As an art historian, curator, and museum director, James Johnson Sweeney was a tireless advocate for the most adventurous strains of modern art. Sweeney traveled to Paris in the early 1920s, took a degree in literature at Cambridge University, and spent the 1930s as an editor for the English-language, Paris-based journal Transition
. For Transition
, Sweeney had a hand in editing and publishing work by James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, and many other members of the European avant-garde. In these years, Sweeney also wrote eloquent defenses of modern art, especially of abstract or “nonobjective” art, in journals such as The New Republic
. In 1934 Sweeney published the important monograph Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting
, in which he argued that modern European art from Impressionism to Cubism shared formal and spiritual ties with African art and promised a “return to origins, to a new archaism.” Attuned to burgeoning tendencies in contemporary art, Sweeney was teaching courses that dealt with Surrealism at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts as early as 1934 to 1936.
In 1935 Sweeney was hired as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art by its director Alfred H. Barr. That same year, he organized ambitious exhibitions at MoMA, including African Negro Art, for which he commissioned the photographer Walker Evans to produce photo-documents of the four hundred assembled works. Quickly promoted to the director of painting and sculpture at the MoMA, Sweeney curated an important memorial retrospective of Piet Mondrian in 1945. From 1952 to 1960, Sweeney was the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where he oversaw the construction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s modernist designs for the building’s famous rotunda. Although Sweeney was an advocate of abstract art, at the Guggenheim, he expanded the museum’s purview from its initial exclusive focus on twentieth-century “nonobjective” painting to collect works by artists such as Constantin Brancusi, David Smith, Juan Gris, and Cézanne. Sweeney purchased the painting Bottle of Rosé Wine, by Juan Gris (1914; Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection) in 1947 for his private collection in the years between his appointments at the MoMA and the Guggenheim.
For more information, see
Sweeney, James Johnson. Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting
. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.
——. African Sculpture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964.
For Sweeney’s archives, see: “James Johnson Sweeney Papers,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, indexed here.