National Gallery of Victoria Education Resource

Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now

Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now



Historian Eric Hobsbawm characterised the 20th Century as The Age of Extremes, and modern and contemporary art reflects this condition of extremity. Where earlier artists could say that their works existed, “To the greater glory of God”, art throughout the 20th Century became increasingly subversive and self-referential.

We are fortunate to have the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as a unifying framework for the radical diversity of artworks in this exhibition. One thing the artists have in common is that they repeatedly ask, “What is art? What should it seek to be?” For some, these questions represent liberation from tradition; for others, a tragic loss of cultural confidence.

For Abstract Expressionist artist, Jackson Pollock, the revolution in art was a consequence of radical social change:

“The modern painter cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.”

Minimalist Yves Klein saw the forms and lines of previous art as:

“…bars on the window of a prison.”

Writing during the Second World War, Constructivist artist and art theorist Joaquin Torres-Garcia observed:

“Even before the onset of the crisis that presently tears the world apart and threatens to make the highest human values disappear for centuries, art showed unmistakable evidence of being exhausted and disoriented.”

Paradoxically, this time when art and its value was most feverishly questioned was also when it began to command spectacular prices. As art historian Gerald Reitlinger noted in The Economics of Taste:

“Art as an investment is a conception scarcely older than the early 1950s.”

The price tag on some modern art works has certainly inflamed public debate, a debate into which the artists themselves have entered.  Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt expressed his artworks as a set of instructions by which others could realise his ideas. This was done in part to undermine the financial value of the art object. Pop Artist Andy Warhol became notorious for his attacks on the concept of high art through his choice of subject, which ranged from the soup tin, to the electric chair, to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe.

To enter these galleries is to enter a realm of social and spiritual debate. We are confident that the diversity of these works is such that by turns they may mystify, provoke, and delight you. Welcome to The Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now.

Key themes

There are nine key themes:

  1. Postwar Abstraction in the United States
  2. Postwar Abstraction in Europe
  3. Postwar Figuration in Europe and the Americas
  4. The 1960’s and 1970’s: Minimalism and Conceptual Art
  5. The 1960’s and 1970’s: Pop Art
  6. Contemporary art: The Legacy of Pop
  7. Contemporary art: The Natural World
  8. Contemporary art: Constructed Worlds
  9. Contemporary art: Public and Private

All nine themes are explored in the Education Resource.

Key artists represented in the Education Resource