Rudolf Bauer, Tetraptychon II, 1930, oil on canvas, 51½ inches square. Photo Nick Pishvanov. Courtesy Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco.

 

Singled out as a star by no less than museum namesake Solomon Guggenheim in the 1930s, German abstract painter Rudolf Bauer (1889-1953) has receded considerably from public view, especially compared to his contemporaries like Wassily Kandinsky and Oskar Kokoschka. A quartet of new works and events—Bauer, a play written by Lauren Gunderson; PBS's documentary "Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolph Bauer;" and exhibitions at New York's German Consulate and at Sotheby's—seeks to revive his reputation.

"Bauer has really become my lifelong passion—not just because of the quality of his work, but because of the craziness of his story," Rowland Weinstein, the San Francisco-based art dealer who produced PBS's "Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolph Bauer" and who will serve as curator of the upcoming exhibition, told A.i.A. (Weinstein Gallery represents Bauer's estate.) "How could somebody be on top of the world in 1940 and come crashing so far down that in 2014 pretty much nobody knows who he is?"

Born in Lindenwald, Germany (now Poland) in 1889, Bauer began his career as an illustrator in Berlin. Despite early commercial success, Bauer soon abandoned drawing in favor of what was then called "non-objective" painting. Bauer refined his colorful, geometric style during his time with Der Sturm, a Berlin-based group founded in 1910 by German Expressionist Herwarth Walden. In group shows at Der Sturm gallery, Bauer's paintings were presented alongside works by Kandinsky and Kokoschka. But the artist's big breakthrough came after Guggenheim took notice.

In 1928, German baroness and artist Hilla Rebay, who was also an ex-girlfriend of Bauer's, was commissioned to paint a portrait of Guggenheim. At her Carnegie Hall studio, Guggenheim quickly became enamored with several Bauer works that hung on the walls. An early champion of abstract art, Rebay arranged a 1929 visit to Bauer's German studio, where the collector bought every available painting. "Solomon Guggenheim's direct quote was: ‘If Kandinsky is the prince of geometric abstraction, Bauer is the king,'" Weinstein told A.i.A.

Buoyed by Guggenheim's financial support, Bauer founded Das Geistreich (The Spirit Realm), a small museum and salon in Berlin, in 1930. The institution, which Bauer described as "a temple of non-objectivity," soon caught the attention of the Nazi party. In 1937, the Nazis denounced Bauer's work and included his paintings in the infamous "Degenerate Art" exhibition. Bauer was arrested and sent to a Gestapo prison that year.

Rebay, working as Guggenheim's personal curator, heard of Bauer's imprisonment and urged her employer to aid in his release. Armed with a suitcase full of Guggenheim's money, she was able to buy Bauer's freedom. Shortly thereafter, in 1939, the artist emigrated from Germany to the U.S., where he briefly lived as a guest of Rebay at her estate in Fairfield County, Conn. San Francisco-based playwright Gunderson, whose previous works include Leap, a 2004 play about a young Isaac Newtown, makes use of the complicated link between the artist and Rebay in Bauer: "[They had] a love that couldn't survive. Their relationship was as tumultuous as it was passionate," she told A.i.A.

Although Bauer was initially grateful for Guggenheim's support, affairs between artist and patron quickly grew sour. In 1939, with Rebay acting as translator, Bauer signed a contract consigning ownership of all his future works to Guggenheim in exchange for a lavish lifestyle (which included use of a beachfront mansion in Deal, N.J.). Having misunderstood the terms, Bauer felt trapped and deeply betrayed. In 1940, after realizing his work would never again be his own, Bauer stopped painting. He died in 1953, without ever having created another artwork.

Gunderson's 90-minute play focuses on Bauer's later years, during the abrupt fall following his meteoric rise. Imagining the artist stuck in a room with the two leading women in his life, Rebay and Louise Huber, an Austrian maid whom he married in 1944, Bauer is "a collision of three huge characters in one space," Gunderson says.

"This part of Bauer's life is so rich because he died thinking his work was in someone's basement and [it was] never going to be seen again. He was out of the picture and out of the movement that he helped define," she said. Bauer's real life was filled with drama, she said, and alluded to a resolution that takes place on stage. The play, she said, features "a cathartic element—a salvation at the end."

When New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, not a single piece by Bauer went on display. For years the 300 Bauer paintings the collector amassed were kept out of sight, relegated to storage. Now, Bauer's will be featured anew in New York, where viewers can take the measure of Bauer's aristic output as well as his story.

"To me it's perhaps Bauer's life rather than his work that is most interesting," said Timothy Benson, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, reached by phone at his office. Benson's exhibition "Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky" is now on view at LACMA (through Sept. 14).

"The further he got from Kandinsky the better, because at times his works look too derivative," Benson added. "But every so often he hit a really nice note. He did a canvas called Orange Accent in 1929 that's just circles. That was a bold thing to do."

Gunderson's play
Bauer will be performed Sept. 2-Oct. 12 at New York's 59E59 Theaters. "Betrayal: The Life and Art of Rudolf Bauer" will air on Channel Thirteen in New York on Monday, Aug. 25, at 9 p.m. An exhibition of Bauer's works will take place at New York's German Consulate General, 871 United Nations Plaza, Sept. 2-Sept. 19. Sotheby's exhibition of Bauer's works opens Sept. 22.