NEW YORK - When I first arrived at Sotheby’s in 2008, I was like most people who studied art history extensively and had a passion for abstract art from the early 20th century: I had never heard of Rudolf Bauer. This was still the case months later when I received a call from a woman in Detroit who believed she had four oils by this obscure artist, and was curious whether they had any value. The oils belonged to her father, then in his eighties, who, she told me, had come to own them under rather incredible circumstances. As the story went, he had first seen these paintings in a museum during a childhood visit to New York City. He was too young to remember which exhibition (though there were definitely hundreds of Bauers) or even which museum (it might have been MoMA or maybe the Guggenheim?), but four paintings – and one in particular with the green triangles and red line – had caused him to experience profound synesthesia for the first time in his life and were thus forever seared into his memory. Decades later he visited New York again, now a successful physician, and happened to catch sight of the exact same works hanging in a gallery window. Instantly recognizing the “tinkling music” of the shapes and colors that had stayed with him all those years, and shocked by the serendipity of this reunion, he bought all four paintings on the spot. The caller added that her father had never collected art prior to that day and never bought anything of significance since, as nothing ever spoke to him – sang to him, really – like the Bauers.
RUDOLF BAUER'S GREEN FORM.
In my ignorance this story (like so many of the art world’s oral histories) struck me as poetic but problematic. To begin with, paintings that hang in museums typically don’t miraculously appear in galleries, much less for sale. It’s the other way around. It also seemed unlikely that any artist whose works were exhibited by the hundreds at MoMA could be so unfamiliar, and the Guggenheim didn’t fit the story at all given that the protagonist would have been middle-aged by the time Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum even opened in 1959. Regardless, I was able to see on Artnet that Bauer had an established, if sporadic (and frankly static), track record in Impressionist and Modern Art auctions and requested that the caller send images of the works for further research. In the meantime, a look through Sotheby’s expansive library suggested – and amazingly this is still the case – that no books have ever been written about Rudolf Bauer. The sole reference on hand, compacted between volumes on Barlach and Baumeister, was a 1987 catalogue for a solo exhibition at Borghi & Co. in New York. Though little more than a pamphlet, the catalogue contained a detailed chronology written by the familiar-named art historian Donald Karshan. In his introduction Karshan writes:
“There are times when a chronology by the concise nature of its form can present, as in the case of Rudolf Bauer, an extraordinary panorama of an artist’s life and work and the events and personalities that helped shape his times and his destiny, both personally and in the annals of art history.
This writer hopes that this effort will leave his patient reader with a broader and more responsive overview of Rudolf Bauer’s unique creative genius as a painter, print-maker, theoretician, champion of his peer artists, and the culminating tragic turn of events which have, I pray, only temporarily obscured his rightful place in the development of non-objective art during its pioneering decades.”
RUDOLF BAUER'S HEAVY AND LIGHT.
Suffice it to say, I read on, and in keeping with Mr. Karshan’s intent, an extraordinary picture began to emerge. Bauer, it turned out, was a bonafide art star; a celebrity even in his own lifetime. As early as 1915 he was producing completely abstract art alongside the likes of Paul Klee, Alexander Archipenko, Franz Marc, Alexej von Jawlensky and Wassily Kandinsky at the Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, and moreover he was regarded as a leader within this circle. In 1918 along with Max Pechstein, Otto Freundlich and Rudolf Belling he was a co-founder of the Novembergruppe and by 1920 he was already being exhibited in the United States by Katharine Dreier and Man Ray’s Société Anonyme. In 1926 he was included in the famous Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung and the following year, most fatefully, an aristocratic German artist named Hilla Rebay managed to show Bauer’s work to Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York.
Guggenheim fell in love with Bauer’s non-objective art instantly and almost as quickly Bauer’s ascendance became meteoric. Under Rebay’s guidance, Guggenheim committed himself to becoming the world’s foremost patron of abstract art and began buying every Bauer and Kandinsky (in his mind the two most important artists in the world) he could find. Being based in New York Rebay and Guggenheim relied on Bauer to not only produce his own work but to function as an agent and curator in charge of selecting and procuring those works by Kandinsky (as well as Kurt Schwitters, Klee, Marc and many others) which today comprise the core of the world-renowned collection. With the considerable profits he was generating, Bauer opened his own museum in Berlin dubbed Das Geistreich (The Realm of the Spirit) which exhibited his and Kandinsky’s work almost exclusively, and as the world’s first museum devoted to abstract art it was an unmistakable prototype for subsequent iterations of Guggenheim institutions. The presence of Das Geistreich helped solidify Bauer’s reputation as the leading abstract artist in Germany, while back in the United States his work was shown at MoMA in 1933 and was featured on the cover of the museum’s bulletin in October of that year.
As Guggenheim’s personal collection began to swell it rapidly outgrew his suite at the Plaza Hotel, as well as his home in Port Washington, Long Island, both of which featured Bauer’s work in nearly every room (the living room at the Plaza was solely “consecrated” to Bauer’s paintings). As a result Rebay and Guggenheim made the decision to exhibit the collection in its entirety for the first time, and in 1936 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings made its public debut in Charleston, South Carolina. Of the 128 works shown, 61 were by Bauer, 27 by Kandinsky, five by Albert Gleizes, five by László Moholy-Nagy, two by Fernand Léger and one by Klee, among others.
The following year, no doubt due to the success of this exhibition, Guggenheim made the critical decision to establish The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation with Hilla Rebay as director – the first legal step toward his collection’s permanent role in the public domain. From 1936–1939 the collection travelled the United States – and indeed the world – virtually non-stop, all the while continuing to grow exponentially. Bauer’s paintings were featured on the cover of all five collection exhibitions during this period, while at the same time his work was included in major shows at the Louvre and Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris as well as the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Berlin. Indeed it was Bauer’s status as a so-called degenerate artist that led to his imprisonment by the Nazis for most of 1938. His freedom was eventually secured by the combined efforts of Guggenheim, Rebay and the Futurist artist F. T. Marinetti, after which the only safe option was for Bauer to come to the United States full time. Bauer arrived in New York in August of 1939 – just two months after The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation first opened its doors in that city as a functioning public museum.
This was, of course, the museum of the late Dr. Martin Charles’ childhood memory. The museum which, when he visited it in 1939 at 24 East 54th Street, contained 215 Bauers and 103 Kandinskys out of roughly 700 works of art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting as it was known then remained on 54th Street until 1948, when it moved to a temporary location at 1071 5th Avenue, directly adjacent to a large vacant lot on the corner of 89th Street – the site selected by Guggenheim and Rebay for a permanent structure recently revealed by Rebay’s chosen architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
By the time I received the email from Dr. Charles’ daughter with images of the four paintings, it had occurred to me to explore a remote corner of our library reserved for miscellaneous exhibition catalogues, organized alphabetically by institution. There under “G” for Guggenheim was a sleek white book dated 1939. On the cover was a full color illustration of a wildly modern geometric oil by Rudolf Bauer, and above it the title Art of Tomorrow, Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Paintings. This was the catalogue of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation’s opening exhibition in New York, and sure enough all four of Dr. Charles’ paintings were illustrated inside: Green Point (1920), Center Accent (1935), Red Theme (1938) and Red Staff (1937) – the tinkling one with the green triangles and red line – along with the hundreds more he had remembered.
Poring over the seemingly endless paintings and watercolors, many illustrated in such sumptuous color plates that it was hard to believe such a publication was possible in 1939, I saw my first glimpse of a bygone world where Bauer truly was the “King of Non-Objective art” – a nearly two-decade period when a veritable temple to Rudolf Bauer existed at the heart of New York City. And yet, while this period represented the height of Bauer’s celebrity and influence, it was also the moment of intolerable tragedy to which Donald Karshan had alluded. In addition to Bauer’s arrival in America and the opening of The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, 1939 was also the year in which Bauer signed a now infamous contract with Solomon R. Guggenheim and his foundation. In exchange for a generous per annum and the use of one of Guggenheim’s cars and mansions (complete with a live in maid) for the rest of his life, the contract granted the Foundation ownership of Bauer’s entire body of work, including existing as well as any and all future output. Bauer at the time spoke no English and had relied on his friend, confidant and past lover Hilla Rebay to translate the contract for him. Bauer claimed that he only later came to fully understand the implications of the agreement, including what he believed was essentially a life of indentured servitude, and had been grossly misled by Rebay and exploited by Guggenheim.
The 1940s became a period of intense acrimony between Bauer, Rebay and Guggenheim, during which Bauer stopped painting entirely in protest and despair. Ugly legal battles raged and Bauer became isolated and estranged from his beloved patrons, while at the same time Rebay’s status as director came under fire following Solomon’s death in 1949. In 1952, Rebay was forced to resign and Solomon’s nephew Harry Guggenheim, now president of the Board of Trustees, enacted a series of massive changes: the rewriting of the museum’s mission to no longer focus exclusively on non-objective art, the renaming (in conjunction with this new mission) of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the appointment of James Johnson Sweeney as Hilla Rebay’s replacement. Bauer died of lung cancer the following year and was spared the humiliation of seeing the museum he had spent most of his life building finally open without a single one of his works on display. This began to explain the final mystery of Dr. Charles’ paintings – how they went from being owned and exhibited in the permanent collection of a major museum to being hung in a shop window in the span of a few decades. The Guggenheim had decided, from the time they reopened in 1959 through at least the 1980s, not to exhibit any work by Bauer, nor even list them in their handbooks; to keep the full body of work in storage and to quietly deaccession hundreds of examples beginning in the late 1960s. The mystery of exactly why this happened, however, endures. As Donald Karshan posits it was no doubt, “a calamity perhaps derived more from a regrettable conflict of personalities than from an objective evaluation or revaluation of the worthiness of Bauer’s works in the mainstream of modern art history.”
By the time Dr. Charles decided to consign his four oils to Sotheby’s, I was fully enamored by the Shakespearean saga of Rudolf Bauer and could hardly wait to see the works in person (despite their relatively modest value within the Impressionist and Modern collecting category). Then, not one week after the contract was signed, Bauer’s 1916 oil Sinfonie 23 appeared in a mid-season sale here at Sotheby’s New York. Estimated at just $30,000–50,000, the work sold for over $250,000 – more than doubling the existing record for Bauer at auction (which had stood since the early 1990s). In 2009 each of the four Charles paintings more than quadrupled their pre-sale estimates, and over the next six years the records seemed to double on an annual basis, with the top price being just shy of $1,000,000 today. Bauer’s market resurgence today feels just, if overdue, and more importantly it seems to be just getting started.