‘Visionaries: Creating the Modern Guggenheim’ Honors Benefactors and Patrons Who Helped Shape Modern Art

The Guggenheim is one of the most distinctive modern art museums in the world – and not just for its spiral ramp. Stop at each floor and note the contemporary masterpieces of all the major figures of the 20th Century: Picasso, Klee, Pissaro, Pollock, Kandinsky…the list goes on. An exhibit at the museum features more than 170 works that trace the museum’s development via the collectors and benefactors who shaped the public’s knowledge of modern art. It’s called “Visionaries: Creating the Modern Guggenheim,” on view through summer; it’s a big show that should be seen in a big way. 

It started with the school of nonobjectivity, which Solomon R. Guggenheim discovered after collecting for about 20 years around at the turn of the 20th century. His direction was changed when German-born artist Hilla Rebay introduced him to the marvels of the avant-garde, especially artists who began using abstraction to evoke spirituality. The forerunner of today’s Guggenheim, the Museum of Non-Objective Art, opened in 1939. Today’s Guggenheim, in the current Frank Lloyd Wright building – itself an international masterpiece of modern architecture – opened 20 years later.

It began with gifts and purchases from collectors who were likewise astonished by the innovations and radical experimentation of art in that era. The acquisitions included Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works from Justin K. Thannhauser; expressionist émigré art from dealer Karl Nierendorf, and abstract and surrealist masterpieces from Solomon Guggenheim’s niece Peggy. Other works on display in the show were from the estates of artist Katherine S. Dreier and Rebay. And of course, Guggenheim himself.

Guggenheim was sitting for a portrait by Rebay, a painting baroness, when he noticed her collection of abstract works, devoid of any connection to the natural world, but that nevertheless communicated spiritual seeking. “He was just struck by this art,” said ‘Visionaries’ Curator Megan Fontanella. “It was really the genesis of the Guggenheim collection. ‘Visionaries’ is at its core an exhibition about relationships: the relationships between these six collectors, between the collectors and the Guggenheim, between these collectors and the artists of their time.”

Visionaries: Creating the Modern Guggenheim” is Feb. 10 – Sept. 6 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Tickets are available here.