If Lisa Immordino Vreeland really wanted to put herself in the shoes of her subject Peggy Guggenheim, she couldn’t have found a better way than to dig through the basement of Guggenheim’s biographer Jacqueline B. Weld (“Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim”) on the off-chance of finding the recorded interviews with the famed but idiosyncratic art collector. Just as Guggenheim searched high and low for the artists that excited her — names that may not have meant that much when she first stumbled onto their work, but now need no introduction such as Picasso, Dali and Rothko — Immordino Vreeland left no box unopened in Weld’s house. She was rewarded handsomely when she found the audio tapes of what was Guggenheim’s last interview.
That’s hardly the only revelation in “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” which also features rare footage of such artists as Marcel Duchamp at work on the pieces that would come to define the major art movements of the 20th century. Then again, their presence in the film feels as if it is yet another way that Guggenheim, an heiress who turned her share of her family’s combined mining and banking fortune into one of the world’s great contemporary art collections, continues to shape the way we think of art and the artists we consider important, even from beyond the grave.
Like Immordino Vreeland’s first biography, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” about the legendary Vogue editor-in-chief, “Art Addict” makes a compelling case for the art of curation being every bit as important as the creation of art. Showing how a woman with no formal training or expertise in the field came to dominate it, the film offers an entertaining study of how Guggenheim cultivated relationships with artists, some more intimate than others, and provided both the patronage and platform necessary for them to break through to the general public.
Of course, Immordino Vreeland allows the work of these artists to flood the screen while putting them in the proper context. “Art Addict” illuminates how Guggenheim’s purchases of cubist paintings at a time when no one else was paying attention or identifying Jackson Pollock’s oil splatters as something meaningful could ripple through the art world, leading to interviews with a who’s who of associates, artists and gallerists ranging from Jeffrey Deitch, Marina Abramovic, Larry Gagosian and Robert DeNiro. Shortly after the film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival, Immordino Vreeland spoke about how she became interested in Guggenheim, balancing the study of her personal and professional life and her desire to create a reference for future generations.
Like your last film, this is about someone who can’t technically be classified as an artist, but nonetheless played a major role in bringing art to the public. Is that something of continuing interest?
First of all, I’m fascinated by the story of reinvention. That’s the driving thing behind it. Of course, I’m a woman and that’s not why I only pick women, but for some reason, these are women that are very strong, really strong personalities, and have a strong determination. That attracts me. It’s such a strong message to be able to give out to the younger generation, to be able to talk about these women today and to redefine it and put it in a way that people can understand. These women are not going to be forgotten in any way, but it’s great to be able to show it in a new an interesting fashion, and that people can say, “Oh, wow, this is really what kind of drove her, and this is why she was the way she was with certain things.” With Diana Vreeland, I had fashion and fashion photography. Here, I have art and artists, which is just a dream.
How did Peggy Guggenheim become your follow-up subject?
Peggy was the next subject because I really always liked her as a character. I was an art history major, so art has always been a big thing, and I had read her autobiography and really loved it. I kept thinking of abstract expressionism as a topic, and all the roads in the beginning led back to Peggy Guggenheim, so I said, “Well, let me at it.”
You mention upfront in the film that you’ve uncovered these remarkable interview tapes that haven’t been listened to since they were first recorded. Were you far along when you found them? Did it change everything?
It did. Everybody uses her autobiography as a basis for their biography and their research. I read all the biographies, and I started to read Jacqueline Weld’s, and she was amazing because she kept all the research. She spoke to all these people who [now have] died, and she told me about these tapes, but she wasn’t certain that they were going to pop up.
They only popped up because I personally went into the basement and found them, so it did reshape. At one point, it was going to be an actress playing Peggy, and we would’ve used just a lot of different material, but [once we found these recordings], we really then used exclusively these tapes.
There’s also film footage of Peggy that’s actually a little jarring since you’re hearing her voice, but you only see her roughly 45 minutes into the movie. Was there very much of that available?
I probably would’ve shown her more, but it’s a group effort, and there are people [who] wanted to keep her young as long as they [could]. She’s quite difficult on camera. You can see she’s not very comfortable within her own skin. [Diana] Vreeland was quite exceptional on camera, so it was very, very different, and Peggy’s not good at giving a lot of this part of herself, so you can see that she’s really emotionally detached in a lot of that footage. When you see it, you’re taken aback as a viewer.
Was this a complicated history to tell?
It was very complicated – first, just by the sheer amount of material because there’s so much personal history that was really fundamental to who she was in the end. You have to get through that, and do you cover every aspect? We tried to do as much as we could squeeze in. Then there’s all these stories of the achievements, which we also had to cut down, but we tried to put the most important things in. You also want to be art historically correct.
But the art is fantastic because the art for me was like dream sequences, almost like these transition points. What we tried to do, especially when we showed certain art, if it wasn’t more of a generalized statement of collecting or patronage or how she just felt about art, we would mix different eras together. But if we were to talk about World War II, we had to be very factually correct. Those are the moments that you can’t screw it up. It was literally like going through the books, saying “Okay, when did she buy this? Okay, that was correct.”
You brought up the fact earlier that she was compelling as a subject because she was a strong woman, but it was striking to see a divide seemingly split along gender lines in how the people you interviewed would speak about her, with the women more admiring than the men. Is that something you actually felt while making this?
There are definitely more men in the film because the people who were really around and who knew her well were and are mostly men. There are a lot of contemporary people that I spoke to, because it was really important to have their point of view in the film because [her gallery remains] a huge destination point still today for collectors and gallery owners. But it was interesting because all of a sudden it just skews very male, and if you think about how she acted, she sleeps with all these really fascinating men, but she talks about it, which no woman at the time was doing, and she goes and she starts to collect art at a time that’s dangerous – it’s World War II. She’s down there in the trenches, doing the dirty work. She has really smart advisors, but she’s out there finding all of this.
So she’s a woman, but she doesn’t think, “Okay, I’m this dainty little thing.” She decides that this is her métier, and she believes in it, and she just brings it to us. That message has got to be really, really strong. She wasn’t like this little, “Oh, I’m a little delicate woman.” She also had a lot of pain in her life. That’s really what surprised me when I started to make the film and getting into that material, was really [thinking], how did she deal with all that stuff?
The film very much shows the intersection of her sexual voraciousness and her appetite for art, but was that intimidating to handle in a tasteful way?
If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it and not cover it up. The fact is, she said this stuff herself. She said this to her biographer and she didn’t say it was off the record. But if we had done a film about Peggy and not talk about her sex life, it would’ve been just the wrong thing, and this is not what you think about when you leave the theater. You think about her achievements with the artists, not about having sex with the artists, and it’s about this idea of believing in something and doing it, as well as reinvention, but having a passion [for something]. For me, that’s really the message: “Okay, this is what I’m doing, and I’m going to just carry through.” She did that.
Were there any directions you were surprised this took you in?
I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking. It’s such a treat to be able to do something like this and sit here and look at all this really amazing archival footage and just learn more about the art. Her paintings were just different characters in the film. They came alive. You’re also dealing with things that there’s so many aspects of the film that could make it very pedantic because you’re looking at paintings. You could do so many different things, but then you already have so much information, you just say, “Okay, let’s just show it, straightforward, that’s it.” That’s what we chose to do after thinking about it a lot.
Since Peggy Guggenheim’s collection is so vast, how did you decide which paintings to showcase?
I’m not a huge fan of Chagall, so it’s like, “Let’s avoid it.” If you’ve got an exclusively Chagall collection, then you have to have it in there. [Mostly] it was pretty clear because when she’s talking about cubist paintings, she’s talking about buying in 1936 so historically, you’re just there in a certain area. If you think of the Rothko that we had, it’s very unusual because it’s before he did the color field paintings. She was believing in these artists before they were who we know today, so it was really fascinating to see, but it was more fun than difficult. Even last week [just before the premiere], I think I changed a couple of pieces because all of a sudden, I was going through and I’m like, “Hey, wait a second, what happened to the Gorky? I love [Arshile] Gorky!” So I went in last week again and put it back in.
Since we never spoke about your Diana Vreeland film, how did you get interested in this particular mode of filmmaking?
I started the Diana Vreeland [biography] as a book — I’m married to her grandson, and I was working in fashion, and [when] you’re in the New York in the 80s, everybody’s talking about her. I didn’t quite get what all the excitement was about, and I wasn’t going to accept necessarily what my husband was going to say about her, but I just started to think about her, and I started to do research. Then while I was doing the book, I realized that I was going to have access to people because my name includes Vreeland, so I just did it.
I was living in Paris, and people were totally opening up to me, and then I found these two filmmakers, you see BJ Perlmutt, [who has a film at Tribeca], “The Havana Motor Club, and Fred Tcheng, who did “Dior and I,” so they worked with me. All of a sudden, it became a reality, and while I’m definitely not the best person at telling a story, I loved having this archival material to work with. It’s the process of putting all these things together that I really, really love. Ultimately, a film is about the people you put together. You have to have a great team, and I feel like people can just can pull out “Vreeland” and understand, “Oh God, this is exactly what that time was about.” With “Peggy,” I hope that’s going to be the same thing.