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Last Hurrah: FLW’s Guggenheim Museum

Jeffrey Syken

“‘No, it is not to subjugate the paintings to the building that I conceived this plan. On the contrary, it was to make the building and the paintings a beautiful symphony such as never existed in the world of Art before”
Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect

Accused by many, then and now, of creating a work-of-art greater than any work-of-art it might put on display, architect Frank Lloyd Wright explained in a letter to Harry Guggenheim, nephew and benefactor to Solomon R. Guggenheim (FLW’s client who had died in 1949 without seeing the museum bearing his name realized) the Guggenheim Museum’s “raison d’etre” (reason for being). In a career that spanned seventy-two years, two centuries, two World Wars and a Cold War, the Guggenheim Museum would prove to be the most difficult commission of the master architect’s prolific portfolio, spanning sixteen years; from 1943 to 1959. FLW died six months before the museum opened-to-the-public, but he had the satisfaction of seeing it rise from the ground and take its rightful place on Fifth Avenue’s “Museum Mile.” Although he often made known his contempt for New York City and its architecture, FLW knew this museum would be his most visited building and he was determined to “Get it Wright.”

Heir to a great mining fortune, Solomon R. Guggenheim had begun collecting art in the 1890s. It was in 1928, while sitting for a portrait in the studio of artist Hilla Rebay, that Guggenheim first took notice, and an interest, in the “Non-Objective” (a/k/a “Abstract Expressionist”) paintings which were hanging on the artists’ walls. Rebay, a practitioner and proponent of the style, had emigrated from her native Alsace in 1927 with the intention of founding a public venue in the New World for the display of Non-Objective art which, by the 1930s, was being persecuted in Europe. With his deep pockets and profound interest in the art form, Rebay would accompany Guggenheim and his wife on trips to Europe where she would guide him on which artists’ works (usually her personal friends) were worth adding to his growing collection. By the late 1930s, the collection had expanded exponentially, necessitating the creation of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation (1937) and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (1939) in a former Manhattan car dealership.

Seeking “A temple of spirit, a monument,” FLW was a natural choice to design a permanent home for the Guggenheim collection given the fact that FLW had spent much of his career building temples and monuments, using architecture (the “Mother Art”) to uplift society. FLW had been fascinated by and experimented with the spiral form in several of his realized and unrealized projects. The basic idea for the Guggenheim was an “inverted ziggurat,” whereby museum visitors would take an atrium elevator to the top of a spiral ramp and meander casually down the ramp, viewing the artwork along the perimeter of the spiral on the way down with gravity providing the assist. To create such a spiraling ramp posed serious challenges, but a technique first patented in 1910 which used pneumatic concrete (a/k/a “Gunite” or “Shotcrete”) would solve the problem. Although the public took to the unusual building right away, the art community did not, complaining of its unsuitability. Like the leaky roofs he was famous for, FLW simply ignored the criticisms. Today, the “Guggenheim Effect” has spread around the world, with museums such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, by Frank Gehry, a true offspring of the original.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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