Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum (115)

The famous Guggenheim in New York is a much-visited museum, both for its priceless works of art and for the fantastic building that contains them.

Solomon R. Guggenheim, a Jewish tycoon and owner of a mine in Alaska, started out to acquire abstract art in 1929, with the help of the German painter, Baroness Hilla Rebay, his friend and art adviser. She was one of the few abstract painters of the early 20th century, who, in 1927, emigrated from her native Germany to the United States. It was in 1943, during the Second World War, when Guggenheim and Rebay wrote a letter to Frank Lloyd Wright to create a huge "temple-museum."

Work on the museum began in 1956 and, unfortunately, the famous architect and its author, Frank Lloyd Wright, died six months before the opening of the museum in October 1959.

The building that Frank Lloyd Wright designed would complement the artworks that were to be exhibited inside. Undoubtedly, its inverse conical structure and its famous spiral ramp have turned it into an icon of modern architecture that is recognised worldwide. Maybe this is why it has staged numerous films, such as the exhausting chase of an alien by Will Smith at the beginning of "Men in Black."

This structure, like other great works, was an outright scandal at that time. It has outgrown its many nicknames, such as "washing machine or "hot cross bun," to be endowed with the greatness time has managed to attach to it. Today, everybody comes here to admire it.

Finally, you may now see with your own eyes the image of the inner dome, with its spiral ramp, which you have surely seen on many pictures. It is a spiral ramp that rises 400 m in a gentle slope up to the glass dome located 30 metres above.

The architect had to fight hard so that today you can see the design the way he created it. Conflicts with planning authorities and the director of the Foundation, James Johnson Sweeney, the successor of Baroness Rebay in 1952. Thus, the museum took 15 years to be built. He won some battles, but he lost others, such as the material used on the facade, which is made of concrete instead of marble, as Wright wanted. He insisted on having natural light inside and wanted to have the paintings at an angle, as if they were on the painters' easels, which the director refused; in the end, at Wright's express wish paintings are exhibited without frames or very simple ones and are hung as if they were in a painter's studio, on circular walls and transverse partitions. It was a work created especially for the art exhibited therein. 

It has been a highly praised work, but, on the other hand, it has also received much criticism for its role, as the indoor natural light is generous, but not for the artworks, which have to be lit artificially, or because the slope of the third ramp hinders appreciation of works arranged horizontally, or since the curved wall tilted to the outside makes installation of the artworks more complex.

The building itself is a work of art. From the street, the building looks like a white ribbon, coiled in a cylindrical shape which is slightly wider at the top than below. Internally, the galleries form a spiral of six turns; thus, the visitor sees the works while walking down the ramp.

In 1992, the building was extended by attaching a rectangular tower, but this modification of Wright's original design created a strong controversy. It is a sober block, almost blind, with small window-like slits, which contains an exhibition area of more than 4,700 m2 and an office area of 1,400 m2, hence allowing Wright's building to be dedicated exclusively to exhibitions. 

An interesting detail, which is often not seen in the pictures, is that the museum is recessed from the street level and separated by a plant stand. This conveys greater power to its volume, as if it had sprouted and grown from the bottom of the earth. Due to the references to nature, which are common in Wright's work, his architecture was called "organic."

As for its works, you should know that, basically, it combines several private collections with works from the 19th century up to now. The Thannhauser one, essentially works from the early years of Pablo Picasso. The Karl Nierendorf one, works of German Expressionism. The Katherine Dreier one, American minimal art works. And others. Obviously, it also houses the vast collection of Solomon Guggenheim himself, including works by Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Léger, Chagall, Modigliani and others.

It is difficult to single out specific works of the museum, as they are often rotated between other Guggenheim museums located in other cities, such as Berlin, Bilbao and Venice, as well as the future space in Abu Dhabi that opened in 2013 and another in Lower Manhattan, designed by Frank Gehry, without a specific opening date so far.

In principle, among the must-see works from the Guggenheim in New York, we would name "L'Hermitage à Pontoise" by Pissarro, from 1867, "The Ironer" by Picasso, from 1904, "Paris Through the Window" by Chagall, from 1913, and other exceptional works by Renoir, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Klee or Mapplethorpe.

By the way, the museum's furniture was also designed by Wright.

You may undertake additional research as regards temporary exhibitions. If you love modern art, you will be fascinated.

Welcome to the Guggenheim in New York, arguably one of the most celebrated yet most controversial buildings of modern architecture.

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