CityPASS New York: The Guggenheim Museum

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Full disclosure, I only discovered the Guggenheim Museum 5 years ago after watching a Sex and the City episode.  Horrible, I know.  But it is the truth.

I knew that when I was in NYC last week, the Guggenheim Museum would be a part of my journey purely so I could swoon over the Frank Lloyd Wright designed building not because of Carrie Bradshaw’s influence.

A little history about The Guggenheim Museum, in June 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright received a letter from Hilla Rebay, the art advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, asking the architect to design a new building to house Guggenheim’s four-year-old Museum of Non-Objective Painting. The project evolved into a complex struggle pitting the architect against his clients, city officials, the art world, and public opinion. Both Guggenheim and Wright would die before the building’s 1959 completion. The resultant achievement, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, testifies not only to Wright’s architectural genius, but to the adventurous spirit that characterized its founders.

The Guggenheim Museum’s proximity to Central Park was key; as close to nature as one gets in New York, the park afforded relief from the noise and congestion of the city.

Nature not only provided the museum with a respite from New York’s distractions but also leant it inspiration. The Guggenheim Museum is an embodiment of Wright’s attempts to render the inherent plasticity of organic forms in architecture. His inverted ziggurat (a stepped or winding pyramidal temple of Babylonian origin) dispensed with the conventional approach to museum design, which led visitors through a series of interconnected rooms and forced them to retrace their steps when exiting. Instead, Wright whisked people to the top of the building via elevator, and led them downward at a leisurely pace on the gentle slope of a continuous ramp. The galleries were divided like the membranes in citrus fruit, with self-contained yet interdependent sections. The open rotunda afforded viewers the unique possibility of seeing several bays of work on different levels simultaneously. The spiral design recalled a nautilus shell, with continuous spaces flowing freely one into another.

Now that I understood the back story to Wright’s vision I decided to delve into the art that lay ahead within the space.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the Christopher Wool exhibit (running from October 25, 2013–January 22, 2014) at first.  I loved the punk rock, spray, black and white grand scale pieces but was confused about his intent.  The pieces had a NYC accent and reminded me that I was in NYC experiencing NYC as I glided through the space.

The silkscreen has been a primary tool for Wool since the 1990s. In his earliest screen printed paintings, he expanded on the vocabulary of the pattern works, enlarging their stylized floral motifs for use as near-abstract units of composition. In this period, Wool frequently sabotaged his existing forms as a way to covertly generate new ones, layering the flower icons in dense, overlapping configurations that congeal into a single black mass or become obscured with passages of brusque over painting. He also introduced a new, entirely freehand gesture in the form of a looping line applied with a spray gun—an irreverent interruption of the imagery below that evokes an act of vandalism on a city street.

Wool’s first major photography series Absent Without Leave (1993) was interesting. Taken during a period of solitary travels in Europe and elsewhere, the images are saturated with an atmosphere of alienation and shot in a raw, abrasive style that disregards any concern for technical refinement. A similar spirit of disaffection pervades a parallel body of photographic work titled East Broadway Breakdown (1994–95/2002), but in this series Wool focused on a more familiar topography, documenting his nightly walk home from his East Village studio. Highlighting the city’s unadorned, off-hours existence, the photographs depict a nocturnal landscape emptied of citizens and stripped down to a skeleton of street lamps, chain-link fences, blemished sidewalks, and parked cars.

Indeed very Punk Rock and raw.   I felt like the ghosts of Johnny Ramone, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen stood around greeting Guggenheim guests as I peeked at the photos posted.

In contrast the Kandinsky in Paris, 1934–1944 (running from June 28, 2013–April 23, 2014) was all class.

Perhaps more than any other 20th-century painter, Vasily Kandinsky has been linked to the history of the Guggenheim Museum. The collection includes over 150 of his works, which are regularly presented in a dedicated gallery at the museum. The current selection, Kandinsky in Paris, 1934–1944, examines the last 11 years of his life. After the Nazi government closed the Berlin Bauhaus (where he had been a teacher) in 1933, Kandinsky settled in the Parisian suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine. In France, his formal vocabulary changed, and diagrams of amoebas, embryos, and other primitive cellular and plant forms provided the sources for the whimsical biomorphic imagery that would be predominant in his late paintings. Instead of his characteristic primary colors, Kandinsky favored softer, pastel hues—pink, violet, turquoise, and gold—reminiscent of the colors of his Russian origins. He also increasingly experimented with materials, such as combining sand with pigment. While Kandinsky found that his art had affinities with Surrealism and other abstract movements in Paris, he never fully immersed himself in the city’s artistic environment. Drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, this intimate presentation features paintings from a prolific period of Kandinsky’s career.

The Guggenheim Museum provides a wide variety of modern to classic art to absorb.  It is easy to navigate which is so unlike the MET.  Starting from the building’s fifth floor and working my way down was a delightful way to experience art and be in art.

The hidden spaces which held additional art, respite to catch your breath or a bathroom break, photography, museum curated snapshots, an open space lobby to loiter and have a chin wag over what you have just seen provided for a well rounded and fulfilling artful experience.  I wanted to sit in the space all day and people watch.  Thank you for the romance, Guggenheim Museum.

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