“Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict”: Documentary Celebrates Pathbreaking Collector

“Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict”: Documentary Celebrates Pathbreaking Collector

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict serves its subject much in the way she, in turn, served many of the 20th century’s greatest artists. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland doesn’t try to explain Peggy Guggenheim; instead, Vreeland puts the legendary collector on a pedestal to draw attention to the many facets of a remarkable woman.

The capsule version of Guggenheim’s accomplishments is that she was a pivotal figure in the rise of the New York School of modern artists in the 1940s. If you have one image of Guggenheim, it might be that of the collector as portrayed by Amy Madigan in Pollock: a frank-minded arts patron who has an abortive roll in the hay with the film’s eponymous antihero, who promptly proceeds to piss in her fireplace.

That sounds a lot like being used, and Vreeland’s sources agree that Guggenheim was, in various ways, used by many people — artists and others. Art Addict, though, argues that if Guggenheim were to be called a victim of anything, it would have to be a victim of fate. Her achievement was to turn that fate back upon herself, going from a black-sheep outsider in a wealthy family to a blue-chip brand name who brought her favorite artists with her.

That’s her family name on one of America’s most iconic museums, but Peggy had an uneasy relationship with her uncle Solomon. While Solomon built a behemoth (in one of the many wonderful moments captured on tape by Peggy’s biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld, the niece calls Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous design a “parking garage”), Peggy followed her instincts and established a series of small galleries that became the crossroads of an aesthetic revolution.

In the story told by Vreeland’s sources — who include some of the biggest names in the art world today — Guggenheim was almost the Platonic ideal of a curator. She loved artists as much as their work (“sometimes they’re even better than their work,” she said), and she intuitively gravitated towards the greatest visionaries.

The story of Guggenheim’s life is a mind-bobbling parade of some of the towering names of 20th century art; if the sadness Vreeland sees at the heart of the story is that each of those men and women made their own use of Guggenheim and then were on their way, the triumph of Guggenheim’s life is that she was so inexhaustible. That was infamously true of her sexual appetites, and it’s also true of her life’s work. Artist after artist came to her, and walked away elevated — in reputation and practice, if not morally.

Her personal wealth was considerable, but her ambitions were even more considerable — and anyway, it would have been impossible to buy the kind of respect she earned among artists on both sides of the Atlantic. Her friends described her as having an openness, almost an ingenuousness, and yet she was canny enough to know whose advice to solicit (Duchamp, Ernst, Greenberg) and what to do with that advice.

Through force of will, Guggenheim saved (literally) a boatload of pieces by important European modernists, and then — Vreeland aptly notes — she became a bridge between that tradition and the new American school of abstract expressionism. “Does she make Jackson Pollock famous?” asks one historian in the documentary. “No. Life magazine makes him famous, but she’s there beforehand in a really significant way, and she is allowing this sense of a more heroic, larger-than-life version of art.”

After World War II, Guggenheim closed Art of This Century and returned to Europe — where she took up residence in Venice until she died in 1979. Peggy’s personal collection, ceded to the Guggenheim Trust in an agreement that was a triumphant vindication of her once-quixotic vision, remains there as a public museum that stands tribute to her pivotal role in 20th century art history.

Peggy Guggenheim’s life was so rich that the 95-minute Art Addict feels like a mere introduction. 36 years after her death, the world is still struggling to get its head around this seminal figure. She was without manifestos, and any dirt to be aired was thrown out there long ago — much of it in her own writing, first in a 1946 memoir that was bracingly open about her action-packed personal and professional life.

She’s best known for the artists she shepherded, and yet it’s impossible to reduce her life to its effect on others. She lived a life that was a work of art in itself, and as with any great work of art, it will grow in stature and change in significance with each passing generation.

Near the end of her life, Guggenheim candidly confessed to Weld that she hated getting old (in part because it made it harder for her to take lovers). Still, she said in characteristically deadpan manner, “I can’t be jealous of the past — only the future.” She had reason to feel possessive: so much of the future was, and is, of her own making.

Jay Gabler