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About the Exhibition

Well Scarlett … Did you never think of a gallery that went round and round and up and up leading to heaven? As she said this she indicated with gestures the general idea of a ramp leading upwards snail-wise. Don’t you think that would be a priceless idea for a museum?

Writing in his memoirs Rolph Scarlett recalls a conversation with Hilla Rebay, then director of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting, on 54th Street in New York. Scarlett continues, She envisioned … a place of light and music and spaciousness with the air of a temple. This temple was the vision of not only Rebay, but also of Solomon R. Guggenheim himself and of the ambitious avant-garde artists of the movement of non-objective painting: including Rudolf Bauer, Rolph Scarlett, Irene Rice Pereira, Charles Green Shaw, Alice Trumbull Mason, and Ilya Bolotowsky, among others.

The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, c. 1940
The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, c. 1940

Opening on June 1, 1939, with an exhibition entitled The Art of Tomorrow, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting was the first museum to be realized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and constituted the direct predecessor of the present global institution and its iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building, which did not open until 1959, 10 years after its founder’s death on November 3, 1949. Under messianic Hilla Rebay’s guidance, Solomon had spent over 20 years dedicated to the collection of works by artists whose work was considered ‘non-objective,’ or rather a form of abstraction dedicated to liberating painting from servile reliance on an object for representation. Disciples of Wassily Kandinsky’s spiritual ideals for a future of art, painters of the non-objective movement and museum sought instead to portray at turns metaphysical, musical, cosmic, geometric forms and lines of force.

Advancing notions of composition as well as the discourse on theories of abstraction, the contribution of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, although predominantly viewed in the era as a manifestation of European abstraction, doubtlessly provided the conditions for the formation of the New York School, with the foundation itself supporting promising, little known young artists such as Jackson Pollock. Further, the work of Rudolf Bauer with Hilla Rebay—which led to Bauer’s temporary imprisonment in a Nazi labor camp—significantly contributed to defending the work of so-called ‘degenerate artists’ under the Third Reich. And indeed, the Guggenheim Museum itself, in design and layout as mentioned above, was inspired by the transcendent ideals of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Yet today, for reasons at once political, personal, and institutional, far too little is known about this movement or museum. Here, we seek to redress this historical lack.

The Museum of Non-Objective Painting and the artists’ work presented in this exhibition were the true vision of Solomon R. Guggenheim. Pioneering always attracted my attention, writes Guggenheim in 1949, eight months before his passing. He continues, The first time I saw a non-objective painting in Europe, I was enchanted by its appeal and saw in this art a medium for the American painting to exceed the past … In spite of much misunderstanding and almost discouraging advice, I created a large collection of such paintings and have never regretted my intuitive decision nor my great faith in this art … and I enlisted others to share my joy.

This exhibition premiered at the Leila Heller Gallery, New York on January 26 and ran through March 4, 2017