The Guggenheim in New York is among the most important and influential art museums in the world. The architecturally innovative building holds an outstanding collection belonging to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which includes impressionist, post-impressionist and contemporary artworks by Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Paul Cézanne and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But, who exactly was Solomon Guggenheim?
An American businessman and art collector, Solomon Robert Guggenheim was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1861. He belonged to a family of Swiss-Jewish origins who were in the mining business. When gold was discovered in Alaska, Guggenheim founded the profitable Yukon Gold Company. In 1895, he married Irene Rothschild, the daughter of a prominent German-Jewish émigré called Victor Henry Rothschild. The Guggenheims became one of the wealthiest families in the country.
Guggenheim began collecting art in 1890 with an initial focus on the Old Masters. A turning point came in 1926 when, at age sixty-six, he met abstract artist Hilla von Rebay. She introduced him to European avant-garde art and advised him to collect non-objective works. This was to transform Guggenheim’s vision. Four years later, the two visited Kandinsky’s studio in Germany. Guggenheim began purchasing the Russian painter’s work, which formed a crucial part of his collection.
Initially, the Guggenheim had a different location and name than it does today. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a non-profit organisation, was established in 1937, and two years later, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting was created under the leadership of Von Rebay. During the 1940s the Foundation acquired many paintings by Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani and Picasso, among others.
frank lloyd wright
In 1943 the necessity of a permanent building for the collection saw Von Rebay and Guggenheim write a letter to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. They asked him to design a building in the organic architecture style that blended with the urban environment of New York City. After considering different locations, they settled on a lot the collector owned on Fifth Avenue. It was near Central Park, just blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and among rows of pre-war limestone and glazed brick buildings, all appearing like boxes of the same height.
The building, based on hundreds of sketches, took sixteen years to complete. It would be Lloyd Wright’s first and only creation in the city, and his only museum in the world. Sadly, neither Guggenheim nor the architect saw it completed. Solomon R. Guggenheim died in April 1949, and Lloyd Wright died in April 1959 just six months before the museum opened.
The circular building was certainly unconventional for an art museum. The concept was that of an inverted ziggurat, such as found in ancient Mesopotamia. Visitors were meant to ride to the top in an elevator and then descend by way of a spiral ramp (431 meters long with an eighteen-degree tilt), while they admired the art placed in the many bays on each of the six floors. There are no straight lines or vertical walls in the building; visitors are all visible to each other, and art can be viewed both close up and from as far away as the opposite side of the building. On the outside and inside it is painted pure white, with a sleek and slightly glossy finish.
Great consideration was given to the wholesome sensorial experience of viewing art; the building was designed to be a piece of art in itself, to be enjoyed along with the paintings or other art forms. It resembles the shell of a nautilus, where space flows freely in the interior. It is topped by an oculus: a dome of 169 glass panels, eighteen meters wide, through which natural light flows in, drenching the space and shifting constantly with the movement of the sun and the clouds.
The Guggenheim broke many rules and challenged conventions of its time, earning a number unflattering descriptions and names. Some people said it looked like a washing washing achine, others, a bowl of oatmeal. Today, however, it is greatly admired and attracts tourists and visitors from all over the world.
New York’s Guggenheim is one of a number of Guggenheim Museums around the world. Notable among them is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy. Named after Solomon R. Guggenheim’s niece, the modern art museum opened in 1951 as a summer show of Peggy Guggenheim’s private collection. After her death in 1979, the Foundation kept the space open all year all year round. It includes paintings by Italian futurists and American modernists, as well as cubist, surrealist and abstract expressionist works.
Perhaps the most renowned of the Guggenheim Museums outside New York is in Bilbao, Spain (pictured below). Inaugurated in 1997, it too is an architectural marvel. The spectacular building, designed by the Canadian architect Frank Gehry, is covered with titanium plates, giving it a sculptural appearance. The groundbreaking building effectively placed the Basque city on the international map in terms of innovative architecture and prestigious art museums. Like the Guggenheim in New York, the building is as notable as the artworks shown inside. The newest Guggenheim Museum will be located in Abu Dhabi. Currently in development, it is another project by Frank Gehry and will stand on a peninsula surrounded by the waters of the Arabian Gulf. Intricate galleries of different shapes and heights promise to deliver a completely novel experience to visitors. Like the other buildings bearing the Guggenheim name, its architecture and collection will be absolutely unique.