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Messer, Thomas M.

    Full Name: Messer, Thomas M.

    Other Names:

    • Thomas Messer

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 09 February 1920

    Place Born: Bratislava, Slovakia

    Home Country/ies: United States

    Subject Area(s): Modern (style or period)


    Director of the Guggenheim Museum. Messer’s father, Richard Messer (Meszleny) (1881-?), was also an art historian (and professor) from Bratislava. His mother was Agatha Albrecht (Messer), sister of the Slovak computer Alexander Albrecht (1885-1958). Messer entered the United States in 1939. He initially began his schooling at Theil College, Greenville, PA in 1939 moving to Boston University in 1941 where he received a B.A. in 1942. During World War II, Messer worked for Office of War Information, 1942-1943 before entering the U.S. Army in 1943. He became a U.S. citizen in 1944. After the War, he worked as a stockbroker in New York City. He continued his education at the Sorbonne, University of Paris, graduating in 1947. Messer married Remedios Garcia Villa in 1948, receiving his M.A. from Harvard University in 1951. His first director position was at the Roswell Museum of History and Art (today, the Roswell Museum and Art Center) in Roswell, NM, in 1949. In 1952 he returned to New York, joining the American Federation of Arts, first as assistant director, then director of exhibitions in 1953 and director, 1955-1956. He moved to Boston to assume the position of director, Institute of Contemporary Art, in 1957. Messer was appointed director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1961, replacing James Johnson Sweeney after Sween had had differences with the Guggenheim board. Messer served with H. H. Arnason, who had been appointed the month before as Vice President for Art Administration. He appointed the art critic and British gallery director Lawrence Alloway to be a curator in 1962. In 1966 when the Smithsonian Institution invited the Guggenehim to make selections for the United States submissions to the Venice Biennale, Alloway and Messer clashed over the choices so publicly that Smithsonian withdrew the invitation. Messer fired Alloway. He was a member of museum advisory panel of National Endowment for the Arts, 1974 to 1976. Messer was responsible for the acquisition of two important collections for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. After the death Justin K. Thannhauser (1892-1976) in 1976, the museum added his collection, which included Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early modern masterpieces. Nearly the same time, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Guggenheim’s niece) left her collection to her uncle’s public institution, as well as the Venice palazzo that housed it, in 1976. Messer became a trustee and director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy, director, beginning 1980. He was made a Chevalier of French Legion of Honor, France, the same year. Despite these two spectacular acquisitions, Messer’s later years at the Guggenheim were not successful, however. Attendance fell and the museum faced fiancial difficulties. In a bold move, the trustees hired Thomas Krens, the talented director of MassMOCA to replaced Messer in 1986. Messer remained with the musem until 1988 Messer was responsible for the acquisition of two important collections for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The first, the Thannhauser Collection, assembled by Justin K. Thannhauser, included Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and early modern masterpieces. The second was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, as well as the Venice palazzo that housed it, which was secured by Guggenheim New Yok in 1976.

    Selected Bibliography

    Modern Art: An Introductory Commentary, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (New York, NY), 1962. The Emergent Decade: Latin American Painters and Painting in the 1960’s, Cornell University Press, 1966. Edvard Munch, Abrams, 1971. (Selector) Vivian Endicott Barnett, Handbook: the Guggenheim Museum Collection, 1900-1980, The Museum (New York, NY), 1980. (Selector and author of introduction) Vivian Endicott Barnett, 100 Works by Modern Masters from the Guggenheim Museum, H. N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1984. (Editor) I Maestri del Guggenheim: Milano, 12 Maggio-26 Luglio 1985, Padiglione d’arte contemporanea, A. Mondadori (Milan, Italy), 1985. (Editor) A Half-Century of European Painting, 1910-1960, from the Guggenheim Museum, New York: Venice, Spring 1986, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, (Milan, Italy), 1986. (Editor) Handbook: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (New York, NY), 1986. Fifty Years of Collecting: An Anniversary Selection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (New York, NY), 1987. (With Goetz Adriani) Joseph Beuys: Drawings, Objects, and Prints, translated by Stewart Spencer and Michael O’Donnell, Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (Stuttgart, Germany), 1989. Jean Dubuffet, 1901-1985, Hatje (Stuttgart, Germany), 1990. Antoni Tapies: Eine retrospektive, Wienand Verlag (Cologne, Germany), 1993. (Editor) Eduardo Chillida: Eine retrospektive, Wienand (Cologne, Germany), 1993. Nicolas de Stael: Retrospektive, Verlag G. Hatje (Ostfildern, Germany), 1994. Asger Jorn, Hatje (Ostfildern, Germany), 1994. Asger Jorn: Retrospektive, Schirn-Kunsthalle Frankfurt (Frankfurt, Germany), 1994. (With Eduardo Chillida and Antoni Tapies) Photographien Emanuel Raab: Zu den Retrospektiven Eduardo Chillida und Antoni Tapies: Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 1993, foreword by Hellmut Seemann, Cantz (Ostfildern, Germany), 1994. Lucio Fontana: Retrospektive, Hatje (Ostfildern, Germany), 1996. Vasily Kandinsky, H. N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1997. (Author of essay) Karole P. B. Vail, Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration, Guggenheim Museum (New York, NY), 1998. Between Art and Life: Vom Abstrakten Expressionismus zur Pop Art, Schirn Kunsthalle (Frankfurt, Germany), 1999. Also author of museum catalogues, including Contemporary Painters of Japanese Origin in America, [Boston], 1958; (with Otto Benesel) Egon Schiele: Oeuvre Catalogue of the Paintings, Crown, 1966; Paul Klee at the Guggenheim Museum: Post Scriptum, Center for Advanced Studies, Wesleyan University, 1968; Julius Bissier, 1893-1965: A Retrospective Exhibition, Sterlip Press, 1968; and (with Rosel Golleck and Ingrid Krause) Vasily Kandinsky: 1866-1944, [Munich], 1976; as well as those listed separately above. Contributor of articles to art journals, including Art News, Art in America, Art International, American Scholar, Arts, Studio International, Art Gallery, and XX Siecle.


    Knox Sanka. “Guggenheim Picks Museum Director. Thomas Messer, Head of Boston Institute, Named to Art Post Here.” New York Times January 31, 1961, p. 21; Thomas M. Messer Records. Guggenheim Museum, New York Archives [website]


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