Art of This Century is inseparable from Peggy Guggenheim’s claim to a place in the history of twentieth century art.
An inquiry into this museum-gallery’s importance for what was to emerge as a crucial period in the development of American painting is tantamount to assessing Peggy’s personal contribution to the ineffable grid of forces and influences that gave rise to Abstract Expressionism. The dual function of Art of This Century (a permanent collection and a selling gallery with temporary shows) aptly captures Peggy’s position on the crossroads between a European past and an American future. The permanent collection, installed with remarkable conceptual inventiveness in Frederick Kiesler’s outlandish Abstract, Surrealist, and Kinetic galleries, was a further tessera in the mosaic of the New York artists’ highly developed sensitivity to European art. The small temporary exhibition spaces, or Daylight Gallery, were the venue for the opportunities that Peggy provided for several of those same artists.
[…] Art of This Century took its name from the collection catalogue that Peggy published privately in 1942. She had begun this in the autumn of 1940 when her collection was temporarily stored (hidden may be a better word) in the Musée de Grenoble. […] Peggy’s collection was at that time (necessarily) limited to the period 1910 to 1942, beginning with high analytical Cubism. It was numerically small but qualitatively high, with works of Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, European abstraction (such as Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl), Metaphysical painting, Dada, Surrealism, and Purism as well as sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, Alexander Archipenko, Henri Laurens, and others. Naturally it did not yet include the Abstract Expressionist and post-war European components.
[…] Individual paintings and sculptures of the European avant-garde, available to the New York audience in 1942 with a captivating immediacy thanks to Kiesler’s environment at Art of This Century, were more compelling than illustrations in Minotaure or Cahiers d’Art. Picasso’s The Studio (1928), for example, was admired by Motherwell (“Perhaps the most important influence on my life in those first ten years in New York”). Artists “flocked” to see Miró’s Seated Woman II (1939) and Schwitters’s Maraak, Variation I (1930), with its encrusted objects, may have provoked Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner into similar experiments.
More generally, Art of This Century was a meeting place, one of those hang-outs that become retrospectively sanctified by the avant-garde ambience. Marius Bewley, the third in a series of four gallery assistants (Jimmy Ernst, Putzel, and Tom Dunn were the others), named in swift succession the following who frequented the gallery: André Breton (“around a great deal”); Yves Tanguy (“often”); Fernand Léger, Ossip Zadkine, and Marc Chagall, Matta, Pavel Tchelitchew (“was there a lot”); Marcel Duchamp (“frequently”); Man Ray (“once or twice”); Alfred Barr (“frequently”); Kiesler, Alexander Calder (“all the time”); James Johnson Sweeney (“would stay all day”); Robert Motherwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Stanley William Hayter (“often”); Jackson Pollock, Gypsy Rose Lee, David Hare, Clyfford Still, Herbert Read (“spent a lot of time”); Mary McCarthy (“occasionally”), and so on. Leo Castelli, later renowned for his own gallery, enthused: “Peggy’s Gallery was a sensation! . . . You can’t realize what an impression it made. . . . Nothing of a similar nature has been done to compare with the exceptional space of that gallery and the extraordinary quality of Peggy’s paintings. . . . From photographs, you get only an idea of Peggy’s gallery. Even good photographs don’t do Art of This Century justice. It had to be seen. . . . the fact that Peggy went along with Kiesler’s idea was an extraordinary act of faith on her part.”
- Philip Rylands, “The Master and Marguerite”, The Story of Art of This Century (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2004)