Located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Guggenheim Museum is another iconic landmark in the City of New York. Designed by the great Frank Lloyd Wright, the building that houses the museum looks like a white ribbon stacked in rising spirals that forms an inverted ziggurat, a huge contrast to the square and boxy design that is prevalent among the surrounding buildings.
The story of this building that houses the Guggenheim Museum is probably as interesting as the works of art contained in there. In 1943, Frank Lloyd Wright received the commission of designing the permanent home of what was known then as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting through a letter signed by the Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, the museum’s curator and the artistic consultant of Solomon R. Guggenheim, the museum’s founder. In this letter, the Baroness told Wright that “I need a fighter, a lover of space, an agitator, a tester and a wise man…. I want a temple of spirit, a monument!”
And so the construction of this monument began. In the course of 15 years, 700 sketches and six sets of working drawings would be created by Wright for what would be one of the most important works of his career. Though the design for the building itself gained praise in some sectors of the art world, many critics panned it nonetheless because the building overshadows the collection housed inside and the paintings would be heavily shrouded in shadow despite the skylight. Before the museum’s opening, 21 artists made a signed petition voicing their protest against the display of their work within the edifice. Wright himself did not want to build the edifice in New York City, deeming the city “overbuilt and overpopulated.” The building was completed in 1959 and the museum, now renamed “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum” in honor of its founder, opened the doors to its permanent home for the first time to the public. The acclaim was enormous; however, both its founder and its architect never saw the completion of the project. Solomon R. Guggenheim died ten years previously, and Frank Lloyd Wright six months before the museum’s opening. The controversy and the criticism eventually died and in the decades that followed, the museum gained its iconic status. As for the collections housed within the Guggenheim Museum, they were initially seeded by the personal collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim himself. This first holding is an extensive representation of avant-garde art, mostly by early Modernists like Vasily Kadinsky and Piet Mondrian. Over the years, this initial collection will be joined by personal donations such as:
- Justin K. Thannhauser’s Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modernist pieces;
- Dr. Giuseppe Panza di Biurmo’s European and American Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, Conceptual and Environmental art;
- Avant-garde paintings and sculptures previously owned by Katherine S. Dreier; and
- Karl Nurendorf’s German Expressionist paintings.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, the body that manages the Guggenheim Museum and its international counterparts, was also bequeathed the Venice-based collection of Surrealist and abstract works previously owned by Peggy Guggenheim, the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim.
These holdings are extensive and are peppered by sample works of such masters as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh, Egon Schiele and Andy Warhol.
Visitors to New York City will find it worth their while to pay homage to the Guggenheim Museum, if only for the interesting story behind the building and its collections.