Saturday, February 13, 2010

Guggenheim Museum

2/6/10; Saturday, continued
TIME: 2hr
COST: Pay-what-you-wish Sat evening

At last we visited the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: architectural icon, New York City landmark, and home to an internationally renowned art collection. Known to locals simply as “the Gugg”, it’s both one of New York’s most famous museums and most recognizable buildings, and I’ve wanted to see it since long before I came to New York.

The Guggenheim’s permanent collection is a who’s who in modern art. If you’ve heard of any artist, you probably heard of those at the Gugg, with names like Picasso, van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. I got a sense of deja vou walking through the exhibits; these are the paintings famous enough to be featured in everything from car commercials to movie sets and you’ve definitely seen them before.

But as great as the art is, the real star here is the building. When the museum was first opened in 1959, the New York Times described it as a “a war between architecture and painting in which both come out badly maimed.” It’s Paul’s and my opinion that architecture won. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim is considered one of the 20th century's greatest buildings and its blindly white modern curves stand out starkly from the traditional buildings of 5 th avenue, and have been described in many picturesque ways, including: a curving wave that never breaks; an upside down seashell; or, my personal favorite, a grand balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As great as the art was, I find what I really remember about our time in the museum is this wonderful building. Even the bathrooms are memorable, situated in the hollow oval pillars that line the central ramp, in the middle of the exhibition space. Thus you find yourself doing something very private in the middle of a very crowed public place; its oddly exhibitionist.

We visited the Guggenheim during the “Pay What You Wish” time (Saturday evenings). As we had been warned, the line for this was over a block long. I haven’t seen a line that long since “Lord of the Rings” opened in Seattle. That line was very different, containing lots of people dressed up as elves and chatting excitedly in the drizzle. This one was made up of grouchy New Yorkers shivering in the cold February wind, commenting on other people’s accessories and wondering loudly what could possibly be so important for so many people to be lined up. I can’t decide if this demonstrates that New Yorkers are not easily impressed, or if they were hoping to get other people in the line to leave.

Once we got into the museum, the first thing we saw was a man and a woman making out on the lobby floor, in the great rotunda space of the museum. Their necking progressed until they were writhing on the cold marble floor in a sort of clothed soft porn. The couple continued this the entire two hours we were in the museum and attracted quite a crowd. We were initially puzzled by them, along with everyone else in the lobby, but eventually determined that several of the Guggenheim exhibits during our visit were by Tino Sehgal, a performance artist, and that this was not the weirdest of his art pieces. After making our way awkwardly around the couple, giving them a wide berth, we made it to the start of the Guggenheim’s inner ramp. This is a wide ramp that gently spirals up the seven floors of the museum and normally contains a great deal of artwork, but not today. Today we were greeted by a young boy of about 14 in a suit who asked if we would like to take part in an art project. Eyeing the couple on the floor, I decided that I didn’t want to be publicly embarrassed and declined. Paul, of course, said yes.

Paul’s art project turned out to be a conversation. The boy asked Paul to define progress, and they talked about it as they headed up the ramp. Each time they completed a turn of the spiral, Paul’s conversation partner would be replaced with an older person, who would continue the conversation and refine the ideas discussed. This progressed through a teenager, an earnest 20-something, a more experienced middle-aged man and so on, until, on the top floor Paul was talking to a grey haired philosophy professor from Columbia University. Paul loved it. He claimed it was the best experience that he’s ever had in a museum. As for me, talking to strangers has never been my favorite thing, so I’m glad I declined. Just goes to show you that art is truly in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the ear…

Ta for now. In our next blog, Paul will fill you in on Madame Tussaud’s and the Jewish Museum.

Pictures featured above, from the top: the interior ramp and skylight of the Guggenheim Museum; the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum; The Soldier Drinks, by Chagall; Le Moulin de la Galette, by
Picasso; and Before the Mirror by Manet.


  1. The "progress" performance art piece sounds fantastic. I wish I could have participated! -Ross

  2. Paul's spiralling discussion of progress suggests other possible dialogue partners: an anarchist, a Wall Street stock broker, a graffitti tagger (or is that a type of anarchist?), a soldier, etc. Unemployed actors could be hired by the museum to play the various roles; maybe they could even get some of the stimulus money. - Mike

  3. What a quirky building. Did you get vertigo walking up the stairway? The contents of the museum, other than the live art, reminded me of the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid a few blocks from the Prado Museum. It had 800 paintings from many centuries, but I especially enjoyed the 18th and 19th century paintings like the ones you have illustrated in your blog. Imagine someone actually listening (and responding) to you in a philosophical discussion for 15 or more minutes. Must be Paul's idea of heaven!! Lynn