The PollocksNever Mind
Art Critic John Richardson Recalls Cruising Venice’s Grand Canal
In the 1950s, my friend Douglas Cooper and I would stay with Peggy Guggenheim in her palazzo on the Grand Canal every other year for the Venice Biennale. Staying with Peggy was fun – deep down she was a clown , though an endearingly sad one – but it was also a bit of an ordeal. Enjoyable as it was to have a comfortable bedroom a few feet above the Grand Canal, guests had to ready their quarters every afternoon for the tourists who would troop through. If you stuck around, people would ask, “Are there rooms to let?” “Was Picasso Italian?” “Was the signora Guggenheim alive, or had she gone down with the Titanic?” Lunches in the shady garden at the back of the house would have been more delectable had the food been better. Meals usually consisted of canned tomato soup followed by an insipid goulash. The wine was so poor that the scarcity did not matter. On the other hand, the long afternoon rides around Venice in Peggy’s gondola – the last privately owned one in Venice – were an incomparable treat. Back at the palazzo we would have the thrill of going through Peggy’s stash of Jackson Pollocks. Peggy repeatedly offered me a largish drip painting for $10,000 – “You’ll regret not buying it.” She was right; alas, I didn’t have the cash. In the course of our dreamy gondola rides around Venice, Peggy would embroider on the stories that she had published in her memoir, Out of This Century. Just as she had in print, she revealed a phenomenal gift for trivialising the tragic or the serious. Like Andy Warhol, she knew how to make inanity work for her. Even her
patronage of modernism turned out to have been motivated, primarily, by family one-upmanship and sexual quid pro quos. The artists from whom she bought paintings were expected to include their favours as a bonus. Despite or because of this proviso, she amassed a lot of very good art. Apart from sex, boredom was another driving force in Peggy’s art collecting. Around the time of her 40th birthday, a miserable love affair (a young Englishman had jilted her for the Communist party) had left her at a loose end. What sort of therapy would rekindle her spirits? A publishing house? Too expensive. She opted instead for an art gallery. This had the advantage of enabling Peggy to compete with her “wicked” uncle Solomon, who was in the process of setting up a Museum of Non Objective Art in New York. Peggy wanted to avenge herself on her uncle for edging her feckless father – who had gone down on the Titanic – out of the family partnership, thus leaving her and her two sisters, the least rich members of the Guggenheim family. Peggy confesses that she “couldn’t distinguish one thing in art from another. Marcel (Duchamp) tried to educate me... He taught me the difference between abstract and surrealist art. Then he introduced me to all the artists.” And indeed Peggy’s taste in art was always to some extent dictated by her taste in men. If her pantheon bristled with figures such as Brancusi, Tanguy, and of course Duchamp, it was
partly in their capacity as studio studs. As war clouds gathered over Europe, Peggy started to buy “a picture a day”. Like a child set loose in a supermarket, she grabbed whatever caught her eye. With Duchamp’s help she made many brilliant purchases and learned to rely on her judgement. Peggy’s Parisian shopping spree got an extra boost with the outbreak of war. Prices tumbled. Her “museum”, named Art of This Century, was an overstatement, and a shade pretentious, but Frederick Kiesler’s bizarre installation of her collection in a top-floor loft on 57st Street ensured instant celebrity. If Kiesler made the exhibits virtually impossible to see, so much the better. Paintings and sculptures dangled from the ceiling like so much laundry. For 1942 it was very far out, but it left Peggy at a disadvantage some years later when she railed against the building (“my uncle’s garage”) that Solomon Guggenheim commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design for his collection. Peggy was wise to settle in Venice. Unlike Park Avenue, where Alfred Barr was encouraging a new generation of collectors to turn their apartments into miniMOMAs, the Grand Canal was mercifully free of rival collectors. She soon settled into the bungaloid Palazzo Venier degli Leoni, a folly with a suitably sensational past. In the 20s, Marchesa Casati had entered there surrounded by tranquilised leopards, drugged boa constrictors and live putti coati in gold leaf.
“Daisy Miller with rather more balls” – Gore Vidal’s description of Peggy in her palazzo period is apt. Tennessee Williams likewise comes to mind, but Peggy has none of the self-destructiveness of the gigolo-obsessed protagonist of his great story The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. Peggy’s rapaciousness was proof against the most insidious of gigolos. They came to grief, not she. Whereas Rome was the undoing of Williams’s Mrs Stone, Venice was the making of Peggy. By throwing open her palazzo and her collection, not to mention her person (as she was the first to admit), Peggy turned herself into not just a Venetian but an international landmark, as Vidal says, “a legend” – the perfect sublimation for an exhibitionist. There is much to praise in her achievement as not only a collector but also as a catalyst and a pollinator. She was present in 1942 when Ernst invented “oscillation”, that is to say dripping runny paint from a pierced can suspended above a canvas: she was likewise around three years later when Pollock painted his first “drip” picture. Peggy never appreciated that she was unwittingly the link, any more than she realised that, so long as the nascent New York School was cut off from the Paris school by war, her collection and her surreal bed, made of sterling silver jinglejangles by Alexander Calder, bridged the Atlantic.
This is an edited extract from Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters (Jonathan Cape)
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