The Guggenheim Museum: A Legacy of Modern & Contemporary Art in the heart of New York City

A Prolific Global Presence 

I’ve been past the Guggenheim Museum many times and visited once long ago. Then I began studying museums, foundations, galleries, and art spaces. Last year I visited the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and then in Italy I attended a presentation by staff from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. I’ve been reading about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (designed by Frank Gehry), so I decided to look deeper into the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

The history is incredibly interesting, including the premier space to house it in New York City (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and Mr. Guggenheim’s contribution of over 150 paintings by Vasily Kandinsky. Beyond that, the spirit of European modernism is prolific. Collections of famous artists, art world influencers, and landmark painters abound. It was time to revisit the original museum.

The building is a stunning architectural piece on the Upper East Side. It’s adjacent to Central Park and sits beautifully on the entire block between 88th and 89th Streets on 5th Avenue.

The New York Guggenheim Museum is more than a collection of modern and contemporary art. It’s also an education space and cultural center. There are performances and poetry. There are talks and conversation occasions. There are food and drink events. And there are hosted gathering activities. The calendar of events can be found here.

Motivation: Jenny Holzer in the Rotunda

The Guggenheim Museum looks like a spiral cone from the outside, and walking inside is like entering a corkscrew that widens towards the bright circular ceiling. The rotunda is an atrium surrounded by 1400 feet or concrete ramp coiling upwards at an 18 degree incline for six stories. The main exhibition is Jenny Holzer’s Light Line (pictured at top). It’s officially called “Untitled (Selections from Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, The Survival Series, Under a Rock, Laments, and Child Text).” This poetry and essay spectacle rolls around digital screens attached to the ramp walls and spirals up with the walls.

If you stand in the middle of the atrium, the effect is an electronic cloud of philosophy spinning you in a circle like a child. The words go around. You turn to read them. You keep turning. The words keep coming. Your mind processes. Your thoughts twirl. The gentle hum of museum visitors and security scanning fades away. It’s slightly magical.

I was thrilled to see the installation in person. The pictures I saw on social media and the Guggenheim’s website definitely do it justice, although it’s an entirely different experience to observe the art in person. It was mesmerizing. That spiral atrium is perfect for revolving poetry and a twirl in the lobby.

The essays are a new take on her 1989 installation. These essays, sentences, and thoughts are designed to inspire, incite, reflect, comment. The essays continue up on the first floor in a colorful block patchwork wall full of text. More essays. More truths. More commentary.

Modern Art Classics and All the Big Names

The next items I sought were the modern art classics in the Thannhauser Collection. These are the heavy hitters- the big names you’ve heard of whether you studied art history or not.

There are the Picassos, of course. A ubiquitous presence in most museums, yet unavoidable in discussions of European or modern art, the Picassos are always exciting to me. The artist was a mad man, imprudent, and arrogant. Yet his classical abilities and total disregard for tradition absolutely changed art. And I love the disjointed abstraction. It’s brilliant.

Le Moulin de la Galette by Pablo Picasso
PHOTOGRAPH BY Bethany Miller

Then there are stunning works by those you know and admire: Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, and others. It’s a small section of the museum, but I stood in front of every one and silently thanked the artists for their work. These are the giants. I’m so in awe of the skills each one honed and the raw emotions in these works.

The Football Players by Henri Rousseau
PHOTOGRAPH BY Bethany Miller
Woman with Parakeet by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
PHOTOGRAPH BY Bethany Miller

What Else is On View

The current exhibition is called By Way Of. It’s subtitled “Material and Motion” and showcases how art and artists have moved beyond the studio to create works presenting our way of life.

Some works were interesting, and others were not to my taste. If it’s too hard to interpret or looks like a rustic trash pile, I’m immediately disinterested. I try to read the signage and consider the intent of the artist, but I’m not a fan of Arte Povera, reclaimed art, upcycled art, or fabricated kitsch collections. It can seem haphazard and thoughtless to me.

There were a couple that I really enjoyed, however. The Riddle of the Sphinx (1991) by Mike Kelley is a room-sized knit blanket in purples and yellows draped over upside down bowls to give a lifted mountain effect at various places. Behind, on the wall, hangs a similarly colored

The Riddle of the Sphinx by Mike Kelley
PHOTOGRAPH BY Bethany Miller

photolithograph of Mt. Fuji. The blanket’s zigzags and the multidimensional effect of the installation makes the photo pop out into the room and you can imagine that you are a part of the landscape. It’s surreal and peaceful as it surrounds you. It was just beautiful.

Another piece that was striking was Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (1993). It was two steel plates tipped into a pile of burlap sacks full of coal. Kounellis is known for his commentary on contemporary society and civilization. Many of his works are untitled and are left to speak for themselves about themes of consumerism, industry, and the rhythm of industrialization versus nature.

Up and Around the Ramp

We come back to my original motivation for this museum visit: Jenny Holzer. Her work proliferates the museum. Not only the colorful patchwork of text statements wallpapering the first room up the ramp, but all the ramp hallways were hung with Jenny Holzer statement pieces. There’s Cursed, a series of Tweets from Donald Trump’s presidency- stamped metal pieces strung in a line and falling into a pile on the floor. There’s also a stunning series (various titles) of goldleaf canvases that are prints of redacted war orders, battle plans, and Gulf War / Operation Iraqi Freedom / Operation Enduring Freedom memos. As a veteran who participated in many of those operations, I was particularly touched with this view from the outside- a view from the civilian world. It’s a time capsule. It’s a look at a point in time without reference to history or concurrent global events. It’s a powerful, powerful look at warfare and diplomacy and politics. And it’s wrapped up in goldleaf. Beautiful. Haunting. Shiny.

Protect Protect by Jenny Holzer
PHOTOGRAPH BY Bethany Miller

The Impossible Task

In case you were wondering what exactly Jenny Holzer’s thoughts and essays scrolling the Light Line say: you’ll have to spend some time reading. The feed scrolls for six hours without repeating. Hat tip, Ms. Holzer. I wished I could have ingested more. But I like to think that she’s out there speaking, long before I got there and long after I left the museum.

Information to Know:

The Guggenheim Museum is located at 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128, between 88th Street and 89th Street. Subway lines 4, 5, 6, and Q are convenient. So are bus lines M1, M2, M3, and M4.

The museum is open every day from 10:30 am - 5:30 pm (although they are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas). Tickets are available online for a 30 minute entry window, which

is the preferred ticketing method. Tickets are available on site, but the museum gets crowded, especially on weekends and holidays. Adult tickets are $30 and there are discounts for special categories or with a CityPASS. Additionally, on Mondays and Saturdays from 4:00 - 5:30, they have a “pay what you wish” admission policy.

Half way through the museum (on the 3rd floor) there is a nice cafeteria for a light lunch of salad, sandwich, coffee, and drinks. Restroom facilities are available on most floors. There is an elevator if the quarter mile of ramp walking is too much.

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Bethany Miller

Bethany Miller is a writer, art advisor, and global traveler. She works on projects relating to storytelling and demystifying the art world. She writes a newsletter called Art Advisor and runs an arts education platform called Boundaryless Art. Bethany has a PhD with focus on business psychology and a Masters of Art and Culture Management. Born in the United States, she currently travels internationally full time with her husband.