Ronald Guttman as Rudolf Bauer
Con Rosso, 1918
Heavy and Light, 1921.
Center Accent, 1935.
Thrown into a Nazi prison camp, the famous artist sketched on toilet paper and on the back of propaganda leaflets. His friends bribed his way to freedom, and installed him a luxurious mansion in New Jersey with a fat salary and a luxury car. All they asked him to do in return was to keep painting. He never picked up a brush again. Why?
That's the question at the heart of the world premiere play Bauer, which opens on March 18th at the San Francisco Playhouse, before heading to New York City for an Off-Broadway run in September and October at the 59E59 Theater. It stars Ronald Guttman (most recently known for his role as Megan Draper's father on Mad Men) and was written by Bay Area playwright Lauren Gunderson. But the most interesting aspect of the play is its title character.
“Do you remember Rudolf Bauer?” asked an article in Art News in 1970. “He does not deserve oblivion." Indeed, the German abstract painter from the first half of the twentieth century was once a star of the international art scene. But he lost his place in the canon thanks to a combination of soap opera—love triangles! contracts with the devil! Nazis!—and Greek tragedy. “There’s a ton of stories we could write about all the artists who were great and were forgotten. Art history is littered with them,” says Gunderson. “But Bauer was the artist for whom one of the Guggenheim Museum—one of the most famous art museums in the world was built for. It’s bizarre that we don’t know who he is.”
In the 20s and 30s, the German painter was talked about in the same breath as Vassily Kandinsky, the Russian founder of abstract art, though Bauer preferred to call his style “Non-Objective Art.” Roughly speaking, Bauer’s major output can be divided into two periods: First, a set of chaotically swirling paintings, with densely organic lines of force. Then, in the years to follow, Bauer refined and trimmed his style to the barest minimum, producing geometric planes, colored balls, and sleek figures that Gunderson calls “frozen and prismatic.” Bauer found international recognition in the inter-war period—and condemnation as well.
It was those abstract works that caught the attention of the industrialist Solomon Guggenheim, who, with the assistance of his curator and lover, the Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen (she went by Hila Rebay) built his museum in New York as a house for Bauer.
“Solomon Guggenheim started collecting modern art because he met Rebay, who told him to stop collecting Reubens and begin collecting the work of modern artists,” says Gunderson. (A 1984 review of a biography of Rebay in The New Criterion puts it a little differently: “Rebay championed and protected [Bauer] against his own knavery and small talent.”) Rebay, herself active in the Bauhaus movement, had fallen in love with Bauer in 1918. Though the two never married, they remained close throughout their lives. Upon her arrival in New York City in 1927, Rebay quickly became the curator for Guggenheim’s planned museum—to be called the Museum of Non-Objective Art after Bauer’s phrase—as well as Guggenheim’s mistress.
But before he could save the artist's works, Guggenheim had to save the artist himself. Like other German artists, Bauer had attracted the ire of the Nazi party. The Nazis included his work in the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, and in 1938, arrested Bauer and sent him to a prison camp. (Remarkably, Bauer continued to work inside prison, drawing sketches for what appear to be future paintings on toilet paper and the on the backs of Nazi propaganda.) Guggenheim dispatched Rebay to Germnay to bribe Bauer's way out.
After Bauer was brought to the safety of the United States, Guggenheim installed him in a New Jersey mansion, gave him a car, a salary, and a housekeeper (whom Bauer eventually married), in exchange for ownership of Bauer’s new paintings. Guggenheim thought of himself as a patron and a savior—a kind of Medici, and planned his museum as what he called a “temple” to Bauer’s works. In a 1949 letter attached to his will, Guggenheim would demand that, “after [Rebay’s] death the Foundation make no addition to its collections of paintings, unless they come from Mr. Bauer.”
In exchange, Bauer never painted another work again. He died in 1953, four years after Guggenheim. Why didn’t Bauer paint again? That's the question that drives the play.
“Even put in jail for being a degenerate artist, he drew. But just a month later in a mansion in New Jersey he stopped painting forever. How is that possible?” asks Rowlad Weinstein, the San Francisco gallery owner who rediscovered Bauer’s works. “What was the heartbreak?” The story most sympathetic to Bauer is that he had signed the contract with Guggenheim under false assurances—and that he was only being paid for work currently held by the museum, not future output. Maybe he was holding out for more money or control of his works.
Whatever the reality, the feud became bitter and unresolved, and upon Guggenheim’s death, control of the museum passed to his children—who took Bauer’s works off the walls and sent them down into the basement, where they remained for decades.
Years passed. The Museum of Non-Objective Art became the Guggenheim Museum. Hilla Rebay became a punch line. Bauer was forgotten, save for a few stray references here and there, like the 2003 biography of Peggy Guggenheim that called Bauer, “an obnoxious careerist who imitated Kandinsky’s style without manifesting a fraction of his talent.” The Guggenheim Museum's website includes a short essay about Bauer that calls him a "integral part" of the musem's founding, but leaves off his biography at 1939 and makes no critical claims about his importantce.
That’s where the story should have stopped. But it didn’t.
It took until very recently for a reappraisal of Bauer to take place—much of it at the instigation of San Francisco art dealer, Rowland Weinstein, who is now showing an exhibition of Bauer’s work at his gallery called Realm of the Spirit (through April 30). Weinstein, who is also a board member of the non-profit Playhouse, stumbled across some of Bauer’s paintings that the Guggenheim had de-accessed (that’s the polite art world term for sold) while in New York City and was immediately struck. “Other dealers discover an artists. I’ve never done that. But it’s even more rare is to resurrect someone.”
Weinstein set about buying up as many of Bauer’s works as he could, including those in the hands of the Guggenheim. He now has three Bauer’s hanging in his own home. “It boggles my mind that I own them. How could the Guggenheim have sold them?” Many of Bauer’s works are now hanging in his gallery, just a few blocks away from the theater, and will be exhibited in (“To do a play with a material element is wonderful—you can walk down the block after the play and see them,” says Gunderson.) Weinstein even put out a book and produced a documentary about Bauer.
To be fair, Weinstein has a big financial stake in the success of Bauer the play and of Bauer the artist. A critical reappraisal of his work would also mean an upward reappraisal of their value. Maybe Bauer’s works really do belong in the basement and not the walls?
It’s a question of aesthetic value—one without an easy answer. Weinstein, English, and Gunderson are fans. When shown Bauer’s works, local art history and museum professionals have mixed responses. Some are shocked that he’s not in the textbooks. Others think he was at best a weak imitator of Kandinsky. (Cards on the table: Personally, I’m quite taken with Bauer’s work, especially those done around the time of the first World War One pieces like White Cross. My non-expert wager is that Bauer is a good, maybe very good, artist with a great story.) The play is, of course, another story.
That idea came from the Playhouse’s Artistic Director, Bill English, who watched Weinstein's documentary and said, “this should be a play.” English and Weinstein tapped up-and-coming writer Lauren Gunderson to craft the script. It took more than three years, and countless drafts. They tried to avoid the standard bio-picture treatment, and instead, restricted the scope of the action. The play takes place over one day, is contained in one house, and has only three characters: Bauer, Rebay, and Bauer’s wife, Louise. The goal: To give Bauer a little shot at redemption.
“It’s a gamble to do a play about somebody that nobody knows,” says Gunderson. It’s a matter of putting biography second and character first. It’s a debate between art and commercialism, about taking compromises to survive, that resonates today. And, perhaps, what’s perhaps most fascinating about the play is that it calls for a public debate on the merits of a long-dead German artist.
That’s a debate that could spread to New York City. That’s what Gunderson calls, “the activism” of the play. “Maybe we could get an exhibition at the Guggenheim?” she wonders.