In discussing modern art in America, quite a number of names come to mind--de Kooning, Pollock, Kandinsky, Rothko, Kline, Motherwell--the list of just the most prominent names might reach fifteen or twenty. However one of the most prominent, perhaps singularly the most important name in modern American art never wielded a paintbrush in his entire life. That's because he was a collector, not a painter, though most certainly in his insight, daring, and Avant-garde tastes he could very well be considered something of an artist in the figurative sense of the word. He was collecting Cubism when no one here and few abroad had ever heard of Picasso. His mission was nothing less than to change the course of modern art history, which he did in October of 1959 with the opening of the most radical art edifice in the world, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Of course the name Guggenheim had been practically synonymous with the modern art scene in New York for most of the twentieth century, not just in the personage of Solomon Guggenheim but also his niece, Peggy. Shortly after WW I, Solomon Guggenheim was one of seven heirs to a diverse family fortune which included mines, banking, shipping, and foundries. With the help and advice of painter Hilla Rebay, his curator, he began putting together a collection of non-objective art at a time when a Picasso might be purchased from between $10 and $100. By the time the museum took shape under the guidance of the octogenarian Frank Lloyd Wright, a similar work was selling for half a million. Under Rebay's direction, the collection was first displayed at a converted auto dealership on East 54th Street in New York. Later the Museum of Non-Objective Art was renamed and moved to a townhouse bordering Central Park, which was torn down to allow construction of the present museum.
In April of 1912, Solomon Guggenheim's brother, Benjamin, boarded the Titanic (along with his mistress) to return home from his yearly trip abroad. She made it; he didn't. With his death, his daughter, Peggy, came into a sizeable fortune that she determined to spend. In addition to lavish shopping forays here and in Europe, Peggy shared her uncle's taste for the Avant-garde. Not only did she collect modern art, but she also became an astute dealer too, at various times, operating art galleries in New York, London, and Venice. She championed a later generation of artists such as Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, and Warhol. Most of her collection ended up in her villa on Venice's Grand Canal where she threw lavish parties celebrating the arts and artists making waves on the international art scene. Today, her collection has been added to the Guggenheim Foundation though it remains in Venice where her palazzo has become yet another addition to the world-class Guggenheim Art Museums.