Jews, Germans, Women and the Spiritual in Art in America (Creating a Modern Guggenheim)


They won’t do the ethnic tagging at the Guggenheim, but I will. Why now, Visionaries: Creating A  Modern Guggenheim, this big exhibition of the museum’s holdings organized to show the history of its founding visionaries and mission. Originally created as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the Guggenheim was the original brainchild of Solomon Guggenheim and the Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen (i.e. Hilla Rebay). Other original movers were Justin K. Thannhauser, Karl Nierendorf, Peggy Guggenheim, Katherine S. Dreier. The group was made up of German American Jews, German Jews, and German women, who committed themselves to what Kandinsky called “the spiritual in art” as a form of modern art.

The exhibition organizes the art by collector, not artists. This  gives you a sense of who originally owned what before giving it to the museum as a public forum. What stands out is art in relation to money, the concept behind a collection, taste, and wild and wooly ideas. The opening blast of Kandinskys in the first large gallery up the ramp off the lobby sets the tone for the entire exhibition. There are so many interesting things, about which I am going to post separately.

For now with this post I want to stay with the faces behind the art and artists, the ones who created the design and exhibition place, putting the art in motion in the world. Let’s agree, if one insists, not to call it “religion.” Religion would be too material a frame. In contrast, the spiritual in art is invested in groups of dematerialized colors and forms floating off of the picture frame and out into the secular city, out there into new mental dimensions. In the 1950s, the spiritual in art, dependent on visionary German Jews and women, found a home, a point of refuge in New York City.

So why show exactly this precisely now? For the sake of historical perspective, nostalgia, artistic-spiritual renewal?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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