Guggenheim Museum

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 92 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned
Joseph Cornell, Guggenheim Museum
Joseph Cornell, “Setting for a Fairy Tale,” 1942, and Untitled (Fortune Telling Parrot for Carmen Miranda), ca. 1939.

I’ll always pick Joseph Cornell’s achingly lovely, idiosyncratic boxes, wherever I happen to find them.

I despise the Guggenheim Museum. It sucks and you shouldn’t go there.

Guggenheim Museum

The brevity of those two sentences would make for a welcome break from my normal museum review, but my highly contrarian feelings toward the Guggenheim require justification. Let’s start with the building itself, and then move on to what’s inside.

The Guggenheim Museum is a terrible container for art.

I have never liked the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building. A spiraling ramp of art, wrapped around a hollow atrium. It’s a creative idea, worth a try. Wright tried it. It’s beautiful.  But it is also uncomfortable, illogical, and confusing.

Guggenheim MuseumSeeing a show at the Guggenheim is an exhausting, uphill slog. Literally. I don’t understand why the curators there don’t install shows that run from top to bottom. It makes perfect sense to take the elevator up to the top and walk DOWN the ramp, rather than schlepping up it. But they don’t do that. You are on an art climb, and unless you’re willing to see things backwards, with reversed chronologies and wall texts coming at the end of sections, up’s the way you have to go.

I find it annoying and even disorienting to see art on a slant. I never feel I have my equilibrium there. Moreover, the spiral of the Guggenheim is divided into sections like a grapefruit. As you proceed up (or if you’re sensible, down) it, you encounter a section, which has a couple of pieces hung in it. Then it’s on to the next section, the next couple of pieces. It’s the least flexible place for art in all of New York.

Guggenheim Museum
Art segregated into little bays

The almighty spiral has other disadvantages, too. Say you see something (or someone) amazing across the way. There’s no way to get there, except to follow the circumference, around (and around). You’re not even a rat in a maze; you’re a hamster on a wheel.

The Wright Stuff Goes Wrong

The service spaces Wright designed don’t work any better than the spiral. The Guggenheim Museum features small, inadequate, airplane lavatory style bathrooms on the ramp, which impede its purity and cause congestion.  There’s also a cramped cafe space afflicted with a typically low Wright ceiling.  That man must have hated tall people and claustrophobes.

Guggenheim Museum Cafe
Guggenheim’s claustrophobic cafe
Guggenheim Museum
Bolted-on gallery space — so rectangular!

The building further confuses things by having some rectilinear galleries that spike of the spiral at various points. These make it confusing for a first-time (or even a tenth time) visitor to know how to navigate. The spiral itself at least possesses the virtue of simplicity; the bolted-on galleries complicate it.

Noted horror author and racist H.P. Lovecraft described eldritch temples possessing geometries not comprehensible to man; walls and ceilings that meet at eerie, wrong angles, distorting perception and leading inexorably to madness. That’s the Guggenheim. It doesn’t serve the art in it well, and moreover staying there too long leads inexorably to madness.

Guggenheim Museum Stairway
Eldritch geometries

My final argument against the Guggenheim and its spiral is simply this: if it was a positive art experience, wouldn’t other museums and galleries have emulated it? Iconic or not, if it succeeded, other architects would’ve found a way to copy its linear, inclined, wrapping art experience. They didn’t, because in their heart of hearts, museum designers know that it just doesn’t work well.

Guggenheim Museum, New York

Yes, absolutely, the Guggenheim Museum is iconic.  But iconic isn’t the same as pleasant to be in.  There’s nothing like the Guggenheim, and as someone who has been to a lot of museums over the past several months, I say thank goodness for that.

What’s Contained Therein

The Guggenheim Museum’s shortfalls as an art container wouldn’t matter if the stuff in the container were astonishingly great. It’s not. It’s good, but relative to the modern holdings of MoMA, the Whitney, or even the Met, I wouldn’t call it great.

Solomon R. Guggenheim, Guggenheim Museum
Hilla Rebay, “Solomon R. Guggenheim,” 1928. Oil on canvas

When I visited, the show in the spiral focused on the Guggenheim Museum’s collection itself.  Solomon Guggenheim, aided by his art advisor (and portait painter) Hilla Rebay, championed so-called “non-objective” art.  I assume he loved abstraction, but it’s hard to tell from the installation just what he loved about it. How much was Mr. Guggenheim feeling the art, versus Rebay telling him what to buy?

That’s hugely different from say the Frick Collection, the Morgan, or Ronald Lauder’s Neue Gallerie, where an  individual collector’s sprirt and passion shine through. I might like the Guggenheim better if I felt more of Mr. Guggenheim there.

Symbolist Wackiness (Jean Delville, “The Idol of Perversity,” 1891)

There’s also an exhibit of the “Salon de La Rose + Croix,” a particularly wacky sect of French Symbolists. Their work is pretty hilarious today, for its content and for how seriously they took themselves.  I like the Symbolists, their overwrought histrionics align well with my sensibilities.  But I have my limits. The problem is, the Guggenheim seems to take them seriously, too, raising significant questions of curatorial taste.

On that subject, I must also mention Maurizio Cattelan’s solid gold, functional, toilet, called “America,” installed in one of those inadequate lavatories. I didn’t see or use it (line too long).  But curatorial taste, indeed.

Final Thoughts

That’s a good concluding note.  I’m not confident that the Guggenheim Museum’s curators care much for what’s good or great, or want to celebrate artistic triumph.  They’ll stick anything in the spiral, confident that no matter what, the crowds will obediently come to make whatever uphill art pilgrimage they decree.  

Don’t be a museum sheep!  Consider carefully whether the slog is worth it.  Maybe all you really need to do is snap a couple of selfies outside, duck in and Instagram the atrium, and move on to New York City’s many better collections and friendlier art containers.Guggenheim Museum

For Reference:

Address 1071 Fifth Avenue (between 88th and 89th Streets), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $25