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Rehabilitating Rebay
Art in America, Dec, 2005 by Edward Leffingwell

In the summer of 1939, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting presented its inaugural exhibition, "Art of Tomorrow," in a former automobile showroom on East 54th Street in New York City, close to Rockefeller Center and the Museum of Modern Art. The paintings were installed low on pleated-fabric walls, dramatically lit and handsomely framed, in galleries suffused with the sound of recorded classical music. The exhibition drew on a growing collection of more than 700 avant-garde works of art acquired for public display by philanthropist Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861-1949), the scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family. The existence of that collection and the museum to display it may in large part be credited to the efforts of the accomplished Strasbourg-born artist Hilla Rebay (1890-1967). She was the museum's first director and curator and the prime mover in its creation, and she is now the subject of an exhibition, "Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim," traveling in Europe after debuting at the current home of the institution in question, since 1952 called the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Rebay studied art in Cologne and then at the Academie Julian in Paris, where she painted from the figure. In the fall of 1910, she continued her studies in Munich. A vigorous oil-on-board self-portrait with a bouquet from ca. 1911 finds Rebay assured in her handling of color and medium, her style in keeping with the neo-Impressionist art of the day. In 1913 she moved to Berlin, which offered greater stimulation, but her initial forays into abstraction may be traced to meeting Jean Arp in Zurich in 1915. Arp, as both her mentor and lover, encouraged her work in woodcut and engraving and introduced her to the ideas of Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. She exhibited at Galerie Dada in 1917, and at Berlin's Galerie Der Sturm, where she met the painter Rudolf Bauer (1889-1953), who soon became her paramour and a significant influence on the direction of her art. Although their romantic partnership was short-lived and tumultuous, Rebay never ceased to champion Bauer's art and assisted him regularly. From 1929 until 1939, he operated a gallery in Berlin-Charlottenburg, where he collected and displayed the work of Kandinsky, his own paintings and the work of Rebay; he also obtained art for Guggenheim, who eventually purchased the bulk of Bauer's collection.

ebay's exhibitions in Berlin, Cologne and Munich prompted little critical response. She immigrated to the United States in early 1927 and in November of that year exhibited collages and drawings at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. A critic praised her as "an artist of unusual talent, a successful portrait painter and gifted with an exceptional decorative sense." (1) Soon after her arrival in New York, she met Guggenheim's wife, Irene. Through her agency, Rebay received a commission to paint a portrait of Guggenheim. During the sittings, she advised him on the significance of non-objective art, seeking his patronage in securing its place in the cultural fabric of the city. Guggenheim subsequently devoted much of his interest, time, energy and money to advancing a rapidly growing collection. It notably included, at the suggestion of Rebay and Bauer, more than 150 examples of Kandinsky's works, as well as hundreds of their own. Rebay convinced Guggenheim not only of the importance of forming a collection of non-objective art but eventually of constructing an architecturally worthy museum to house it, and she pursued its development, working with Bauer to obtain suitable objects.

The exhibition focuses on Rebay's accomplishments as an artist and also militates for her rehabilitation as a significant figure in the history of 20th-century culture. It brings merited focus to her art and to the progress of her career. The curators place particular emphasis on Rebay's many collages and drawings. Among these are a handsome series that includes studies of black men and women at rest and at play in a tropical setting, and sophisticated, jazz-age pencil drawings of nightlife in the clubs of Harlem, ca. 1930. There are collages that have the grace and impact of the work of Schwitters and others that are portraits combining fine outlines and blocks of color in the manner of illustrations, in addition to collaged costume designs.

In an exhibition devoted to the rehabilitation of Rebay's lifework, a gallery was given to the output of artists she admired and introduced to Guggenheim's collection. Among the works shown are individual examples by Arp, Bauer, Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, Pablo Picasso, Hans Richter and Kurt Schwitters. Kandinsky is present in force, his importance highlighted by a new installation of paintings in the museum's Kandinsky Gallery. Leger's roughly 4-by-3-foot Composition (1925) is a modernist architectural arrangement of intersecting planes and abstracted objects in gray, black, white and brown. Paul Klee's Inscription (1926), a product of the Bauhaus years, is a quiet linear study in black india ink on a watercolor ground of tannic brown. Two small, Cubist paintings, Juan Gris's oil-on-wood panel Fruit Dish on a Check Tablecloth (1917) and Picasso's foot-high Glass and Pipe (1918) show some similarity in composition as well as sharing the earthy palette of the Klee. Although not all the paintings included in this section entered Guggenheim's collection in the same year, they share a sensibility--as though their acquisition and eventual placement were intended to balance the pedagogical with the esthetic in a reading of the development of the museum and its collection.

The exhibition is guided by historical narrative as much as by affinities of technique and form. The presence of formally related works by Kandinsky, Bauer and Rebay is of special interest. Pyrotechnics and geometries of spheres, ribbons and arcs cascade through Kandinsky's roughly 5-by-3-foot One Center (1924). The first Kandinsky purchased by Guggenheim for his museum, the larger, horizontally oriented Composition 8 (1923) offers an orchestration of forms that seem more abstracted than non-objective. In the foreground, spheres are arrayed like an audience at a concert. There are abstracted keyboards and strings, chromatic grids, jazzy arabesques of light, a wild-eyed conductor in the midst of a bank of instruments in full symphonic bloom. In White Fugue (192327), Bauer seems to adopt from both of these Kandinskys, thrusting an unsuccessfully stippled torpedo shape borrowed from the former painting through the dizzying space of the latter. Installed in another gallery primarily dedicated to the work of Rebay, Bauer's 2-by-3-foot oil-on-board Fugale 6 (ca. 1918) seems in part to find a source in Kandinsky's Painting with White Form (1913). Rebay's early oil on panel, Composition #9 (ca. 191416), in thrall to Kandinsky, precedes her contact with Bauer. A number of abstractions painted just after she met him recall his Fugale 6.

A separate gallery was given to Rebay's later, much larger paintings. At roughly 8 by 6 feet, the oil-on-canvas Royally (1945) has the look of a painting informed by a maquette or preparatory drawing, with broad architectural arcs and such geometric forms as triangles, circles and squares. Gavotte (1947), of about the same dimensions, is dominated by curves and, characteristically, is named for a musical expression, as is Rondo (1943), where biomorphic forms hover over brightly colored arabesques. Capriccio (1956-62) consists of an interplay of largely triangular forms interspersed with a frantic hatching of red lines. Among these last, large paintings, Symphony in Blue (1951-62) and Allegro (1956-60) are reductive and angular, with jittery, even muscular lines; small geometric shapes seem to float above or beyond the picture plane.

Despite the authority of composition and attack, the paintings fail to share the clear luminosity, vitality and optical play of the collages Rebay produced at more or less the same time. Notable are the graceful, sweeping movements in several relatively large collages on paper. These include the 21-by-29-inch Centered (1952), the undated Largo and The Yellow Cross of the same size and, judging by their shared formal concerns and materials, evidently of the same period as Centered. The somewhat smaller Two Rings and Lyrical Invention (both 1939 and roughly 18 by 14 inches) are composed of fluid shapes and geometric forms of masterfully cut and patterned paper. The freely crafted arrangements seem to dance in space, revisiting Rebay's fusions of collage and watercolor on paper from early in her career, such as Paper Plastic (1918).


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