Why would you put someone who didn’t think art was very good in charge of designing an art museum?
At the Guggenheim this summer they shoved a handful of borrowed Picassos into the side gallery you may or may not notice as you venture down the spiral. (You are almost certainly bound to miss it going upward.) In order to find out what I would see in that dark room, I stood in the entry hall, next to what turned out to be not walls but doors, as two workers nearby poked around in a concealed electrical closet. I read only a few short sentences describing Picasso as a man in Paris before I felt a finger poke my shoulder. “Excuse me,” a person representing a group that had ballooned behind me said. “We’re trying to read here.” Feeling rightly guilty, I sped through the narrow hall of context directly into the small exhibit. The small hallway space—and the little time it left to read the introductory text—might explain the aimless nature of those inside the unmapped rooms. Two tween boys posed for their mother in a group photo with Picasso himself, the self-portrait from his Blue Period. I wondered if the tweens had even noticed the sign at the entryway, which might have suggested that it’s not nice to smile with extremely depressed people.
But I can’t blame them. I can only blame Frank Lloyd Wright. It was his idea to build a museum for art that shoves all art to the side, seemingly in order to make way for the real point of the museum: a baffling six-story spiral that’s horrible in either direction. According to every source I could find, no one has ever fallen off this spiral, which I don’t believe, and no one has purposely thrown themselves from it either, which I really don’t believe. The only result of Googling “Guggenheim suicides” is the one heir who shot himself back in the seventies. It’s a good reminder that the reason this museum feels like the display of a hapless socialite’s tousled art collection is that that’s exactly what it is. Why else would you put someone who, like Wright, didn’t think art was even very good in charge of designing an art museum?
At the same time as Picasso’s unintentionally tragic side-room exhibition, the spiral hosted Measuring Infinity, a retrospective of the German Venezuelan architect Gego’s innovative designs and paintings. The artist built fascinating sculptures, which bend and fold with space and time to explore what sort of structures can be made with both. As small-scale works, they rely on an understanding that materials are flexible, that the person wielding them has control. As pieces of art on display at the Guggenheim, they look like something you might nod toward in an Ikea before your partner shakes their head no, what would you even do with this? That is to say that they become less individual works created by an artist than obnoxious backgrounds in a tedious trek you feel inclined to make but could ultimately do without. This transformation happens because they have been literally shoved against the wall. You cannot walk around the sculptures; you cannot actually see them in their totality. The Guggenheim has narrowed infinity to a quick view of a few sides of it. Though you’re not actually crouching, the shelflike space set aside for art of display makes you feel like you are. In the cafeteria, where I ate bad soup and drank bad iced coffee, the couple next to me further exhibited the Swedish furniture corporation’s spirit, noting that “even the windows in here are beautiful” before checking their watches to make sure they had spent what they considered to be a decent amount of time in the museum.
“You might disagree with me,” one-half of the couple said, “but I always think these experiences are worth it, no matter the price.” The other half didn’t disagree, but it’s worth noting that the cost of a visit has only ever gone up. Right now it’s thirty dollars, which is even more than what was advertised on the website before my visit. It’s a lot of money to spend to be in a place that shouts from every noncorner that it does not want you to be there and will disorient you entirely before you leave.
In his work, Wright seemed to want the world to become still, perfectly figured, free from chaos. He never seemed to grasp that trees move wildly sometimes, that water might flow somewhere it isn’t welcome.
Wright died before the museum was finished, but the structure is entirely his. You can tell because it bears the number one quality of all of his buildings: total refusal to genuinely think about the way people live within his work. Rather than art, the museum seems to have been built to hold his ideas. What if we have this big circle thing, which you walk through. And what if it’s all a terrible ramp, which makes you dizzy if you go too fast, of course, but somehow also makes you dizzy if you go too slowly. And what if you could barely even see most of the works displayed, for incredibly odd reasons, such as the fact that they’re in corners or very poorly lit.
There’s a way of thinking within architecture (and design and tech and film and television) that insists that if there’s a truly outstanding reasoning behind something, then that thing can exist without any criticism or even further questions. Today, that reason is usually, blandly, “climate change.” When Wright was working, he called it “nature.” Nature, in Wright’s view, was that which simply was, that which occurred without any touch of humanity. Generally this resulted in creations that humans couldn’t necessarily move through comfortably, but maybe, Wright guessed, a stream of water could.
Wright famously hated the New York skyline; he was annoyed that it sprang up without intention, that it kept evolving, that there was no rhyme or reason to it. In his view of nature, structures have plans and clear lines; they have starts and finishes. Whether or not Wright ever realized that none of that exists in nature at all, that his obsession with order and planning were almost the antithesis of this world’s organic winding, is unknown to me.
Besides New York, the architect also loudly hated art in general, believing instead that walls themselves should be the main attraction. The Guggenheim is a tribute to this mindset. He was convinced that nature itself was the thing to get back to, the perfect scenario for which we were all striving. I don’t think he ever accepted that humans are completely different from, for example, trees. Nor did he seem to care that we’re a part of nature too.
He loathed the work of humans because he rejected that we, like all other forms of life, created something new out of what we’re made of. In his work, he seemed to want the world to become still, perfectly figured, free from chaos. He never seemed to grasp that trees move wildly sometimes, that water might flow somewhere it isn’t welcome. Wright’s rejection of the complicated reality of creativity and of the needs of a place that actually displays art resulted in a building that stands in opposition to the art it holds. As a final farewell, the Guggenheim suggests that he died thinking he had it all right.
I saw the Gego show in August. The warm weather urged me to stop at the Mister Softee truck parked on Fifth Avenue, where I ordered my usual: a chocolate and vanilla twist cone. I make a habit of documenting my twists, both because I find them beautiful and also because I’ve noticed that they’re hard to perfect. There are some people who pull a totally artless cone, handing over a thoughtless glob that still tastes fine but loses some part of its essence. You can tell when someone has mastered the craft, and I was happy to see that the woman running this truck had. Here was a person who understood that this twist, this spiral of soft ice cream, is a result of human effort and creativity. It is not the way that gravity and frozen whipped milk and sugar want to interact. It takes skill and practice. It is not natural at all.
Lily Puckett is a writer living deep in the heart of New York’s wretched skyline.