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Rudolf Bauer @ Weinstein

Andante, 1938, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 51 1/2"
During the teens, 1920s and 1930s – watershed years in the development of nonrepresentational art – Rudolf Bauer (1889–1953) stood at the center of the European avant garde.  Galerie Der Sturm, which carried Kandinsky, Chagall, Klee, and Franz Marc, as well as lesser known exponents of Expressionism, Futurism and Constructivism, included Bauer in group shows alongside those masters, and awarded him three solo exhibits between 1917 and 1921.  Those and other shows throughout Europe caught the attention of Katherine Dreier, co-founder (with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray) of the Société Anonyme.  She placed Bauer in exhibitions that toured the U.S. over the next three years.  Her recollection: "We had no artist in those early years whose work so appealed to the public in general and which received so much response.”  
So why is it that no mention of Bauer appears in art history texts?  Insights come from two San Francisco events exploring Bauer’s legacy: a retrospective at the Weinstein Gallery, which runs through April 30, and a play, Bauer, by Lauren Gunderson, at the San Francisco Playhouse through April 19. 
Bauer, who began as an illustrator at age 12, certainly experienced plenty of strum and drang.  Apart from his own efforts, which included the creation of a museum devoted to himself and Kandinsky (which the Nazi closed in 19390, Bauer is perhaps best known for the role he played in helping to establish the Museum of Non-Objective painting in New York.  That enterprise arose, in part, out of his long and conflicted relationship with Baroness Hilla Rebay, a tremendously gifted painter who, after immigrating to America in 1927, convinced Solomon Guggenheim to switch from collecting Old Masters to contemporary art.  She called it the “Art of Tomorrow.”
Vivace 6, 1918, oil on board, 28 x 40 3/4"
Using Bauer as a purchasing agent, she and Guggenheim built the museum, amassing under Rebay’s direction, the largest collection of its kind, with works by Klee, Chagall, Kandinsky, Leger, Moholy-Nagy and Delaunay.  Significantly, it held more works by Bauer than any other artist, and the museum’s promotional efforts reflected that bias: A disproportionate number the its  catalogs carried cover images created by Bauer. Apart from arousing the animosity of other artists, Rebay’s obsession with Bauer produced no ill effects — at least not immediately.  MOMA, during the 1930s, included him in two important shows, and the Arts Club of Chicago gave him a solo show in 1936.  But her enthusiasm, tainted by love affairs with both Bauer and Guggenheim, ultimately backfired, sending Bauer’s career into a downward spiral which has only recently begun to reverse. 
Bigger problems, however, stemmed from a contract he signed upon moving to the U.S. in 1939.  Bauer agreed to give all of his output to Guggenheim who, during that same year, sprung him from a Nazi prison.  (Rebay’s brother, a German general, brokered his release with a suitcase of Guggenheim’s cash.)   In

Happy, 1925, watercolor, ink, tempera, crayon on paper, 17 x 13" 

 exchange, Guggenheim agreed to give Bauer a baronial house on the Jersey shore, a Duesenberg and $300,000 payable in annual installments of $15,000.  After signing the contract, Bauer claimed he’d been duped, blaming his poor command of English for blinding him to the meaning of the word “output”.  Bauer wanted the agreement nullified.  Guggenheim and Rebay, the museum’s director, refused.  Acrimony andlawsuits ensued.  Bauer took revenge by not painting again after 1940.  He died in 1953 at age 64.  None of these events, however, stopped Rebay from continuing to hype Bauer, nor did it deter the Guggenheim Foundation, as it later became known, from exhibiting his works.  That all changed when the Guggenheim Museum opened in the new Frank Lloyd Wright building in 1959, ten years after Solomon Guggenheim’s death.  Weary of the saga, the museum, under his son Harry’s directorship, forced to Rebay to resign.  It consigned Bauer’s works to the basement and sold them off quietly over the years.  More than half century later, Bauer remains a touchy subject at the museum.  In 2005, when it mounted a revival of The Art of Tomorrow, Rebay’s first exhibition for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, Bauer was relegated to a supporting role.   

The retrospective at Weinstein, the gallery’s second such effort since 2007, is intended as a corrective.  Timed to coincide with the current Kandinsky show at the Guggenheim and a rehanging of the Degenerate Art show at the Neue Gallery, it contains work from every phase of the artist’s career, from his earliest days as an illustrator to his mature Expressionist works of the late teens and ‘20s to his Constructivist-influenced geometric paintings of the ‘30s.  At a distance, it would be tempting to cast Bauer as a Kandinsky acolyte were it not for the fact that the ideas driving both men’s work trace to many of the same sources then
Quiet (abstract composition on green field), 1925, oil on masonite

sweeping European art: Eastern and Western mysticism, the Theosophical writings (on “thought forms”) by Annie Besant, Charles W. Leadbeater, Rudolph Steiner and others who sought to penetrate the surface of physical reality to get at pure spirit.  In that regard, Kandinsky’s own writings are notably famous, but he was hardly alone.  The quest for an object-free vision encompassed nearly all of the Russian avant guarde, the De Stijl painters, Jean Arp, Mondrian, Hilma af Klint and Frantisek Kupka to name but a few. Mardsen Hartley, Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keeffe were among the Americans pursuing similar goals.  As for Bauer, he issued his own writings on the subject: Cosmic Movement (1918), aligning the meaning of art, music and cosmic forces, and Manifesto of Painting (1921).  

Despite his advocacy of transcendence, Bauer’s early paintings are resolutely earthbound. They show him struggling to purge his painting of recognizable objects and thereby exit the material world – a difficult task given the circumstances of Germany in WWI.  While no evidence suggests that Bauer saw combat in that war, the paintings on view certainly demonstrate his knowledge of its devastating impact.  Saturated colors, collapsed perspectives, loopy, taffy-like lines and projectile shapes that cleave diagonally characterize much of the work from this period.  In Vivace 6 (1918), an aerial view of a lush green valley, snaking lines crisscross like contrails of an air battle, signaled by a fuselage that melts down and across the canvas into a splayed, whip-wielding figure.  It’s framed on all sides by bloody reds.  Quiet (Abstract Composition Green Field) (1925), is, by comparison, quieter, but still tied to recognizable – and very violent — imagery. The main element is an exploding head, a savage grotesquerie that brings to mind Otto Dix and George Grosz. 

Larghetto III, 1919, oil on board, 24 1/8 x 33 7/8"

Larghetto III (1919) breaks free of representation with cryptic symbols painted on translucent fields of color.  The musical title, one of many Bauer used, reflects an interest in synesthesia.  The concept, applied to painting, was that color could be a gateway to sound and to pure feeling, an idea that would become more important for Bauer and Kandinsky during the ‘30s when they moved, in tandem, toward a utopian-oriented geometry. 

Several outstanding works on paper from the ‘20s show Bauer in a transitional phase. Happy (1925) consists of biomorphic shapes rendered in loose washes surrounded by precise Klee-like ink doodles flecked with spatter, one of several drawings from this period that playfully mix mystical and sexual imagery with nonobjective forms.  However, the many early fashion illustrations and undistinguished cubist figure studies on paper that appear should have been left out.  The exceptions are Bauer’s caricatures. Skewering German decadence and bourgeoisie indifference, they compare favorably to those of Dix and Grosz, and would have been more effective had they been shown alongside the Expressionist works, rather than displayed salon-style in the stairwell.   
In the 1930s, when Bauer shifted to a Constructivist mode, his spiritual quest acquired cosmic aspirations, seen in multicolored spheres, lines, vertices, squares and rectangles that float in indeterminate space, intersecting and overlapping.  Executed at a substantially larger scale than his Expressionist works, with precise, hard-edged lines and cubist edge shading, these thinly painted works represent the nonobjective impulse at its peak. A masterwork, given prime placement on the gallery’s third floor, is called Spiritual Pleasures (1935-38).  It’s an aggregation of colored spheres, all aimed at a central form, as if launched into space by moonbeams.  Looking at it, I felt physically elevated, but also thrust back into that part of the twentieth

Spiritual Pleasures, 1935-38, oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 51 1/4"

century where the future was imagined as being filled with pyramids, obelisks, monorails and space needles.  “God geometrizes” is a Plato maxim that was widely circulated among artists in Bauer's day, and I have no doubt that he believed it.  Though such visions now seem somewhat dated, early Modernism’s recasting of “sacred geometry” continues to cast a long shadow, evidenced by Minimalism and by the ongoing vitality of the cosmic-leaning Light and Space movement where formlessness and color are the essence of what is, essentially, a spiritual practice.  

Where Bauer’s career might have gone had he not cut it short is unknown. One thing we do know: While Bauer’s contributions were excised from art history, his work continued to circulate widely after his death.  The catalog for Weinstein’s initial Bauer retrospective lists 26 group shows and 17 solo exhibitions between 1953, the year of his death, and 2007.  Many were in prominent museums, here and in abroad. They include three group exhibitions at the Guggenheim, one at the Whitney (The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900-1950) and another at the Société Anonyme’s Modernism for America, which, from 2006 to 2010, travelled to the Armand Hammer Museum, The Phillips Collection, Dallas Museum of Art, Frist Center for Visual Art and Yale University Art Gallery.

In other words, Bauer has been hiding in plain view for more than 50 years.  Why he remains a shadow figure is a mystery.  The mature work he left behind argues for reevaluation.  

“Rudolf Bauer: Realm of the Spirit” @ Weinstein Gallery through April 30, 2014.  The exhibition also includes works by Hilla Rebay and Rolph Scarlett. 
“Bauer” by Lauren Gunderson @ San Francisco Playhouse through April 19, 2014.

2 Responses to “Rudolf Bauer @ Weinstein”

  1. A very informative, well-researched, and well-written review.
    Thank you, David,

  2. Craig Smith says:

    “…tempting to cast Bauer as a Kandinsky acolyte…”…. on the nose there…..


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