Peggy Guggenheim, who gave Jackson Pollock's Mural to the University of Iowa, not only enriched this Museum's painting collection, but changed the art world of the twentieth century.
Marguerite Guggenheim, who was always called Peggy, was born to a wealthy New York City family in 1898. Her uncle was Solomon R. Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim Museum. Her mother's family, the Seligmans, built the Flatiron Building in New York City. Guggenheim regularly visited Europe with her parents and two sisters, and she was exposed early on to art and culture in a life of privilege that continued even after the loss of her father on the Titanic.
In 1919 Guggenheim came into her inheritance—and began a lifetime of taking risks and making astute decisions in the art world. She devoted the first years of her financial independence to learning about art: she toured the United States, worked briefly in a New York bookstore where she met many young artists and writers, and traveled to Europe. In 1922 she moved to Paris with her first husband. There they participated in the legendary bohemian life of Paris. Guggenheim's first commercial art venture was a gallery she opened in Paris with a friend but by 1927 Guggenheim's marriage was over and her Paris life came to a close.
Guggenheim's next business venture was an art gallery in London. She consulted artist Marcel Duchamp, who advised her to specialize in the two main tendencies of modern art—surrealism and abstraction. He helped her build a list of the most important artists within these movements. Despite several successful exhibitions, the gallery lost money, and Guggenheim decided to set up a museum instead. She planned to use her growing collection as the centerpiece for temporary exhibitions of modern art. But when Hitler invaded Poland and war was declared, she was forced to abandon her plans. She traveled to France in the fall of 1939 and, using the funds she had set aside for her museum, began buying "a picture a day." She added many important works of modern art to her collection before leaving Europe in 1941 for New York. Her home there became a natural meeting place for exiled European artists in America.
Guggenheim continued to pursue her dream of a museum and, in 1942, she found a space to exhibit her collection. Her gallery-museum, called "Art of This Century," was an overnight sensation, drawing European refugee and American artists as well as the Park and Fifth Avenue society sets. One of her first exhibitions was a Spring Salon for Young Artists. Among the young American artists included was Jackson Pollock.
In July 1943, Guggenheim offered Pollock a contract—a rare event in those days. By singling Pollock out in this way, given the success of her gallery and her reputation as a tastemaker, Guggenheim provided both financial and moral support. This was the turning point for the artist who would become the star of the young artists' group known as the New York School. Guggenheim had also commissioned a mural from Pollock for the entryway of her new townhouse.
When the war ended, many of Guggenheim's close friends moved back to Europe. Her gallery was not prospering as she had hoped, and her children had returned to Paris. She presented her fourth and final Pollock exhibition in January 1947. In May, she closed the gallery doors for good. Art critic Clement Greenberg wrote at the time:
"Her departure is in my opinion a serious loss to living American art. The erratic gaiety with which Miss Guggenheim promoted 'non-realistic' art may have misled some people,...but the fact remains that in the three or four years of her career as a New York gallery director she gave first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country...I am convinced that her place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes and as the artists she encouraged mature."
Guggenheim left New York to live in Venice. From there she corresponded with Lester Longman, the director of the UI School of Art and Art History, to arrange the gift of Mural to the University of Iowa. In addition she gave the UI four other works: Pollock's Portrait of H.M., 1945, Irene Rice Pereira's Eight Oblongs, 1943, Joaquin Torres-Garcia's The Fish, 1932, and Roberto Sebastian Antonio Matta Echaúrren's Like Me, Like X, 1942. She never saw Pollock again.
Guggenheim's collection was featured in the Venice Biennale in 1948, causing a flurry of excitement—painting like Pollock's had never before been seen in Italy. Eventually she settled in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where she exhibited her collection and raised her much-loved Shih-tsu dogs. There she welcomed such famous visitors as Truman Capote, John Cage, and Yoko Ono. Young artists sought her out, and visitors to the Biennale coveted invitations to her famous receptions. She lived in her palazzo until her death in 1979. Her collection remains in Venice, now as part of her uncle Solomon's Guggenheim Museum. It testifies silently but with eloquence to her sense of adventure, her commitment to the art world, her good judgment in choosing advisors, and her gift for encouraging great art.
(American, born Germany, 1902–1973)
Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock in front of Pollock's Mural (1943) in the first-floor entrance hall of Guggenheim's residence, 155 East Sixty-first Street, New York, ca. 1946. Other work shown: unidentified David Hare sculpture (partially visible, foreground), ca. 1946.
Photo: George Karger, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Archives, New York