There is no figure in the history of twentieth-century art more difficult to keep in proper focus than the avid collector—the kind of collector, that is, who specializes in the acquisition of contemporary art. To this strange, hardy breed—more often ridiculed and maligned than admired or understood— we obviously owe much. Without collectors who take an interest in new art and who are willing to lavish significant sums of money on it, the entire life of art in our society would be a very different thing. It would be a much poorer thing, in my opinion, and not only in the strictly financial sense. It is upon such collectors, after all, that artists and their dealers largely depend for their living; and it is to dealers’ exhibitions, let us remember, and to the donations and bequests which collectors make to the museums, that the rest of us owe a large portion of what is important to us in our aesthetic experience. We are all, in a way, the beneficiaries of the collecting enterprise—a fact of cultural life which, except on ceremonial occasions, is seldom accorded the acknowledgement it deserves.

We are all, in a way, the beneficiaries of the collecting enterprise.

Why, then, is it more or less to be expected that these same collectors will be regarded with considerable suspicion and resentment in their lifetime? There are many good reasons, alas. For one thing, in a buyers’ market—which, despite all the changes that have overtaken the art world, is still the kind of market which the majority of living artists are obliged to deal with—it is not uncommon for collectors to drive very hard bargains. What is worse, collectors often boast about them, too, even while claiming the role of generous and disinterested patron. For another, there are the collectors who clearly invest in contemporary art largely in the hope of making a financial killing at some later date. (The activities of the auction houses in recent years have provided abundant evidence of this practice, and the auction houses represent only the tip of the iceberg in this matter.) Then, too, there are the collectors who are guided less by their aesthetic interests than by their social ambitions, their sexual proclivities, their political affinities, or their fixation on some other extra-artistic obsession. Collectors—even the most enlightened and adventurous among them—tend to be arbitrary in their decisions, fickle in their tastes, and impure in their motives. Their interests are subject to sudden shifts which are seldom purely aesthetic in origin. And it doesn’t add to their appeal that, once their collecting activities are accorded a certain degree of public attention, their egotism is often found to rival and even surpass that of the artists themselves. The grounds for suspicion are indeed not wanting.

Collectors with sufficient money and drive constitute a power, moreover, and power of the particular kind which they are in a position to wield inevitably induces feelings of powerlessness—and thus of resentment, envy, and even outright hatred—among those who are excluded from its immediate benefactions. Around almost every significant collection of contemporary art there sooner or later accumulates a sizable accretion of bruised feelings, failed hopes, and broken promises waiting to be avenged. Like every manifestation of power, that of the collector is therefore a natural object of paranoia, and there is never any shortage of people, both inside the art world and out side it, who are given to nursing their grievances (real or imagined) and plotting their revenge.

On the other hand, it is not unusual for the collectors who are the targets of all this free-floating paranoia and revenge to come to believe that it is they who have been ruthlessly exploited. They aren’t always wrong, either. Human nature being what it is, gratitude tends to be of short-term duration in a rising art market. For all of these reasons, we shall harbor fewer misconceptions about collectors and the role they play in the history of their time if we recognize straightaway that they are not in any sense to be construed as angels.

Some collectors, of course, are in less danger of being misunderstood in this respect than others. Consider the late Peggy Guggenheim, who is now the subject of two very different books. One is a biography by Jacqueline Bograd Weld which leaves no sensational anecdote, no matter how distasteful or repugnant, unrecounted.1 The other is a vast, scholarly catalogue by Angelica Zander Rudenstine which, while rigorously ignoring the personal affairs of the collector, concentrates with an almost superhuman objectivity on documenting the collection of works of art which Peggy Guggenheim acquired during a particularly crucial period of our history.2 Peggy Guggenheim was, of course, a notorious character in her day. (She died in 1979 at the age of eighty-one.) Her collection is now preserved as a museum in Venice, Italy, where she lived during the last three decades of her life. Taken together, these two books neatly encompass the twin aspects of her career—the scandalous and the serious—neither of which can be ignored in any attempt to understand the place she once occupied in American cultural life.

In her own lifetime Peggy Guggenheim was praised for her sagacity and courage in recognizing important new talent—most especially, of course, Jackson Pollock’s— while at the same time she was reviled for her stinginess, her pettiness, and her utter lack of anything that could be described as personal morals. That as a collector and a dealer she played a significant role in the formation of the New York School is now universally acknowledged, and her distinction in this regard is in no way diminished by the fact that she availed herself of some excellent advice—what important collector hasn’t?—or that she drove some very hard bargains with the artists she benefited. That she was also, for much of her life, a selfish wretch who left a trail of broken lives wherever her power over others was complete is not to be denied, either. In many respects she was the very archetype of the heiress as a mad egomaniac, using what money she had —in Peggy Guggenheim’s case, it turns out never to have been a huge fortune—to gratify her wayward appetites and impose them on others. In Jacqueline Bograd Weld’s biography we are spared very little in the way of sordid detail about these matters. Yet whatever our judgments may be on Peggy Guggenheim as a woman—and they are bound to be pretty harsh, I think—she was nonetheless one of those people who made a difference in the life of art. What that difference was and how she came to play the role in the life of art that she did is, from our present historical perspective, quite the most interesting thing about her. After all, the world has never lacked for nymphomaniac heiresses or monster egomaniacs of either sex wreaking havoc on those around them; but the art collector represented in Mrs. Rudenstine’s 842-page catalogue remains a rarity even today when, it sometimes seems, every collector of contemporary art seeks to emulate one or another aspect of the Peggy Guggenheim role.

In her own lifetime Peggy Guggenheim was praised for her sagacity and courage in recognizing important new talent.

Interestingly, her career as a collector, dealer, and patron was of far shorter duration than the size and fame of her collection might lead one to suppose. Its major phase lasted about ten years, from 1938 to 1948. After that she continued to add works to the collection—Bacon, Boccioni, and Gonzalez in the Fifties, for example, and Dubuffet and Kupka in the Sixties, and slews of Italians during the entire term of her residence in Venice—but, with some notable exceptions, these were not the kind of acquisitions which added real luster to her holdings. Sequestered in Venice in these later years, she was no longer in touch with the most vital artistic currents, and she had begun in any case to think of herself as an historical personage—which in itself is probably fatal as far as taking a continuing interest in new art is concerned. For all practical purposes, then, Peggy Guggenheim’s role as a power in the art world was pretty much limited to a single decade. But what a decade it was!

What also has to be borne in mind is that as an American she belonged to the generation which expatriated itself to Europe in the period between the two world wars. She had gone to Paris in the Twenties, and had quickly become part of the American expatriate community of artists and writers there. If not for the Second World War, it is unlikely that she would have ever returned to the United States to live. The bohemian milieux she frequented in Paris and London clearly suited her, and so did the distance they provided from the oppressive family atmosphere in New York which she had fled as soon as she was able to do so. When she did return to New York in the summer of 1941, she was in some respects as much a foreigner—at least in regard to its art scene —as any of the artist-emigres whose arrival so decisively altered that scene.

In Paris in the Twenties she had met, among others, Marcel Duchamp, Brancusi, Kay Boyle, Jean Cocteau, Malcolm Cowley, Nancy Cunard, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Man Ray, Tristan Tzara, and Virgil Thomson.3 This was her entrée into the world of the international avant-garde, and it stood her in good stead when, years later, she set up as a serious dealer and collector. She opened her first gallery, called Guggenheim Jeune, in January, 1938—not in New York, however, but in London—with Duchamp as her principal advisor. Its inaugural exhibition was devoted to the work of Jean Cocteau— which was not, perhaps, a happy augury. But the gallery’s second exhibition was, for it brought to London the first show ever to be devoted to the paintings of Kandinsky in the British capital. Because nothing in the show was sold, Peggy Guggenheim felt obliged to buy one of the pictures herself, and it was this purchase which marked the beginning of her career as a collector.

Guggenheim Jeune proved to be a shortlived enterprise—it opened on January 24, 1938, and closed on June 22, 1939—but not because of any diminution of interest on the founder’s part. On the contrary, she had quickly decided that a gallery was not sufficient for her ambitions. What she now wanted to establish in London was nothing less than a Museum of Modern Art. Inspired by the existence of the Museum of Modern Art in New York—which had been founded ten years earlier and was just then moving into its first permanent quarters at 11 West Fifty-third Street—she set about this daunting task with that combination of demonic energy, shrewd calculation, and madcap insouciance which was to carry her through some very odd adventures in the years ahead. She persuaded Herbert Read to quit his job as editor of The Burlington Magazine so that he could serve as the director of the new museum, signing him to a five-year contract, and she arranged to rent the London residence of Kenneth Clark for both her own and the museum’s use. The inaugural event was to be a loan exhibition of modern masterworks starting with Cubism and abstraction and ending with Surrealism and other contemporary works. Read was asked to draw up an appropriate list of artists to be represented in this show, and when, owing to the imminence of the war, the project had to be abandoned, she paid Read half the money due him on his five-year contract and set off for the Continent to acquire the proposed list for her own collection.4 She assumed that sooner or later she would have a museum somewhere.

Was she slightly mad or was she merely an innocent as far as the true political and military situation in Europe that summer was concerned? Probably both, I suspect. About politics Peggy Guggenheim appeared to know nothing and care nothing. What is certain is that, in this matter as in others dear to her heart, she was determined to have her own way—and amazingly, despite Hitler and the expected invasion, she did. Her whirlwind adventures in France, which she did not leave until the summer of 1941, certainly add up to one of the most extraordinary stories of the time. Her goal, or so she claimed, was to buy a work of art every day, and she pretty much did—going to galleries and to the artists’ studios, and seeking out collectors who were eager to sell. And as soon as the word got around, there were plenty of people seeking her out. All in all, she spent about forty thousand dollars, and came away with a staggering hoard of superior works by Brancusi, Giacometti, Léger, Miró, Ernst, Dali, and sundry other members of the School of Paris. Not everyone was charmed by the spectacle, of course. As Jacqueline Weld writes:

One painter . .. from whom Peggy got nothing “but rude remarks” was Pablo Picasso. When Peggy arrived at his studio with her shopping list, hoping to buy one of his most recent pictures, the painter arrogantly ignored her, pointedly talking instead to some other guests. Then, ambling over to Peggy, he said contemptuously, “Lingerie is on the next floor.”

All the same, she managed sooner or later to acquire some very fine Picassos, too, though not from him, and for the most part she did very well indeed.

Was she taking advantage of the artists in a difficult situation? Sensitive to the charge, she afterwards claimed that “I didn’t know anything about the prices of things. I just paid what people told me.” But this was not the whole story, of course. She had, after all, been a dealer—even if she hadn’t sold much. She certainly pressed her advantage where Max Ernst was concerned, acquiring an important cache of pictures for relatively little money. On the other hand, the sale undoubtedly saved his life, enabling him to escape arrest by the Nazis. If the prices she paid for things now strike us as absurdly low, they were not all that different from the prices which such works of art fetched in the peacetime market in the Thirties. It was inevitable that Peggy Guggenheim’s wholesale assault on the French avant-garde art market at that dire historical moment would be resented, yet the whole story is rather wonderful, all the same, and I see no evidence that she caused anyone any injury in the process. She even outsmarted the French authorities by getting her whole collection shipped to America as “household goods” only months before the United States entered the war. The entire episode is like something out of a Henry James novel reinvented by Evelyn Waugh. Unfortunately, Jacqueline Weld isn’t really equal to either the high drama or the real comedy of this bizarre episode, but the essentials of the story are nonetheless recounted in a straightforward manner, and it remains a riveting one in any telling.

Was she slightly mad or was she merely an innocent as far as the true political and military situation in Europe that summer was concerned? Probably both.

Within six months after her return to New York, Peggy Guggenheim was planning the new gallery which proved to be her most celebrated accomplishment. Called Art of This Century and designed by Frederick Kiesler in a highly eccentric style, it quickly established itself as the principal center for the international avant-garde in New York. It was also the place where the New York School made its debut.

Again, she had excellent advice. As Mrs. Weld writes, “Peggy credited men like Alfred Barr and James Johnson Sweeney as her primary influences during those whirlwind days of the 1940s.” Duchamp was also on hand, of course. And by all accounts a now forgotten figure named Howard Putzel, who had already been of help to her in Paris and now came to work at Art of This Century as secretary, advisor, and general factotum, played a major role. He was a real connoisseur of the new art. It was Putzel who recommended Frederick Kiesler to Peggy Guggenheim, and it was he who persuaded her to show Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann—two painters whose work she really didn’t much care for. Not that she always followed his advice—she refused to give Adolph Gottlieb a one-man show, for example. Opinion appears to be unanimous about her treatment of Putzel: it was wretched. She picked his brain, relied on his judgment, paid him a pittance, made impossible demands on his time and attention, and in general drove him crazy. In the end he left her, of course. He got someone to back a gallery of his own, and it too was distinguished—but it survived for only a season, and he died soon after, probably a suicide. By and large, those who were completely dependent on Peggy Guggenheim did not come to a happy end.

In any event, within three years of opening Art of This Century, the gallery was solidly launched as the flagship of the new American avant-garde.

Many of Howard Putzel’s protégés [Mrs. Weld writes] exhibited in the autumn salon at Art of This Century, opening the 1945 season on October 6: William Baziotes, Julian Beck (who went on to fame as founder of the Living Theater), Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Jim Davis, John Ferren, David Hare, Lee Hersch, Peter Busa, Robert de Niro (the father of the actor), Jerome Kamrowski, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still….

Writing to Herbert Read at the time, she singled out Pollock as “the best of all these new young people,” and added that he “may sometime be as well known as Miró.” She had then been acquainted with Pollock’s work for little more than two years.

Mrs. Weld tells an interesting story about Peggy Guggenheim’s first encounter with a Pollock painting, and—who knows?—it may even be true. If it is, it would give us a clue— though not, I think, the clue—to whatever perspicacity she brought to her artistic judgments. In the spring of 1943, Art of This Century organized a “Spring Salon for Young Artists,” and one of the jurors was Piet Mondrian.

As Peggy and Mondrian waited for the other jury members to arrive, Peggy began to set out the works around the gallery. She noticed Mondrian looking at a picture in the corner—one submitted by Pollock. “Pretty awful, isn’t it?” she asked. “That’s not painting, is it?” Mondrian made no reply, but stood staring. Peggy continued, “There is absolutely no discipline at ali. This young man has serious problems .. . and painting is one of them. I don’t think he’s going to be included. . . and that is embarrassing because Putzel and Matta think very highly of him.”

When he finally spoke, Mondrian told Peggy that it was the most exciting painting he had seen—in Europe or New York—in a very long time. “You must watch this man.” Peggy was stunned. But, she said, “You can’t be serious. You can’t compare this and the way you paint.” “So, don’t compare this,” he replied.

Jimmy Ernst, who claimed to have witnessed this scene, said of Peggy Guggenheim: “She was willing to listen, she was willing to be told, she was willing to see .... You know, there was nothing phony about it. And it was shocking to see those paintings.” Duchamp also served on the jury for that “Spring Salon,” and he disapproved of Pollock. Clearly some instinct told her that Mondrian was right and Duchamp was wrong. So Peggy Guggenheim came around, and soon put Pollock under contract—a rare thing for an American artist at the time, and virtually unheard of for an artist of Pollock’s generation. To be sure, she was characteristically stingy about it, and paid him too a pittance in return for quite a few pictures. But she launched him, all the same.

How are we to account for it? It simply won’t do to claim that she was merely following good advice. The advice, after all, was conflicting, and there was no shortage of artists under recommendation from one or another advisor. Also, it is clear that Peggy Guggenheim didn’t particularly like Pollock as a man, and she liked his wife, Lee Krasner, even less. (The feeling was mutual, to say the least.) So there was no question of a sentimental attachment. Unlikely as it seems from everything else we know about Peggy Guggenheim, I think we must conclude that her decision to back Pollock was based on a disinterested artistic judgment. But even to say this does not quite explain it, either. The only persuasive observation I have ever heard on this subject is one which Mrs. Weld quotes from Clement Greenberg. “Her taste. . . was often erratic and unsure,” Mr. Greenberg remarked. “But she had a flair for life, a sort of smell for life that made her recognize vitality and conviction in a picture. It was surer ground in selecting the new than taste.” It is, I think, the principal flaw of Mrs. Weld’s biography that in a book running to almost five hundred pages she really adds little or nothing to this observation. On the entire question of Peggy Guggenheim’s real relation to the art of her time—the art she exhibited, promoted, and sometimes acquired for herself—Mrs. Weld provides no answers. The subject remains as much an enigma on the last page of Peggy as it is on the first.

Compounding the enigma is the fact that when we turn to Mrs. Rudenstine’s catalogue we find that with the exception of the Pollocks there is really very little of the art of the New York School represented in the Peggy Guggenheim collection. The collection, which contains a great many first-rate works of the European avant-garde, is pretty skimpy on American art. Besides Pollock, only Alexander Calder and Joseph Cornell are represented in any serious way—and Calder and Cornell are closer to the Europeans in spirit than any of the painters of the New York School. For Peggy Guggenheim, clearly, her brief adventure on the New York scene was an enforced furlough, and she quit that scene to return to Europe as soon as it was possible for her to do so. I doubt whether she was then fully aware of what she had accomplished in New York. Later, of course, as the fame of Pollock and other members of the New York School prospered and the prices of their paintings began to skyrocket, she began to feel a little bitter— she felt she had been cheated by the Pollocks and even brought a legal action. Yet in the end her fundamental judgment on the New York School is to be found in the collection. Except for Pollock, she obviously regarded most of it as inferior to her beloved European masters. As a dealer, she is rightly considered a champion of the American avant-garde. When she closed Art of This Century in 1947, Mr. Greenberg wrote in The Nation:

[Peggy Guggenheim’s] departure is in my opinion a serious loss to living American art. The erratic gaiety with which Miss Guggenheim promoted “non-realistic” art may have misled some people, as perhaps her autobiography did too, but the fact remains that in the three or four years of her career as a New York gallery director she gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country .... I am convinced that Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes and as the artists she encouraged mature.

And he was absolutely right, of course. But as a collector Peggy Guggenheim was actually much closer to the other well-healed American collectors of her generation in preferring the work of the Europeans. About this curious paradox, too, Mrs. Weld has little or nothing to tell us. Indeed, one wonders whether she is fully aware that there is a paradox to be pondered in this matter.

In Mrs. Rudenstine’s mammoth catalogue, on the other hand, no issue or fact or document pertaining to the collection is allowed to go unexamined. Not only is every work of art meticuously scrutinized, but Peggy Guggenheim’s entire career as a dealer and a collector is painstakingly documented. Every exhibition and its catalogue is described; many of the most important reviews are excerpted; and in general we are given a vivid and detailed archive of a sort rarely attempted in the field of twentieth-century art. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice is a work of exemplary scholarship and intelligence. With its attention so firmly focused on works of art and their history, moreover, this fine catalogue recalls us to what is finally the real basis of our interest in Peggy Guggenheim—not the scandals and sexual escapades and broken lives, but the art in which she seemed to find an identity that eluded her in every other realm of experience. Is it this, perhaps, that offers us a clue to the mystery of the avid collector?


  1.  Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim by Jacqueline Bograd Weld. Dutton; 493 pages, $24.95.
  2.  Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice by Angelica Zander Rudenstine. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., & The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; 843 pages, $85 (after June I, $95).
  3.  It was in the Twenties, long before she thought of buying paintings, that Peggy Guggenheim began her career as a patron. It was then that she gave Berenice Abbott, who was working as Man Ray’s assistant, the money which enabled her to set up as a photographer on her own. Money was also given to Jane Heap for the Little Review. And it was in the Twenties that Peggy Guggenheim began providing the writer Djuna Barnes with a regular monthly check—a practice which was continued for the remainder of both their lives.
  4.  About this list Mrs. Rudenstine writes: “The list itself has not, thus far, been located—either among the papers of Herbert Read or among those of Peggy Guggenheim, who believed that the list was lost during World War II. By the 1970s she was unable to recall a single specific work that had been on the list, and it has not been possible to reconstruct it. Indeed, it is not even clear whether the list enumerated individual works or merely artists’ names, although the latter seems more likely.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 8, on page 1
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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