At the Guggenheim Museum, New York:
Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim; through September 6, 2017.
Guggenheim Collection: Brancusi; through January 3, 2018.
Mystic Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris 1892-1897; through October 4, 2017.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum building (opened 1959) generally so dominates any art on view that an emphatically self-reflexive, self-contained show featuring its core collection of modernism seems virtually the only “natural.” Presiding over the museum’s character and legacy is Wassily Kandinsky, whose spiritually-aimed abstraction grounded the aesthetics of Wright’s design–as charged by SRG’s German émigré art advisor Hilla Rebay. Rebay had egged on SRG in acquiring early Kandinsky, which, supplemented by additions from the collections of other “visionaries,” adds up to a retrospective-ready holding by the museum. The full spectrum is summarily featured here, from The Blue Rider years, through Stravinksy, the Bauhaus, and the late cosmic geometry. The shifting subtleties and enigmas of his “non-objectivity” are climactically concentrated in the double-height High Gallery but interspersed throughout, due to the organization of the show, which separates the holdings of each sub-collection: SRG’s, Rebay’s own small one, those of Rebay’s compatriot émigrés, Karl Nierendorf and Justin Thannhauser, and Americans, Katherine Dreier and SRG’s famous niece, Peggy (see the film, “P.G.: Art Addict,” dir. Lisa Immordino Vreeland [Netflix]). This conceit offers insight into certain “progressive,” elite art tastes, cliques, cabals, and their interactions, and diversions, through (mainly) the first half of the 20th century.
Cubism and Kandinsky dominate. Despite long-standing charges of narrative sentimentality by some, I love the charmingly enigmatic paintings of Marc Chagall, which blend both, and add folkloric/primitivist and topical political content, such as the three gems here, among SRG’s purchases. Dreier and Peggy brought in Alexander Calder, who had a strong presence in Paris between the wars. Thannhauser added most of the antecedents (Impressionism, Post-Impressionism [the biggest names in both cases]; and early Picasso; although always on view by stipulated agreement, they are especially relevant absorbed into this show). Nierendorf contributed Joseph Albers; Peggy brought in Surrealism and Jackson Pollock (and like that). The most prevalent sensibility overall is a kind of cool Cubist-derived Bauhaus that asks quite a bit of the mind as well as the eyes. Where artists’ early and later works are not in proximity due to the collectionaire theme, some works lose context that might be helpful for those beyond cognoscenti (this observation amounts to a very small thing–but, e.g., see the Mondrians).
While Wright envisioned primarily (not at all exclusively) a downward trajectory from the top of the continuous, angled ramp (reached by elevator), and it doesn’t matter much how to attack this show to get wrapped up in its brave new formal euphoria, I suggest the upward climb if you can, the sens de la visite of the curators. Thus the High Gallery full of Kandinskys is a grand opening, just past the start of the upward spiral. Up another tier, veer off into the Thannhauser space (as indicated, grounding for much material to follow), and then ascend to the culminating splatter Pollock (1947) that implicates, retrospectively, the reach of Kandinsky.
The most important sculptor in this milieu is probably Brancusi. Only a few are scattered throughout; however, there is a small addendum show (off Thannhauser) that fleshes out his contributions, along with Edward Steichen’s acclaimed photos of his influential Paris studio.
A great juxtaposition with the forward-looking tenor of “Visionaries” (retrospectively) is the Rose + Croix salon display, off the ramp at the 4th floor, which retracts from canonical modernist tendencies into fin-de-siecle ennui and an idealized early Christian past—portrayed through detailed, engrossingly fussy figuration. Starting with the physical transition from Wright’s giant egg-white snail/spaceship into a dark-red-colored room with plush sofa-seating. The Rosicrucians were one of many 19th-century syncretistic Christian groups incorporating ancient, esoteric mysticism, new occultism, and socio-philosophical prescriptions that looked backwards from the “fall” of the industrial revolution. One of its high priests, Josephin Peladan, took up the arts component as a sect of umbrella fin-de-siecle Symbolism, organizing a series of salons such as that simulated here. The collective results—a mini-Counter Reformation kind of thing, in which hell-and-damnation (among other) Biblical, Christian, and Classical allegorical narratives, heavy on male-moralistic notions of female purity, boast highly crafted, sometimes experimental techniques amplified in a close personal viewing; William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites are precedents. Across the works the lighting is appropriately ethereal, and a pan-European Art Nouveau can be loosely applied to the languorous anatomies and foliage.
One bridge between several turn-of-the-century artistic milieus across the two shows is the Swiss Ferdinand Hodler. He hovered between various fringe movements and goals, melding figuration and formalism with his rhythmic “parallelism,” represented in the Rose + Croix show by a soulful, freize-like composition of anguished, black-draped bodies. Most of his peers here are far lesser known. in terms of art history, they lost out to the (then) futuristic art sojourners highlighted in “Visionaries.” Yet, the intentions of both Kandinsky’s and Peladan’s flocks, as far as developing a spiritually-infused art that could effect broad societal direction, overlap.