|Art of this Century
Money, mental illness, sex, and art - what more could a poor little rich girl want? Peggy Guggenheim was known as a great patron of modern art, but it seems clear from her autobiography that her advocacy of the avant-garde at a time when it had not yet become institutionalized had as much to do with her unhappy feeling of being a strange thing as with her admiration for the art's subversive strangeness. In deciding to devote her adult life, in every respect, to modern art - she married or lived with such figures as Lawrence Vail, Samuel Beckett, and Max Ernst; Marcel Duchamp was her advisor, Pier Mondrian a friend, Jackson Pollock a protege - she was, in effect, trying hard to reconstitute her eccentric Jewish family.
Though some of her relatives were "nearly normal," most were "peculiar, if not mad" - they ranged from an "uncle [who] lived on charcoal" to one who "spent all his time washing himself," and more than a few were "inveterate gamblers" - and they were invariably at odds with one another. While the artists she supported and loved did not live on charcoal or spend all their time washing, they were inveterate aesthetic gamblers, unable to live "in any kind of harmony or peace," and more than a little peculiar. Guggenheim's astute descriptions of Vail ("I felt when I walked down the street with him that he might suddenly fly away"), Beckett (he had "awful crises, when he felt he was suffocating," which had to do with his "terrible memory of life in his mother's womb"), and Pollock ("a trapped [alcoholic] animal who should never have left Wyoming"), among other avant-garde weirdos, make this quite clear. One of her greatest "missions" was to found an artist's colony, but it came to nothing, because of the vicious competitiveness among the artists.
But her relationship with Herbert Read, who was the director of her first museum of modern art in a London townhouse, worked very well, no doubt because "he soon became a kind of father in [her] life." She was, she says, "rather in love with him, spiritually." In a life full of few pleasant memories, Guggenheim's perhaps most pleasant memory, apart from that of Read, is of a grand dinner Maria Jolas threw for James Joyce in 1938, on the occasion of his fifty-second birthday, at which there was a kind of ideal togetherness, and Joyce, feeling "very happy" and being quite drunk, "got up and did a little jig by himself." At the more typical artist party there were either terrible fights, such as the one that occurred between the art critic Nicco Callas and the poet Charles Henri Ford at her Beekman Place housewarming, or else someone pontificated, as Andre Breton frequently did.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Guggenheim's book from an art historical point of view is her account of society's shift in attitude toward modern art. Guggenheim relates several instances when, importing various avant-garde sculptures for exhibition in her first gallery, Guggenheim Jeune in London, British Customs insisted she pay "heavy duty on them," for they were considered "separate pieces of bronze, marble, wood, etc." - modern art, indeed, "the entire art movement," became "an enormous business venture." By the late 1930s, avant-garde sculpture would never again be absurdly regarded as damaged raw material; it had become an important piece of commercial property.
Guggenheim ends on a profound note of disillusionment. After bitterly recounting "the seven tragedies of [her] life as a collector" - all economic tragedies involving her premature divestiture o major works before "the whole picture world turned into an investment market" - she states "I do not like art today. I think it has gone to hell, as a result of the financial attitude ... Today is the age of collecting, not of creation." "Some buy merely for investment, placing pictures in storage without even seeing them, phoning their gallery every day for the latest quotation, as though they were waiting to sell stock at the most advantageous moment." No longer did artists stalk Guggenheim when they heard she was buying, for there were now buyers galore, who would pay more than she ever had.
Guggenheim is particularly jealous of Lee Krasner, who "kept all Pollock's paintings in storage and did not even want to sell to museums," while Guggenheim gave away eighteen Pollocks. Krasner ended up a multimillionaire while Guggenheim never had much more than the $450,000 she inherited, half of which was held in trust. Clearly, Krasner outclassed her in business acumen, but art was never a business for Guggenheim. It was a calling for which one made sacrifices. Nonetheless, one can't help wondering if she unwittingly returned to her economic roots. The Guggenheims made their fortune by cornering the market in copper mines; Peggy Guggenheim once cornered the market in avant-garde art, before the rest of the world came along to undo her monopoly.
It is as though Guggenheim feels all the economic hardships she suffered running her pioneering London and New York galleries and Venice museum-home - the development of postwar American art is inconceivable without her New York gallery Art of This Century - were in vain, all the more so because "everybody just copies the people who did interesting things twenty years ago, and so it goes on down the line, getting more and more stereotyped and more and more boring." The artists themselves have let her down, because they no longer have "a pure pioneering spirit" - the adventurous spirit she herself had, even before she discovered it in avant-garde art. It is the most memorable, enduring aspect of her. It kept her, and her faith in avant-garde art and artists, alive. The pity of her life is that while she supported artists, emotionally and financially, through the lean times, none of them returned the favor during the fat times. In the end Guggenheim felt abandoned and betrayed, which she was. She deserved a better family.
Donald Kuspit, 1997