I know about the Guggenheim museum only because it is a featured stop in our CityPass ticketbooks. Walking down 86th toward Central Park, then turning the corner and walking up to 89th, I see its swirling ridges and register some random facts picked up from long-ago public TV. The typical story: born into a wealthy family, Guggenheim the son becomes a wealthy businessman himself, and in keeping with the prevailing fashion develops a taste for art and the legal machinery to possess and extol it. He likes the new more than the old and has the wherewithal to afford both, mostly focusing on Kandinsky, Klee, Chagall. Frank Lloyd Wright is hired to construct a building to house them all and creates a structure that highlights itself as much as the contents. The spiral interior is a continuous thread upwards, like a conch shell, paintings nestled in white concavities opposite the central void. People love it; some artists at the 1959 opening hate it. It is a perfect ding an sich: the structure is the timeless form of white smoothness, the volume inside Wright’s signature partly art deco and emergent International style, the paintings held as if floating in still water. New in a time of rising spirits and expectations, secure in Man’s ability to defy nature (Man, notice, not humanity), the building is a graceful inversion of atomic and Red hysteria. It’s calm and smooth and everything is a pleasing white all the way down to the triangular lights.
The place is a zoo, every space crammed with people. The woman doesn’t examine my ticketbook, tearing out the slip and handing me a ticket. Linebackers that don’t fit in their cheap suits direct me offhand to check my bag and I stand behind a long line of angular Germans to do so. The lobby is full of people pointing their cameras upwards, which at the time I think is a little strange. It’s interesting but not that interesting.
Photography’s concentration is due to restriction: the linebackers bark no photography everywhere but the lobby. Not even the building can be photographed. I presume Guggenheim–or his foundation–wants every possible nickel from its intellectual property and a wide variety of reproductions are available in the gift shop. Thus, no photo record of my thoughts about objects intended to be seen.
Writing a month after going, I remember how the flock of people thins out with height, as I would expect. I realize the air conditioning must be powerful indeed to handle so many people through all the seasons, keeping the artwork safe. The paintings hang in an interesting spatial illusion: affixed from the back, the float out from the wall slightly and lighting behind them makes it seem as if they defy gravity. The linebackers hang on the periphery and don’t seem too concerned about people getting too close, and there’s nothing keeping me from standing a couple feet away, looking from the sides, up from the floor. The light is not white, at least not staring daylight bright. It’s a little warmer, that hour after dawn, maybe–a rising light.
Photographs in art books don’t capture paintings as physical entities, and the Guggenheim paintings highlight this. There’s a Pollock here and his splatters and drips aren’t flat color but little round humps and creamy tendrils, like an expensive cake. His painting looks like inedible candy. There are many others that are folds of cloth painted into the canvas, or lumps and rivulets of paint. One I like especially is all blacks and browns, the paint mixed with sand and formed short of three dimensions but not flat either. The effect is a little like pottery made of compost.
Ascending, I see Guggenheim is the kind of collector who likes artists who call themselves schools and write manifestos. There is a French school, an Italian school, and a Spanish school. I’m surprised at a Spanish school and surprised that I am surprised–why shouldn’t the Spanish absurdists or surrealists or Dadaists have a school? They paint fine. The manifestos are very Nineteenth-century sounding even though they are in the early Twentieth, when everything is changing: lots of high, sweeping language; wild emotionality; a structured grandiosity. They are all very serious about what they are trying to do.
Curling up the walkway, my reality progresses. At first it is dislocation from the sheer mass of humanity, the imposing linebackers. Where is the train, the football game? Voices echo like an airport concourse, but it’s all men in Bermuda shorts and hot women in all the things hot New York women wear. My mind buzzes when a linebacker yells no photography when I try to capture the light fixtures. I don’t argue and revert to childhood seething instead. The first circumference is this: grumpy peeving and men, women, bored kids.
Ascending, my mind is chattering. Something about the paintings, about whether they are art, why are they in a museum, what is a museum other than a idolatrous mirror for royalty to show off their great treasures to the plebes? Monkey, is that you? No anxiety, no fear, though I am a little dizzy, overtired, struggling through new medication. It doesn’t feel like Monkey. Maybe Monkey deserves more credit–he’s not a one-trick pony, he can adapt and learn to the changing marketplace. Don’t need anxiety? Well, how’s resentment fit? The whole chattering mix of wanting to belong (by believing in the idea of “art” and that this is it) versus teenage resistance (what a load of shit–some group of old white men have decided this is art and gotten other old white guys to pay real money for it). Self-loathing that you’re not up in these soft white nooks? Try it on–I got a million of ’em.
Through this whole trip I’ve kept good watch on my mind and feelings. Disorientation: yes, I see you. Anxiety: you’ve changed–gained weight, not so brittle, hardly all-consuming. The Buddhist teaching of realizing your feelings aren’t you has reappeared, like a window: I can see but most of the cold or heat is kept out. Even though my mind is blurry and I’m exhausted from the latest meds I know this will go away, that it’s a good sign, and that I can manage this. In the museum I can see Monkey, or whoever it is, bringing these things up and look at them like I know what I’m doing.
Is this art? I wonder if there should be a set of objects, techniques and thoughts we segregate as removed-higher-other and set aside for contemplation and awe. Does this serve the objects or ourselves? I think of Japanese teapots and bowls: some are in museums behind glass, similar objects for sale in the Japanese dollar store. Do both not equally invite introspection? I’m not sure if anything in the Guggenheim is art, but I’m not sure that’s a question worth asking, and I am aware of this outside and beyond Monkey’s waving of arms and pyrotechnics.
I just look at stuff. I skim the explanatory cards; few have anything valuable to say about the art. In improv you say or do the first thing the subconscious provides and that’s what I do with these paintings. This one: a murky yet sharp brown mix of air and landforms; that one: purple seas and hallways. Anybody can do this fades away and there are just shapes, color, the wordless state of seeing patterns turn into things, or nothing.
Some of the cards are evocative, though I doubt they mean to do this. A smeary, crusted white mass belongs to a French school attempting to define the real by defining what painting cannot be. I think about this a while. I realize what a high goal the artist has chosen: to make a painting about nothing. How do you paint nothing? Well, this French guy in the Thirties tried this.
I forget about who did what, the highminded and ultimately silly language, the whole social role of the modern auteur artist as somebody who wears odd clothes and says incongruous things. I just look at the stuff. This is about nothing. This is about motion without time. This is about energy that is still.
At the conch’s topmost circuit, most people have given up. A mobile hangs in the center void, fat primary colors–red, blue, black–turning in the gentle current. I remember as a very young child being shown these things, a man playing a violin, a woman with a jar of tempra paint and a small canvas. Red paint, I remember. Somehow all this stuff was different from the bouncing bubblegum magic of cars and the TV. I didn’t get it but I remember the mobile had circles and lines. That mobile out of childhood is connected, however fuzzily, to this one–the real thing, whatever that means. I watch the real thing in the rich man’s house for a while. The floor is very smooth and the low wall rounded and not quite as high as I would like. The world spins a little. I back away.
Going down I look in at my favorites, not writing down the names. My mind is quiet as a still pond. I don’t stop in the store. I have found it already.