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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Guggenheim

What I find most fascinating about a place like the Guggenheim Museum is that it stands as a supreme example of how virtually anything can be defended, praised or condemned intelligently with words. Conflicting arguments abound about works of architecture, art, film, music, dance etc. I once asked an architect after seeing a particularly hideous structure, what she would make of a building which every lay person hated but was lauded by architecture critics? The answer she gave - "then architecture is a failure." 
I have cited examples in this blog of things which have become iconic in spite of their being considered an abomination by many at the time of completion, such as the Eiffel Tower. The Guggenheim is one of those places - time has softened those aspects that perhaps have offended many.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1959 is considered one of the city's major architectural landmarks. It is located on in Manhattan's Upper East Side at 89th Street and Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park. Second photo here. It houses Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern, and contemporary art. The collection was seeded by Solomon Guggenheim, an art collector whose foundation funded the establishment of the museum.
The building, which looks like a stacked white ribbon, was extremely controversial at the time of its completion. Inside, the main gallery is a helical spiral, rising from the ground level to the top, crowned with a skylit rotunda. Here are some of the conflicting reviews as reported in Time Magazine in 1959:

"A war between architecture and painting, in which both come out badly maimed," declared Art Critic John Canaday on Page One of the New York Times; "The most beautiful building in America," retorted Critic Emily Genauer in the New York Herald Tribune. "A building that should be put in a museum to show how mad the 20th Century is," editorialized the New York Daily Mirror. "Mr. Wright's greatest building, New York's greatest building." said Architect Philip Johnson, "one of the greatest rooms of the 20th century." "Frank has really done it," snapped one artist. "He has made painting absolutely unimportant." 

The criticisms revolve around several aspects of the building. One is that the museum design is a distraction from the art itself. The sloping ramp provides no level base for a viewer's reference. The small exhibition rooms off the main spiral are small and windowless - the walls are angled and make hanging paintings difficult. Prior to its opening, twenty-one artists, including Willem de Kooning signed a letter protesting the display of their work in the museum. Wright replied that the old rectilinear frame of reference was "a coffin for the spirit" and admonished them to wait and see. Paintings were to be tilted backward, "as on the artist's easel." Wright had proposed "one great space on a continuous floor." "An atmosphere of the unbroken wave—no meeting of the eye with angular or abrupt changes of form."
When the building opened, Robert Moses said that it looked like "an inverted oatmeal dish." Wright retorted: "It's going to make the Metropolitan Museum look like a Protestant barn." Others referred to it as a "snail," "an indigestible hot cross bun" or "a washing machine."
Snails, barns, coffins, oatmeal dishes, washing machines, ribbons, unbroken waves - The Guggenheim. 


Anonymous said...

Such a pretty place linked with a name that many never heard of or have no idea what he did. I think the design is a distraction from the work inside -- both have problems in being understood.

Brian Dubé said...

Abe - I agree. Maybe my preferences are too dated, but I much prefer an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum over one at the Guggenheim.

Michelle Johnson said...

Great pics. I think the Guggenheim looks like a giant bowl or flowerpot. I can't imagine how the pictures sit on the walls with such curvature taking place. Have a great day.

thora said...

I've always loved the Guggenheim, both from the outside and especially from the inside. Outstanding museum.

Russell Claxton said...

I think this building is expressive of its time of construction.

Some may consider this for better, others for worse, but the attempt of the architect to devise an experience, in which viewing paintings is a more integral part of experiencing a place, occurs as he intended.

Mary said...

Your combination of shots here is art in itself.