The Guggenheim Museum, in ‘All’ its glory

It’s hard to stand out in New York And if you do, you’ll usually have something exceptional to show for it. Such is the case with the city’s architecture; such is the case with its art.

The Guggenheim Museum has been around for over half a century. A celebrated institution, the building is an artwork unto itself, subjected to a fair amount of controversy. Some say that Frank Lloyd Wright ‘designed his building as an asymmetric nose-thumbing at the rigid order of New York’s streets and architecture’[1]; others believe that he was an architect ahead of his time.

“Mr. Wright’s greatest building, New York’s greatest building.” said Architect Philip Johnson, “one of the greatest rooms of the 20th century.”[2]

The glorious Guggenheim

A contested expansion in 1992 (a rectangular annex was added to the museum’s backdrop) provoked further outrage and debate. Woody Allen likened its new look to a “giant lavatory basin”.[3] And, while the museum sits directly across from Central Park’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, Ms. Onassis agreed with Allen.

I have always loved The Guggenheim Museum. Located on the Upper East Side’s Fifth Avenue, to me it is emblematic of New York’s landscape; an architectural feat that I am in awe of. Whether admiring it from the outside or within, it’s a fascinating structure that stands the test of time and continues to inspire. Furthermore, museum’s renowned permanent collection always measures up to its temporary exhibits.

Panoramic View

If you haven’t ever seen or visited The Guggenheim, picture a cylindrically shaped building that looks like a spring or a perfectly curled orange peel, but white. The art gallery circumnavigates the building’s walled interior and is viewed along a walkway that spirals its way to the top. (If you’ve seen the movie, The International, featuring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, you may remember a lengthy action scene that took place in [a replica of] the museum’s interior).

The walkway’s balconies look into the building’s (usually) vacant centre, crowned by a domed skylight. There are four levels of galleries that exhibit Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and contemporary art works.

There is an old saying about the Guggenheim; you come to see Kandinsky or Picasso, but you stay to see Frank Lloyd Wright.”[4]

Interior: balconies

Sky-lit balconies

Recently, I visited The Guggenheim to see the popular — read: equally lauded and criticized — exhibit, Maurizio Cattelan: All. Said to be the final show of the artist-going-into-retirement, his retrospective hangs like a bejeweled chandelier of giant proportions in the heart of the museum’s rotunda, illuminated by the skylight immediately above.

Unfamiliar with Maurizio Cattelan’s works, I was intrigued to view the exhibition.

“Hailed simultaneously as a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times, Maurizio Cattelan (b.1960, Padua, Italy) has created some of the most unforgettable images in recent contemporary art.”[5]

Maurizio Cattelan: All

Known for his rebellious nature, Cattelan chose The Guggenheim to display his final artwork/installation. He’s not a stranger to controversy either:

“Unable to generate any ideas for his first solo exhibit, Cattelan instead placed a sign on the locked door of the gallery that read: Torno Subito or ”Be Back Soon”.” (This plastic sign was branded an artwork in 1989.);

“Having caved under the pressure of the Venice Biennale, and consequently with no work to show, he leased his allotted space to an agency who put a billboard in its place.” (Branded an artwork too, he titled it: Working is a Bad Job (1993).)

Perfume advertisement placed in the Venice Biennale space, 1993

Cattelan has also been known to spread rumours about his artwork for self-promotion, and has been caught for creative theft.

“His source materials range widely, from popular culture, history, and organized religion to a meditation on the self that is at once humorous and profound… While bold and irreverent, the work is also deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power.”[6]

Looking up on it All

All shows the majority of Cattelan’s works (with a couple of exceptions as owners refused to pass them over) strung with ropes from a steel support structure. The exhibit feels morbid; one of its stronger underlying themes is death. Perhaps the installation symbolizes a ‘mass execution’[7] of sorts.

Highly strung

Dismal undertones

Cattelan’s body of work extends over a 21-year career; his style is satirical, political, and humorous. One of his earlier and more famous works includes La Nona Ora, a sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite. Translated to “The Ninth Hour” (1999), the work implies the hour when Christ died on the Cross[8]. In 2000, this piece was shown in the Warsaw Zachęta National Gallery and “resulted in a public furor (that) ended in the resignation of Anda Rottenberg, the museum’s director, who refused to remove the work even after protests by members of parliament from a Catholic nationalist party, two of whom … attempted to succor the pope by picking him up from the ground.”[9].

A more recent work, titled ‘L.O.V.E.,’ an acronym in Italian for love, hate, vendetta, eternity, was erected near Milan’s stock market this year (2011). Referred to as ‘the finger’, the 36-foot white sculpture of a hand, with middle finger giving the birdie, was in response to the financial crisis of 2008. Read more here:

Both these works hang in the installation as smaller interpretations of the originals. “I prefer to be attacked to being ignored.” Maurizio Cattelan

Cattelan’s installation deviates from the norm. That is, usually the museum’s perimeter showcases artworks, but for now, it stands empty. It is stark in its whiteness, and looks futuristic. The focus is on the museum’s centre.

Empty gallery niches

Erecting the installation at the core of the rotunda may have been Cattelan’s way of paying homage to the artists who petitioned against the building decades ago: in 1956, a group of artists, including Willem de Koonig, submitted a complaint to The Guggenheim’s trustees about the museum’s less-than-ideal gallery space. They complained that the walls were too concave for hanging art; the floor, uneven; the ceilings, too low.

That said, by focusing on The Guggenheim’s centre, museum-goers can admire Cattelan’s installation from a distance instead of lining up to see art that could’ve been crammed into the gallery’s niches.

Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, and curator of Maurizio Cattelan: All, explains the museum’s standpoint:

“Cattelan’s career resists summation by any traditional exhibition format. Many of his early, action-based meditations are impossible to reconstruct, and his singular, iconic objects function best in isolation. (The exhibition) is thus a full-scale admission of the inadvisability of viewing his work within the context of a conventional chronological retrospective. The artist has resisted that model, creating instead a site specific installation that cunningly celebrates its rebelliousness. “

The view from above

The exhibition is alluring, yet quizzical and erratic in its presentation – there’s disorder, lack of context, and disarray. You question the point of the works, directly after they were created… and now. Is this installation really Cattelan’s final artwork? Is it in part a subtle social experiment, where museum goers are now on the outside, looking in, as if life is observing death?

“Perversely encapsulating Cattelan’s career to date in an overly literal, three dimensional catalogue raisonné, the installation lampoons the idea of comprehensiveness.” Nancy Spector

Social experiment? Life looking at death?

I am not surprised that the exhibit has generated mixed reviews. You want to understand this giant body of work, but you can’t help wonder whether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein

Cattelan: a self-depiction

I came away from The Guggenheim with an appreciation of Cattelan’s perspective and was inspired to learn more about his individual works. Perhaps this was largely because the gallery was utilized in a new way. It was a stroke of genius to use the core of the rotunda to feature All; a new perspective allowed me to see with new eyes. Something has to be said for that.

Inspired at the Guggenheim: silhouetted self-portrait

Overlooking Central Park

The Guggenheim provides further details on the exhibition here:

Maurizio Cattelan: All.

To learn more about Cattelan’s individual works, The New Yorker’s, Peter Schjeldahl talks through them in an audio slide show tour:

Slide Show


52 thoughts on “The Guggenheim Museum, in ‘All’ its glory

  1. What an amazing exhibition. As I was reading your post, the photos reminded me of the Guggenheim in Bilbao where cars hung in the central atrium. What an incredible way to literally hang an exhibition and then to be able to see it from all angles.Fantastic

    • Thanks Jenny, for your comment. I cannot wait to go to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim there – what a fascinating structure that looks to be. I think hanging the exhibit in the New York gallery was genius – the focus was on the art though I really did fall in love with the Guggenheim all over again given its versatility.

  2. What a fantastic place, I would love to visit. The photographs you’ve shared here require several viewings, I’m on my third, they are awesome. Thank you for all the info with them. As always, a wonderful post, Marina.

    • Thanks so much! I am glad you’re able to see the artworks quite clearly in the photos. There are about 128 pieces of art hanging I think (should have been 130 though a couple of owners didn’t want to lend them) and they were all, at one time, exhibited in a very different context. So it is intriguing to view the hanging artworks with this in mind. Did you have a look at the slide show link at the end of the post. It’s only 4 minutes long but I recommend it 🙂 Thank you again 🙂

  3. I just turned green with envy, I don’t know when I will get to the US next but it needs to be soon……your photos, as always, are a joy to look at. You have really done that fine building justice.

    Did I mention how jealous I am right now….very, very, very, VERY jealous.

    • Thank you – such a comment from you is a great compliment! It was the first time I have taken photos of the building with the new digital and I had so much fun! The Guggenheim always has great exhibits so when you visit, it will undoubtedly be a great time 🙂 Thanks again!

  4. I’ve never visited The Guggenheim but now I know I certainly have to! Looks like an amazing building! Love the first, the balconies and the empty rooms pictures. It’s really strange that empty gallery niches can be that beautiful! 🙂

    • Hi Pedro! I agree with you – I think that the empty niche photo is one of my favourites. It’s so futuristic looking even though the building was constructed in the 1950’s. The Guggenheim is a museum that changes for the betteras time goes on, in my opinion, so you’ll certainly love it when you see it 🙂 Thank you!

    • Hi Karen! Thanks for your comment 🙂 Yes, you have to go! I think the Guggenheim is extending hours in January – on Mondays and Thursdays – until 7.45pm for this exhibit. So hopefully you’ll be able to set aside some time in the busy season 🙂

    • Hi Alicia! Thanks so much for your comment. I am appreciative that we were able to take photo’s in the rotunda (though we weren’t able to take photos in the galleries that had a few great exhibits – Kandinksy’s White Border collection, and Pop Objects and Icons featuring with Warhol’s and Lichtenstein’s). Have you posted on Bilbao? I would love to see photos of the exterior.

  5. What an interesting post, every post I read of yours just adds more reason to head to New York.
    the museum looks amazing through your eyes!
    I especially love the strong graphics of the first image, and the balconies in black and white.
    Your self portrait is fun too. Love your musings on the artwork!

    • Karen, what a lovely comment. Thank you for it, and I am glad you found the post interesting! It was fun to photograph inside the building as there was always something to be inspired by. The exhibit was quite thought provoking. If you make it to NY to see the exhibit, I’d love to know your thoughts 🙂

  6. What a grand building! Contemporary art always makes me indecisive as to whether I like it or not… I never know what to expect of how to interpret some pieces. I always liked the futuristic approach in art and did some pieces myself for a few competitions but recent contemporary art makes me wonder sometimes whether people just placed random things together and call it art 😀 Other than that I’d love to visit the place, it looks fascinating 🙂

    • Hi Kristina! I wasn’t so familiar with Maurizio Cattelan until I went to the exhibit and wrote the post. There is a story behind each work as at one time, they were exhibited by themselves across a span of 21 years. So I like the way this exhibition was executed – in the middle of the museum – as it represents Cattelan’s last show… like a mass execution. Though of the actual art – well, that’s all subject to interpretation! It’s so interesting!! Thanks for your comment 🙂

    • Thanks so much! That’s so lovely of you 🙂 I really appreciate it. I will be dedicating a post to the Versatile Blogger Award today as I did post on it a few days ago (I love the love) and will mention your blog of course. Thanks again 🙂

    • Thanks Gerard – I think your comment has just made my Monday morning! I really appreciate your compliment on my writing – this was one of my favourite stories to write as Cattelan is such an interesting subject. Also, I loved the lighting in the museum. It made it easy to stroll the exhibit and take photos easily. I hope you visit soon, though for now, I am glad to have shared the Guggenheim with you!

  7. Pingback: Forever Celebrating Frank Lloyd Wright | Marina Chetner

  8. A very engaging article, both on the Guggenheim and Maurizio Cattelan, Marina. I really enjoyed reading it. Your photos are wonderful. I agree, though, the art piece seems to be a bit morbid…, but interesting, all the same.

    • That makes me so happy Judy! I remember that outing – it was one of my first times using the DSLR! And what an exhibition to photograph. As strange, different, interesting this exhibit was, it cannot be forgotten. Maybe that’s what makes art?! Thanks for your comment!

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