Edging the eastern boundary of New York’s Central Park is 5th Avenue, arguably one of the most expensive and elegant streets in the world. A significant stretch of the avenue, located in Midtown Manhattan, is lined with prestigious boutiques and luxury flagship stores. However, a little further along 5th Avenue, towards the Upper East Side, lies “Museum Mile”, a picturesque length of the street that is home to several cultural institutions that house some of New York’s finest and most treasured collections of art, design and history from around the world.
The buildings that line 5th Avenue opposite Central Park stand with style and grace. While they each hold their own individual charm and character, there is a collective neatness and uniformity to the manner in which they stand flush against the sidewalk. Interrupting this elegant and tidy arrangement of right angles are the unmistakable sweeping curves of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was established in 1937, and its first New York–based gallery, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, opened in 1939. Non-objective art is abstract, or non-representational art. It tends to be geometric (but, like most art forms, is not always) and aims to convey a sense of simplicity and purity. Wassily Kandinski’s works are good examples of this style of art.
In 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to build a new, permanent space to house the collection. Hilla Rebay, the curator of the foundation and director of the Museum of Non-Objective painting, wrote to Wright, making her intentions for the new building very clear; “I want a temple of spirit, a monument!”
And with that, architectural drawings and plans for what would become one of New York’s most iconic and loved buildings began to take shape. Largely due to post-war financial strains, but also the death of Solomon R. Guggenheim in 1949, construction of the new museum was delayed until 1956. Sixteen years after Frank Lloyd Wright was commissioned to create the new museum, and some 700 sketches and six architectural plans later, the building was finally completed in 1959, and opened to the public on October 21 – sadly, just six months after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death.
Now, some sixty years later, visitors remain enthralled by both the impressive curved exterior, and the innovative manner in which the architecture allows for the display of artworks. The building’s spiral design, with continuous spaces flowing seamlessly into one another, abandons traditional and conventional forms of the presentation of artwork. Essentially one large swirling corridor spanning six floors, the building’s open rotunda offers viewers the unique opportunity to see several areas of work on different levels simultaneously, alongside the chance for more intimate, one-one encounters with individual artworks. There is a constant relationship and dialogue between the art, the architecture and the audience in this space.
To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s iconic home, and the museum’s growing collection of modern and contemporary art, curators handed over their reigns to six individual artists who have each had influential exhibitions at the Guggenheim at various points in the museum’s history. These artists are Cai Guo-Qiang, Paul Chan, Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Richard Prince, and Carrie Mae Weems.
Under the appropriate title, “Artistic License”, each artist was invited to rummage through the museum’s databses and archives in order to create a presentation of work under a chosen theme. Each of the six artists was allocated one of the six levels of the museum’s open rotunda, and collectively, the exhibition displays nearly 300 paintings, sculptures, works on paper and installations; some treasured masterpieces, some created by lesser-known artists, and some that have never been on display before now.
Not only did the museum’s curators intend for these individually interpreted displays to celebrate the collection, they also anticipated some light being shone upon what the collection lacks, and what kinds of works and artists are not represented in the museum’s bank of art history. Carrie Mae Weem’s selection entitled, “What Could Have Been” focusses purely on works created in a pallete of black and white, while Jenny Holzer’s presentation, “Good Artists”, is comprised of works made by women. Both displays intend to highlight the inherit biases of museum collections which focus on the Western art-historical cannon, and the disproportionate number of works by male artists compared to those made by female artists.
Cai Guo Qiang’s “Non-Brand”, occupying the first level of the rotunda and the high gallery space, brings forward unexpected works by renowned artists such as Picasso, Rothko and Mondrian made prior to the development of the artists’ distinctive styles and ground-breaking practices. Barely recognisable at a glance, these works reveal sides of their makers that they are not typically known for in art history. Paul Chan’s display “Sex, Water, Salvation, or What Is A Bather?” reconsiders the image of bathers in the Western artistic tradition. He found himself honing in on works that centred on the restorative and rejuvenating properties of bathing, while considering the gruelling and demanding nature of the world and time in which we live.
Julie Mehretu’s “Cry Gold and See Black” examines how “trauma, displacement and anxiety in the decades after World War II found expression across cultural boundaries” through different mediums. Angst, dehumanisation and struggle are evident in the works chosen by Mehretu, but the possibility of something emerging from such upheaval is also recognised in this collection.
Richard Prince’s collection “Four Paintings Looking Right” is a presentation of works made in the style of Abstract Expressionism. When he first began perusing the museum’s collection, he came across several artists from around the globe who were working in the same fashion between the 1940’s and 1960’s, many of whom were completely unknown to him. A collector of art and rare books himself, Prince is interested in the stories of artists and what shapes the formation of an artwork. Among the works on display in his collection is a drip painting by renowned American artist Jackson Pollock, as well as a very similar looking piece, once attributed to the same artist, that has never been authenticated, for comparison. Who made it, if not Pollock? It remains a mystery.
Each of these six individual interpretations of the museum’s collection has given a new kind of light and life to the works on display. When considered in its entirety, “Artistic License” presents an overall rich and diverse span of works. On the one hand, it stands as a good indication of the general nature of the museum’s collection, an excellent overview for viewers new to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and a refreshing reminder of the potential of this expansive collection for those who are more familiar with the museum’s permanent holdings. However, this exhibition also generates questions and curiosity; what’s still hiding in the depths of museum storage yet to be seen, and what historical works might be acquired as a result of an assessment of this exhibition?
While each collection on each level of the museum’s rotunda explores themes and narratives individually, when viewed as a whole, “Artistic License” also speaks to collective human and art histories. With this in mind, upon exiting the incredible building that houses this collection, one might be encouraged to ponder how this institution will continue to collect and display works of art that reflect and respond to local and global movements and changes in time as they occur.