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The Guggenheim’s Greatest Hits Come Roaring Back

Of New York City’s major museum collections, the Guggenheim’s is the hardest to see, because so little of it is usually on view. Blame Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, that big empty well of light and air with a little art up the sides. Not that I object to the building. I’ve adored it since my first visit as an out-of-town kid in 1960, the year after it opened. There was art on the ramps then, but all I remember is thinking: spaceship. Still do.

But now, as if answering a hunger — maybe its own — to see what that spaceship originally held, the museum brings us “Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim,” a permanent collection show that fills the rotunda. The 170 works — mostly paintings, with a few sculptures, including a lobster-red Calder mobile dropped from on high — add up to a classic greatest-hits display, which could be a snooze, but in this case isn’t because a lot of these greatest hits really are great, and some of the less familiar stuff is too.

The installation is a pleasure: neat, clean, linear, up the ramp, with an optional detour into the Thannhauser wing (always permanent holdings turf). No need to consult floor plans. No wandering off course. If your visiting time is short, shift into four-wheel drive, head straight uphill and you’ll be done in under an hour.

The main route, which starts on Ramp 2, is broadly chronological. It begins with a picture-window landscape by Camille Pissarro, “The Hermitage at Pontoise,” from around 1867, the collection’s earliest work. It ends several ramps later, under the skylight, with Jackson Pollock’s big, tarry 1947 “Alchemy,” an archaeological dig of a picture, on view in New York for the first time in 50 years (after a painstaking restoration that removed decades of grime).

But right off the rotunda floor, before you begin your climb, you undergo a kind of modernist baptism by fire: an eruption of color, line and utopian emotion generated by 10 Vasily Kandinsky paintings. Kandinsky is the Guggenheim’s house artist, the one whose work it owns in the greatest depth, and whose spiritualizing sensibility most closely reflects the institution’s founding aspirations.

Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861-1949), a New York industrialist and seasoned collector of old masters, probably never heard of Kandinsky until around 1927, when, at his wife’s insistence, he had his portrait done. The painter she hired was a German artist named Hilla Rebay — born Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen — who had recently arrived in New York. Rebay had strange, figureless paintings and collages, some of which she’d made, on her studio walls. And she began telling her sitter about wonderful kinds of new art coming out of Europe: abstract art — she called it nonobjective — that reached for the spiritual realm.

Guggenheim liked what he heard, and he liked a gamble, and, at age 68, decided to go with this one. The conversion was quick. Out went the old masters; and, under Rebay’s guidance, in came some zany new ones, Kandinsky among them. By 1930, Guggenheim, guided by Rebay, had bought hundreds of pictures and was inviting people to his apartment in the Plaza Hotel to see them.

In 1937, 80 years ago, he gave his collection institutional heft by setting up the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. A publicly accessible home for the work — the Museum of Non-Objective Painting — followed in 1939, with Rebay as director. And 20 years later came the Guggenheim Museum we have today.

From an early point, its modernist collection represented the contributions, through sale, purchase or gifts, of several people. Look at the labels for the 10 introductory Kandinskys. The names of some of the original owners are noted. They, along with Guggenheim and Rebay, are the “visionaries” of the show’s title.

Two of them, Karl Nierendorf and Justin K. Thannhauser, were German art dealers who moved to New York before, or during, World War II. Another figure, Katherine S. Dreier, was an artist and a private collector with progressive tastes. And a vital contributor was family: Peggy Guggenheim, Solomon’s self-described “art addict” niece.

It is around these figures, and their art, that the exhibition, organized by the Guggenheim curator Megan Fontanella, with Ylinka Barotto, a curatorial assistant, is loosely built. Thannhauser, an important second-generation European dealer in early modern French painting, was the original owner of the Pissarro landscape. He was pushed by war from Berlin to Paris and finally to New York in 1941. With no children to carry on his business, he consigned much of his art to the Guggenheim Foundation, including resplendent Gauguin landscapes, Seurat pastorals, a cache of van Gogh letters and a group of unusually interesting — because unusual — Picassos.

His compatriot, Nierendorf, came to New York on a holiday jaunt in the late 1930s and stayed. He was a crucial figure in the developing museum: He represented Kandinsky in America, and had close ties to Paul Klee. When Nierendorf died suddenly in 1947, the Guggenheim Foundation bought his estate. Dozens of works by Klee came with it, and seven of them are part of what amounts to a Klee mini-retrospective that is one of the true park-the-car highlights of the show.

Rebay loved Klee, and bought a gorgeous little wine-red abstract grid painting — it looks like a dollhouse version of an Ardabil carpet — for herself. Like much of the rest of her personal collection, it eventually went to the museum, though her contribution to the institution was already incalculably huge. Basically, she created it in its early stages. And, with her theosophical interests and radical eye, she shaped it in ways that Guggenheim on his own might not have. (But even she couldn’t sell him on Mondrian.) Rightfully, many of her own works entered the holdings, and two of her abstract collages are on view: vivacious, disciplined, beautiful.

Dreier, an American of German descent, was an artist too. She participated in the 1913 Armory show, where she met Marcel Duchamp. In 1920, joined by Man Ray, they founded the Société Anonyme to buy and exhibit new and difficult art. Independently wealthy, Dreier took collecting as seriously as most people do a profession. She made it her career and amassed astonishing holdings. The bulk of Société Anonyme material is at Yale, but the Guggenheim got some treasures: a zesty Schwitters collage, a Mondrian, and a madly complex Duchamp ink study of a chess match drawn on what looks like a cocktail napkin.

The show ends with objects from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. The daughter of Solomon’s brother Benjamin, who died on the Titanic, Peggy combined the work of several visionaries in one, as an art dealer, a museum builder and a lavish shopper — her stated intention was to “buy a picture a day” — with extremely eclectic tastes.

Paintings in the show that belonged to her range from a rigorous geometric abstraction by Kazimir Malevich to a diseased-looking Surrealist tableau by Max Ernst (her second husband). The dominant energy comes from Pollock, who was working as a maintenance man at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting when Peggy Guggenheim, in a dealer phase, offered to pay him to make paintings full time. He did, and she got a lot of them. The three at the very top of the ramp are explosive the way the Kandinskys are below.

She claimed Pollock as her great discovery, which he was, and still is, though the show yields plenty of other discoveries: Joseph Cornell assemblages, Franz Marc horses and cows, and splendid things by artists — Claire Falkenstein, Perle Fine, Alice Trumbull Mason, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — you rarely see. You may miss them on a quick visit. But there’s plenty of time to return. “Visionaries” will be in place for nearly six months, until September, and even for a collection show, that doesn’t sound too long.

Six of My Favorites
Of the 170 pieces in the Guggenheim’s permanent collection survey, a few stand out:

PAUL KLEE “Horizon, Zenith and Atmosphere,” 1925. Klee and Vasily Kandinsky both worked at the Bauhaus. Both had mystical temperaments. Both were artists collected by all the early Guggenheim “visionaries.” Yet their work was very different, in scale and tone. This little Klee piece, with its radiant graphic lines and color sprayed from an atomizer, is in an aesthetic and spiritual world entirely its own.

VAN GOGH “Landscape With Snow,” 1888. Feeling harassed and jostled by life in Paris, in the winter of 1888 van Gogh headed south for Arles, hoping to find balmy weather and congenial artist friends. He found neither. Arles had been hit by freak snowstorms. Standoffish locals were the only people around. Van Gogh went to work, and painted a bleak frosted field as oceanic garden.

FRANZ MARC “Stables,” 1913. Marc painted some of the most empathetic depictions of animals since Dürer’s. As time went on, his view of the world grew more encompassing and cohesive. In “Stables,” his final picture of horses, nature and architecture harmoniously interlock. In 1916, at 36, he was killed in action during World War I.

BRANCUSI “Little French Girl,” circa 1914-18. For Hilla Rebay, sculpture, as a medium, wasn’t spiritual enough, and this delightfully kooky early Brancusi is one of the few sculptures in the Guggenheim show. Influenced by African art that Brancusi had studied in Paris museums, it ended up in the Connecticut living room of Katherine S. Dreier.

ALICE TRUMBULL MASON “Emergent Form,” 1945. An American painter and printmaker, Mason (1904-1971) studied in New York with Arshile Gorky and went through geometric, then biomorphic phases, which she combines in this insouciant piece. An ardent nonobjectivist, she signed this painting twice, in different places, to indicate it had no fixed orientation.

JACKSON POLLOCK “Alchemy,” 1947. Pollock’s great painting is a fitting punctuation to the show. Historically, it feels like both the beginning and the end of something big. It’s being seen here for the first time in years in more ways than one. To get a sense of the extensive conservation work done on it, check out “Jackson Pollock: Exploring ‘Alchemy’” in the Guggenheim’s Sackler Center for Arts Education.