SF Playhouse brings forgotten artist back to life

Ronald Guttman and Stacy Ross.
San Francisco Playhouse/Courtesy
Ronald Guttman and Stacy Ross.

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Like Picasso, Kandinsky and Klee, Rudolf Bauer lived for and was one of the original masterminds of non-objective or abstract art. In 1938, Bauer was imprisoned by the Nazis for his “degenerate” art but risked his life by trading cigarettes for pencils and scavenging for scraps of paper to continue creating art even when confined by Nazi laws and prison walls. His dedication was irrepressible, yet strangely in 1940, he put down the paintbrushes and pencils and vowed to never paint again. In the 1950s, Bauer’s name and his works vanished from the world of art and he became a forgotten speck in the artistic realm he helped to build.

Written by Bay Area playwriting machine Lauren Gunderson, “Bauer” premiered at San Francisco Playhouse this past Saturday. It is the first world premiere play commissioned by the regional theatre powerhouse. Gunderson arrived unto the Bay Area theater scene in 2011 with “Exit, Pursued by Bear” (commissioned by Crowded Fire Theatre Company), and in the past ten months alone, the acclaimed playwright premiered four new works. “Bauer” is set to open off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters in New York City in the fall.

A three-character drama, “Bauer” is a fictional telling of an encounter between Bauer (Ronald Guttman), in his later years, and the two loves of his life — Hilla Rebay (Stacy Ross), his former business partner and tempestuous lifelong love, and Louise (Susi Damilano), his wife and former maid. Inspired by a letter sent by Louise to Hilla after the artist’s death, “Bauer” imagines the three in the empty studio he abandoned years prior as they work to resolve the conflicts that rendered the artist incapable of doing what he loved most. Layer by layer, the play unravels the mystery of why the renowned artist stopped painting. It dives deep into his years as a young artist in Europe during the emergence of non-objective art, his time spent in the Nazi prison and the eventual feud which erupted between his primary benefactor Solomon Guggenheim and Hilla Rebay.

Guggenheim once hailed Rudolf Bauer as “the greatest living painter,” and sought to create an entire museum to house his works. Seduced by Guggenheim’s riches and Rebay’s comforting persuasion, Bauer signed away the rights to all of his past and future works of art without knowing the extent of the agreement — and it was this incident that ultimately led to his unamicable exit from the art world.

In the midst of the conflict presented by the play, the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, originally conceived to showcase the works of Bauer, had removed Hilla as the museum curator, banished the artist’s paintings to the basement. Years later it opened without a single Bauer on its walls.

Ronald Guttman’s portrayal of the recluse Bauer unveils as an image of a man who is both beaten down and defiant of the greed of the world around him. Guttman’s Bauer is earnestly depressing and insightfully so — which seems to be the way intended.

On the other hand, Stacy Ross’s Rebay is fierce, bold and flamboyant, juxtaposing the stoic Bauer. It is in the pair’s vastly different passions for their art that frame the story of their tumultuous love.

Gunderson’s script is so undeniably witty and enthralling that even those with no prior knowledge of Rudolf Bauer and 20th century art history will find themselves immersed in and intrigued by the content of the play.

Michelle Lin covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].