Art Matters: Susan Phipps Cochran + Peggy Guggenheim

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Susan Phipps Cochran. Dancer, 2010. Bronze. "The figure was one of several modeled for Fly Paper, a proposed gigantic centerpiece for a Las Vegas hotel," said Cochran, whose large-scale installations have been exhibited from Lotusland to Old Westbury Gardens to the Dubai International Financial Center.

Last season a Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney sculpture retrospective focused on the accomplishments of an artist who today is known not for the worth of her own art but for her wealth and collection of works by other artists considered more talented. For most of the more than thousand centuries that women have been sketched, brushed, carved, chiseled, and polished, as the subject and object of museum masterpieces, the works by women artists have often been excluded from mainstream Art History.

In November 1916 upon her arrival at Palm Beach, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was hailed as “one of the most notable sculptors in America,” although she was “intended by birth and fortune for leadership in a purely social career.” A century later, Whitney’s artworks were virtually unknown.

Although of disparate generations, Palm Beach sculptor Susan Phipps Cochran and the late patron-gallerist-collector Peggy Guggenheim are members of two of the nation’s most prominent families. Rather than be overshadowed by their legacies, they charted their own course. Cochran’s transformation into an imaginative artist with uncommon insight reflects her lifetime of experiences just as Guggenheim’s instinctive development from a patron and gallerist to an art collector manifested itself into a landmark destination of international importance.

Visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice this past month, I had slight déjà vu. As I stepped into the courtyard I thought I heard her devoted barking dogs that once swirled around her feet like a constant cloud. Decades ago, studying in Florence with a paper to write about Giorgio de Chirico’s pittura metafisica, my art history professor Fred Licht, a longtime friend of Guggenheim’s who became the Palazzo Venier’s curator after her death in 1979, thought I should train up to Venice and take a look at PG’s de Chiricos. I can not recall anything she might have said but remember her generosity amid a casual ambiance, rooms with personal photographs, eclectic furnishings. All of these personal things now gone, supplanted by a more formal museum setting, albeit intimate, for the several million who have since visited the collection.

Amazon book titles headline Peggy Guggenheim as Mistress, Wayward, and an Art Addict. An exhibition planned for this forthcoming September at her palazzo is titled as Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa, a reference to the respected wives of century’s-old Venetian doges. Much like Whitney’s work being forgotten, I wondered if Guggenheim’s collection had been lost during the war, would Peggy Guggenheim have been remembered only as a footnote in the lives of many great artists rather than the centrifugal force that she was in bringing Dadaists, Surrealists and Abstract Expressionist to the pinnacle of mainstream 20th-century Art History. Dogaressa?

Susan Phipps Cochran Sculptor
Palm Beach

March 2019. “When you have my eyesight, you create something you can see,” smiled Cochran, in describing Peapod, one of her latest bronze works set at the south end of a central allée leading from the main house. With as much wonder as whimsy, Cochran’s visionary macrocosm creates awareness of our rapidly diminishing natural landscapes often denatured by our pursuit of virtual realities.
Cochran attended schools in Florida, New York, Switzerland, and France, highlighted by three years of art classes at a Virginia boarding school. During the 1980s, Cochran’s travels and studies of Native American beadwork led to the creation of ceremonial dresses, moccasins, bags, and feathers. Finding the normal methods of beading flat, she incorporated dimension that later influenced her dimensional sculptures.
Susan Phipps Cochran. Beaded bag, detail. Cochran’s trained craftsmanship would later be exhibited in her colossal Ants and Earwig Series of sculptures. Then, she transformed the tiniest ant colony into the enormous “Atlas Ant” and “Narcissus Ant,” figures displaying as much skillful finesse and irony as angst.

Along with the intricate beadwork, Cochran honed her sense of detail by fabricating original needlepoint designs.
Susan Phipps Cochran. T.H. Smith, 2003. Bronze, H 39″. And then … “I was asked by artist Helmut Koller to create a work of sculpture and donate it for a benefit auction …”
“I believe it sold for $10,000. My first piece, and for a very good cause …”
Susan Phipps Cochran. Friends, 2003. Bronze. Park Bench series. Cochran’s After the Fire honors the firefighters lost on 9/11 and is on permanent display at the New York City Fire Museum.
Michael Grace Phipps (1910-1973). Self-portrait. “My father was taught by Augustus John (1878-1961) … he did several self-portraits, one that was inspired by Van Gogh … My father was the kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever known. He never punished; never raised his voice. When I’d done something wrong, the worse thing he could say was ‘I would have thought more from you …”
Michael Grace Phipps (1910-1973) .“That’s my favorite painting of his … because its not finished.”
Diana Guest. Naja, 1979. The Society of the Four Arts Garden, Palm Beach. During the 1980s at Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island, Cochran co-chaired an exhibition of more than 40 artworks by her cousin sculptor Diana Guest (1909-1994), daughter of Amy Phipps Guest (1872-1959) and Frederick E. Guest. “Although I wasn’t considering sculpture back then, I loved it. She did wonderful work … in the end, she was mostly working with bronze and marble as well as granite and alabaster.”

A sculptor’s tools at Cochran’s workshop and studio in West Palm Beach. “I don’t sketch, I just do … I create in clay. I make a mistake, I start again. With sculpture, I have found out I can do whatever I want.”
An ant in the works atop a workshop shelf.
State-of-the-art Ants in the making. “My work is cast near my studio at the Robert St. Croix Sculpture Foundry in West Palm Beach.”
Ant in Defensive Position, 2004. Bronze. “Imagine a pair of these at each end of a baronial table,” smiled Cochran with a wink in her eye.
Ant in Defensive Position. Bronze. North courtyard. Exacting details convey a sense of implied motion that transforms mere robotic replicants into romantic representations.
Ant Carrying an Egg with Head Up. Bronze. Cochran’s imaginative figures materialize the unseen.
Ant Carrying an Egg. Bronze.
Out, 2007. Bronze.
Ant with No Egg. Bronze.
Safari chairs, 2014.
Old and Young Observer. Bronze. Warrior Series. “For the warriors, I worked from photographs and my travels to Africa … I had never done people or action, so I told myself this is what I’m going to do.”
Old and Young Observer, close-up.
Donga Fighters with Sticks. Bronze.

Donga Fighters with Sticks, close-up. Bronze.
Cochran’s sculptures are installed amid tableaux blending botanicals with historical artifacts. “I inherited an appreciation for nature from my father who introduced me to the world of flora and fauna as well as taught me to herd cattle, break yearlings, and handle reptiles.”
A bronze pandanus makes for a dining room table centerpiece.
The bronze pandanus is one of several from a botanical series of sculptures.
Susan Phipps Cochran. “For me, sculpture is an interactive art that engages the viewer in something more than looking …”

Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni – Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection
Dorsoduro 701 – Venezia

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, entrance. During the late 1940s Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) moved to Venice’s Grand Canal where she bought the not-so grand 18th-century unfinished Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, installing her art collection comprised of works by many of the 20th century’s most influential artists. Several years later she turned part of her palazzo into a museum, opening it to the public. Upon her death she had willed her legacy to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation that restored and converted the house museum into what today is known as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Veiled by a slight fog and sheltered by bleak wintry trees, the “unfinished” Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was originally designed as a multi-story palazzo attributed to architect Lorenzo Boschetti.
A nearby “finished” Grand Canal palazzo provides a comparative perspective on the scale and extent of Guggenheim’s “unfinished” palazzo.
The Guggenheim’s view of the Grand Canal is framed by Two Horses (Corfu). Pictured above, one of the pair, looking north the Gritti Palace Hotel, on the corner just beyond the vaporetto stop.

Peggy Guggenheim’s ashes and those of her “Beloved Babies” were interred in the garden, now called the Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Sculpture Garden. Since 1992, some Guggenheim family members have sued the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation concerning the naming of the garden and other changes, as highlighted by a 2017 Vanity Fair article. Changes … changes, as the Nannucci installation reads in the garden.
When I was first at Peggy Guggenheim’s, apparently Sable, Gypsy, Hong Kong, and Cellida were also in residence.
In her memoir Out of this Century, she wrote on the passing of her daughter Pegeen … “Her untimely and mysterious death left me quite desolate …”
Within, Guggenheim’s exceptional showcase selected from several hundred artworks that includes Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1932-1940), pictured above, as well significant paintings and sculptures by Jackson Pollack, Marcel Duchamp, Rene Magritte, Ferdinand Leger, Paul Klee, Georges Braque, and Alexander Calder, among them. Through the window, a profile view of Marino Marini’s sometimes controversial bronze equestrian figure The Angel of the City (1948), overlooking the Grand Canal.
The Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Sculpture Garden’s central courtyard paved with an eclectic geometric design.
The Nasher Sculpture Garden “throne.”
Another sculpture courtyard has been decoratively paved and framed with border hedges surrounding Anish Kapoor’s Untitled (2007).
A view to the north from the courtyard across Dorsoduro rooftops.
Max Ernst and Guggenheim were married from 1942 and divorced in 1946, when shortly afterward, she moved to Venice where she lived for the rest of her life. In the garden beneath a pavilion, Max Ernst’s Young Woman in the Form of a Flower (1944).

Another view of the Grand Canal, filtered by Murano glassmaker Egidio Costantini’s Sculptures, after sketches by Picasso (1964).
Peggy Guggenheim’s son-in-law Jean Helion’s Composition (1935) is shown on the far wall. Her daughter Pegeen married Helion in 1946. Following their divorce in 1956, Pegeen moved to Venice and lived with her mother. Helion’s work was closely associated with Piet Mondrian and Ferdinand Leger.
Behind the gates on the Grand Canal upper terrace, Italian sculptor Marino Marini’s The Angel of the City, 1948, has become as familiar a Venetian landmark as the Rialto Bridge.
“Remembering Peggy Guggenheim.” She was often quoted as saying she enjoyed riding in a gondola on the Grand Canal.

Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

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