Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bauer by Lauren Gunderson at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Sherman Howard, Stacy Ross, and Susi Damilano in BAUER.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Bauer by Laura Gunderson, currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in Midtown Manhattan, is a cleverly contrived, smartly written, and very well acted, imagined account of what might have occurred had Rudolf Bauer (Sherman Howard), his wife Louise (Susi Damilano), and his one-time lover Hilla von Rebay (Stacy Ross) actually met again in the months prior to Bauer’s death.  Of course they never did but Ms Gunderson has composed the purely fictionalized meeting well, using the conceit to tell Bauer’s real story in a most entertaining fashion, while engaging the audience in a counterfactual quest for “what might have been.”

In reality, Rudolf Bauer, a contemporary of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall, was a German painter and leader of the Non-Objective (abstract) art movement.  Between 1917 and the early 1920s, he had a love affair and shared an art studio with Hilla von Rebay and they remained friends for decades after their affair ended.  Subsequently, Hilla came to the United States where she met (and bedded) Solomon Guggenheim, introduced him to Bauer’s work and encouraged him to create a collection of Non-Objective art. 

In 1936, the Gibbes Museum of Art hosted the first public exhibition of Guggenheim’s collection of Non-Objective art and Bauer traveled to the US to attend the opening.  A year later, Guggenheim officially formed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation to house his collection and appointed Hilla as its curator; ironically that was the same year that the Nazis staged the infamous Degenerate Art Show in Munich, a show designed to mock and threaten the abstract art movement, and in which they included Bauer’s work. The following year, Bauer was imprisoned by the Nazis for producing and selling his “degenerate art” but somehow Hilla and Guggenheim managed to extricate him and he emigrated to the US in 1939.

Bauer arrived in New York just after the Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in midtown Manhattan, living with Hilla for a few months before moving into one of Guggenheim’s homes in New Jersey. He then signed a new contract with Guggenheim, misunderstanding many of its implications because of his limited English: what he thought was to be a lump-sum payment for 110 paintings he already had provided to Guggenheim turned out to be a $300,000 trust fund from which he would receive monthly stipends; the major role he had expected to have in running the Guggenheim Foundation turned out to be no such thing; and, worst of all, he discovered that the contract committed him to leaving all his future work to the Foundation.

Things careened downhill for Bauer from there.  With no real role to play at the Foundation, he had little to say about what would become of those of his paintings already in the Foundation’s possession; in reaction, he stopped painting, thereby depriving the Foundation of any more of his works.  His relationship will Hilla deteriorated and virtually ended when he sued her for libeling his new wife, Louise (who had previously been his maid) in 1944.  When Guggenheim died in 1949, the Foundation’s trustees abandoned his vision of a Non-Objective art collection, relegating all of Bauer’s paintings to storage, and dismissed Hilla as curator.  Bauer died of lung cancer in 1953, without ever painting again.

Ms Gunderson’s play, which originally premiered at the San Francisco Playhouse, takes off from these facts, imagining what might have occurred had Bauer, Hilla and Louise re-united.  Would the Bauers have forgiven Hilla for having defamed Louise?  Would the spark between Bauer and Hilla have been rekindled?  Would Louise and Hilla have convinced Bauer to pick up his brushes again?  It’s all speculation, of course, but none the less entertaining for that.

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