cubist works (a Duchamp, Marcoussis, Gleizes), some interesting Dali, a wonderful comic strip by Matta about what appear to be oversexed nymphs and centaurs . . . all this giving onto the Grand Canal . . . certain private rooms were open, e.g., the bedroom which housed Hélion and Joseph Cornell and amidst copies of Point and Das Werk, a beaten edition of From Here to Eternity. The dining room displays the Cubists—roughhewn, rustic, ancient furniture—large venetian glass lamps—everything throughout in poor taste and bad scale . . .” Perhaps such observations are ungrateful. Certainly American art will ever be in Peggy Guggenheim’s debt for her support of the Abstract Expressionist cause and of Jackson Pollock, of whose work she owns so many critical examples. I anticipate that her defense of this group alone will suffice to transform her excessively reported movements into the life of a tragic heroine. In this connection, I was moved, at the festivities attendant upon the opening of her collection here when, spied from below on one of the ramps, Peggy Guggenheim was pressed into coming to the edge of the balcony to submit to the ovation of the guests below. That she deserved the acclaim none can doubt—but as to the pictures, I am willing to consider that a moot question. Such a collection can only be regarded as held in trust for the world and I still remain unconvinced that Peggy Guggenheim is the person in whom to place that trust.

Robert Pincus-Witten