Turning 1930s Abstract Art into Engaging History

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Bauer

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Rudolf Bauer was one of Germany’s leading abstract painters in the late 1930s, a rival of the great Russian Wassily Kandinsky in the Der Sturm artistic movement. Adolf Hitler did not like Bauer’s work, though. The Fuhrer labeled him a degenerate artist and tossed him into prison in 1938. The German dictator had previously included Bauer’s work in a much publicized 1937 museum exhibit of degenerate art in Munich. His paintings hung next to those of other ‘degenerates’ such as Marc Chagall. Hitler invited all of Germany to see the exhibit as representative of disgusting art. Two million Germans went; they loved it.

Bauer got out of prison (bribed officials) and fled Nazi Germany, immigrating to America in 1939, following his former girlfriend, Hilla Rebay, where he started a new career. Here, in short order, he was approached by the very wealthy art patron Solomon Guggenheim, at the insistence of his aide, Bauer’s lover Rebay. Guggenheim told him he wanted to buy up all of his abstract paintings and put them in his new museum in New York. In return, he would give Bauer a 25 room New Jersey Shore mansion, an expensive Duesenberg car and a $300,000 trust fund. Not bad. Bauer signed the contract, at Rebay’s urging, smiled widely and settled into his comfortable life as a new American artist.

Everything fell apart when Bauer discovered that he did not own the mansion; Guggenheim owned it and let Bauer stay there. Guggenheim also owned all of his work and prohibited Bauer from selling any of it. Full of artistic rage, Bauer parted ways with Guggenheim and Rebay in the early 1950s and threatened to never paint again.

Bauer, a sparkling and dynamic new play by Lauren Gunderson that opened Tuesday at the 59E59 Theaters in New York, tells that story in fictionalized form. In her tale, the still fuming Bauer and his ever loving and helpful wife, Louise, invite his old love and artistic muse Rebay to his decaying New Jersey mansion. Once there, Rebay, shut out from the art world herself by the Guggenheim family, plunges into a dramatic plea to get the gifted artist to work again. She sees a revival of his work, all based on his hundred or more secret Nazi prison sketches, never exhibited before.

The drama starts off very, very slowly and you sit with fingers crossed hoping that the story picks up. After twenty minutes, it does, and brilliantly. From there on, Bauer is a marvelous play that not only fills you in on Nazi Germany, artistic and political history and the lives of ‘degenerate’ artists, but on the numerous plots and subplots of the Guggenheim deal. The museum dispute is a movie in itself. Oh, artists and their patrons!

The entire play takes place in one large room with a sky high ceiling and a few pieces of furniture plus a large unfinished Bauer painting. The power of the play is the confrontation between Bauer and his old love, Rebay. She is an absolute buzz saw of a woman, bound and determined to get her angry and tired old boyfriend to paint again. She has a whole marketing strategy ready to go. All she needs are a few paintings and a big press conference in which Bauer will denounce Hitler. Bauer, though, does not want to have anything to do with her scheme. His hatred of Guggenheim is so great that nothing, not even her frantic pleas, can get him to paint again – or so he says

What heightens the play is the work of projectionist Micah Stieglitz. He projects dozens of early sketches of Bauer and Rebay onto the walls of the room and then darkens the mood of the play with a chilling projection of a Nazi prison, with thousands of bricks, all choking the artist confined within its walls. At the end of the play, in a magnificent scene, the projectionist allows Bauer to wave his arms like wands to paint a sensational abstract color portrait on the wall of the set. It is electrifying.

Director Bill English has done a fine job of combining fine acting with sizzling history, human angst and spectacular color projections. He gets superb performances from Susi Damiliano as Louise, Stacy Ross and Hilla Rebay and, best of all, Sherman Howard as the sometimes pouting, sometimes raging artist Bauer.

Art lovers will adore this play, but history buffs will, too. Playwright Gunderson offers a rare analytical look at how artists and Germany’s entire art culture were destroyed by Hitler and his thugs.

Oh, best of all, all theatergoers get a free booklet with many of Bauer’s best paintings in it. The booklet, and the show, are both treasures.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by The San Francisco Playhouse and Rowland Weinstein. Sets: Ewa Muszynska, Sound: Theodore Hulsker, Projections: Micah Stieglitz, Costumes: Abra Berman, Lighting: Mary Louise Geiger. The play runs through October 12

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