New York Travelogue — The Guggy

There were a lot of rainy days while I was in New York. What better to do on those than see art? I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to the Whitney with The Longtime New York Friend; to the Frick with The Fabulous Wife; and to the Guggenheim by myself.

I’d never been to the Guggenheim, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Before he moved to Florida, Lou and I tried to go, but when we arrived the line to get in stretched forever, so rather than wait we headed to the Met a few blocks south. Same story when The Longtime New York Friend and I tried to go this trip.

I could have made a reservation, but didn’t want to be pinned to a day and time. So when no one else was around on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, I took my shot. There was a line, but it stretched only to the corner. After a fifteen minute wait, I got in.

The most impressive thing about the Guggenheim is its architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1959 building remains one of the most provocative in New York:

So round, Frank Lloyd Wright . . .

The interior is impressive too. That expanding circular shell covers a spiral, gently ascending main gallery:

If your eye misses hard angles, don’t worry, there are places to go for relief. This staircase is done up in a striking triangular pattern:

The main gallery can accommodate one or two exhibits. A few side spaces also display art. The largest of the side galleries is on the second floor and houses the Thannhauser Collection, paintings mainly from the Post-Impressionist period. The Thannhauser gives the impatient museum-goer a crash course in European art’s march from representational to abstract depictions. Here is Camille Pissarro’s Hermitage at Pontoise from 1867:

Pretty “normal,” right? By 1910 that Impressionist plein air style had given way to works like Wassily Kandinsky’s Landscape with Rolling Hills, which by Kandinsky’s standards is unusually representational.

The brushwork reminds me a little of Cezanne’s.

And by 1931 Picasso was doing this to the centuries-old tradition of still lifes:

Pitcher and Bowl of Fruit, 1931.

The main gallery was devoted to works of the largely unknown Hilma af Klint (1862–1944), who exemplified the transformation from representational to abstract art — often a step or two ahead of her contemporaries. Why was she overlooked? For one thing, she lived in Sweden, then an artistic backwater. For another, she refused to let her more ambitious works be shown during her lifetime. For yet another, she was female (you know how that goes). Her spiritual beliefs may also have had something to do with it: by her late twenties she was evolving into a seance-sponsoring, hardcore theosophist.

She began her artistic career conventionally enough. This is her Summer Landscape from 1888:

The strange light is probably because summer sunsets fall around midnight in Sweden.

But by 1915 she was creating paintings in series that vividly illustrate the progression from representational to abstract — and material to spiritual. This is the first of her Swan series:

By painting nine, the swans look like this:

And by painting fifteen, the end of the series, they look like this:

Evidently af Klint’s descendants offered to donate her entire ouvre to Sweden’s Moderna Museet in 1970, but that museum (which we visited last year) refused. Whether you deem it for better or worse, her recognition has been a long time coming.

The Guggy isn’t big; after two hours I’d seen everything, some things more than once. At $25 admission is steep, but worth it if the main exhibit is as interesting, odd, and somewhat enlightening as the af Klint.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.