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[Comments] (1) Kandinsky vs. the Guggenheim Museum: On Sunday, our last day of vacation, Sumana and I went to the Guggenheim museum for the first time. We'd planned to go about a week earlier, and then we got to the museum and there was a line wrapping around the block, in freezing cold weather. No thanks. We went to the Cooper-Hewitt museum instead. (Which was really small for the price, and also really preoccupied with the people and corporations that had been given awards by... the Cooper-Hewitt museum.)

It turns out you can buy Guggenheim tickets online, so I bought some for the 3rd. I cannot stress enough how important it is to buy tickets in advance. You don't want to be standing in the cold for 90 minutes. When we got into the museum we saw that the wraparound line wasn't even the whole line. There was insane chaos on the ground floor including milling tourists, a coat check off to the side, a small pond conveniently located for falling into, and a whole other winding line to the ticket sales area itself.

I should have seen this coming. My general theory of Frank Lloyd Wright is that his stuff is really beautiful but would be aggravating to use. I really love the FLW living room they have in the Met, but if I lived there (a la The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), probably within an hour I'd reach for a magazine and bash my hand on something right-angled. And the Guggenheim is an amazingly well-designed museum so long as nobody is in it.

At the Met, the main entrance is really noisy and as you go into the exhibits it gets quieter and quieter. The entire Guggenheim is one big room. The whole time you're at the museum, you're in the same room as hundreds of people waiting in line for tickets, discussing with their friends what to do next, making phone calls, etc. You can't get away. They're a hundred feet away, but it's a hundred feet straight down through open air. You can see and hear everyone else just fine.

If you're the Guggenheim's only visitor, you'll find toilets are distributed for maximum convenience. Seemingly on every turn of every level you'll find a unisex toilet. That one person at a time can use. In real life you get people waiting in lines outside a toilet, blocking the ascent for everyone else, not willing to give up their space in line in hopes that a quarter-turn up or down the corkscrew is a toilet that doesn't have a line.

The same phenomenon happens whenever a timeline or exhibit description is painted on a wall. The Guggenheim is full of little inset niches containing 2-3 artworks each, where people can stand and admire the art without blocking traffic. This is good design. Good thinking, anticipating that an art museum would have art in it. Unfortunately, the same allowances have not been made for random walls with text on them. Bottom line, people stand immobile before these walls, reading, and you can't get past.

One good thing about the Guggenheim is the reading room. It's just a quiet room full of art books. Sumana and I killed time in there, reading (did you know that Alexander Calder painted full-size working airplanes? One of which was blown up in the movie "Bad Boys"?) and it was a good time.

I haven't mentioned the art itself because that changes all the time, and the museum's architecture is eternal. But wow! We went to see the Kandinsky exhibit (it's closing soon), and it was AMAZING. Kandinsky's stuff started out pretty dull--Sumana compared it unfavorably to Chagall, and I don't like Chagall in the first place. But around the time he joined Bahaus, Kandinsky literally shaped up. He started using stencils, clean lines, and proto-airbrush techniques, yielding nerdily precise paintings that look like scientific diagrams (eg. "Movement I" from 1935) or safety notices in an alien language (eg. "Succession", also from 1935).

I wrote down the names of our favorite paintings and I'll try to round up some links to pictures later. I'm absolutely not someone who tries to interpret abstract art in representational terms, but if you rotate 1932's "Black Grid" ninety degrees counterclockwise, it really looks like a seascape with airplanes, modern (for 1932) steamships, and old-fashioned sailing ships, all in front of a city. Plus a black grid and a bunch of random shapes in a corner to fool you.

Conclusion: Kandinsky is awesome, the Guggenheim is aggravating. Unfortunately, the other owns a lot of the one! We were talking about this at the New Years party; how the Guggenheim really loves collecting Kandinsky, how Charles Simonyi seems determined to buy up every Lichtenstein painting in the world. What artists would you buy up, if you had, say, a billion dollars to spend on art and could thus acquire a good chunk of anyone's ouvre?

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Posted by Mark Dominus at Fri Jan 15 2010 15:15

I think you left off the single worst part of the Guggenheim's design. It's an art museum, so they need a lot of wall space on which to hang the collection. But because of the basic design of the museum, there's only half as much wall space as there would have been with a conventional design.

So the Guggenheim, which has a really awesome collection, keeps most of it in crates because they don't have anywhere to show it.

My Uncle used to live in a FLW house. It looked great, but there were no electric outlets (FLW thought they were ugly) and the walls only came up to within a few inches of the ceiling. Which also looked great, but you could hear every sound all over the house.


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