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The Guggenheim Story

In response to:

Go Go Guggenheim from the July 16, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

I enjoy and admire John Richardson’s writing so much that I write with diffidence to offer a small amendment to his lively account [NYR, July 16] of the evolution of the Guggenheim Museum and Guggenheim antics in general. Mr. Richardson is somewhat dismissive of James Johnson Sweeney, the Director of The Guggenheim Museum from 1954 until 1960. Sweeney and I became great friends after serving together on an art jury in the fifties with Alfred Frankfurter, Editor of Art News, and the Director of the Chicago Art Institute. I greatly admired him. He was the first museum director in the United States concerned with modern art who presented painting and sculpture, spaciously installed, in an all-white interior. He was quite famous for this in the fifties when we were already beginning to take the concept for granted. A man of considerable erudition and broad culture, with usually excellent judgment, Sweeney had great flair in the presentation and installation of art. He made the largest, more or less definitive retrospective exhibition of Brancusi’s sculpture at the old Guggenheim Museum building at 1071 Fifth Avenue in 1955. Nobody who saw Sweeney’s historic exhibition, with its tremendous spiritual charge, will ever forget it. Sweeney was also an early enthusiast for Miró and Dubuffet, acquiring many fine works by these artists for public and private collections in the United States.

Historically speaking, Sweeney was also emphatically in favor of the most radical American painting and sculpture at a time when other museum directors in the US, with the notable exception of Dorothy Miller at MOMA, were either skeptical or blew hot and cold—including the late and great Alfred Barr who tended to trace everything back to Picasso, Gonzales, or Masson. It was under the aegis of Sweeney that the superb She Wolf painting by Pollock was purchased for MOMA not long after it was painted in 1943, and his brother, John L. Sweeney, awarded Pollock a badly needed bursary around the same time. He was unstuffy and friendly to young artists and diligent in visiting their studios.

As Mr. Richardson records, Sweeney was sorely tried during his tenure at the Guggenheim by Harry Guggenheim’s intransigence and Wright’s refusal to modify his original plan. Sweeney was a museum director of real substance and his recommendations would have resulted in a building better suited from the outset to the presentation and conservation of art.

Bryan Robertson
London, England

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