The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is one of the most important architectural landmarks of the 20th century. Located on the Upper East Side, just off Central Park, the Guggenheim Museum, with its characteristic spiral silhouette, has become one of the landmarks of New York City.
The museum first opened its doors on October 21, 1959, six months after the death of Frank Lloyd Wright and ten years after the death of founder Solomon Guggenheim.
Brief history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum
The museum owes its name to its founder, Solomon R. Guggenheim, an American magnate who, encouraged and guided by artist and art advisor Hilla Rebay, began an art collection in the late 1920s.
Rebay was a follower of Russian-born painter Vasily Kandinsky, so she encouraged Guggenheim to collect Kandinsky’s work (more than a hundred paintings in the museum’s collection), as well as that of other artists such as Rudolf Bauer and László Moholy-Nagy.
Initially, Guggenheim’s own suite at the Plaza Hotel in New York served as an exhibition space for his art collection. Later, in 1937, when his collection had grown too large to be housed in his apartment, Guggenheim created the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Two years later, the Foundation opened its first museum, the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, at E 54th Street in Manhattan, under the direction of Hilla Rebay. Four years later, the Foundation asked innovative architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a permanent building to house Guggenheim’s growing art collection, which at that time included works by Marc Chagall, Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, László Moholy-Nagy, and Pablo Picasso. Wright spent 16 years, 700 sketches and six sets of different plans to complete the project.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s building
The commission to build a museum to house Solomon R. Guggenheim’s art collection came to Wright from Hilla Rebay. Wright’s commission culminated in one of the greatest architectural works of the 20th century: a building as famous as the art collection for which it was designed.
Wright had several locations in New York in mind before opting for the current location on Fifth Avenue, between 88th and 89th Streets. The proximity to Central Park was critical to Wright: not only did it provide a real break from the city’s noise and traffic, but it was also a source of inspiration.
Wright’s desire was to translate the organic forms of nature into architecture. The spiral he designed for the Guggenheim Museum evokes the shell of a nautilus, with continuous spaces flowing freely within each other.
Rejecting traditional museum models, which took visitors through a series of interconnected rooms and forced them to retrace their steps as they left, Wright’s innovative idea was to quickly take people to the top floor of the building in an elevator so that from there they could walk down the smooth, continuous, circular ramp as they gazed at the various works of art on display.
To achieve human closeness and scale, Wright thought that the paintings should be tilted slightly backwards, as if they were on an easel, resting on the oblique base of the walls slightly tilted outwards. However, the first director and the members of the museum’s board of trustees decided to exhibit the paintings supported by bars that projected them outward, away from the walls. In 1961, Thomas Messer took over the management of the museum and recovered Wright’s original idea.
Circularity is a constant in Wright’s building and is reflected everywhere, from the roundabout and the skylight to details such as the design of the terrazzo floors. But there are also triangles, ovals and squares: Wright’s final stage masterpiece offers his personal interpretation of the geometry of modernist architecture.
As with almost every project he worked on, Frank Lloyd Wright insisted on designing down to the last detail, from chairs to elevators.
Unfortunately, post-war inflation, changes in building location and building code requirements, among other factors, delayed construction for many years and forced countless reviews of Wright’s design and blueprints. Finally, on October 21, 1959, the Guggenheim Museum opened its doors to the huge crowd that had been queuing for hours on Fifth Avenue waiting to see it for the first time.
Both then and now, Wright’s monument to modernity, with its spiral ramp, roundabout and skylight dome fascinates visitors by offering a unique space in which to live art. The large roundabout was also accompanied by a smaller roundabout and a tower originally designed to house artist studios and apartments for Rebay and Guggenheim.
In 1990, the museum was enlarged and completed in 1992, adding two new office floors, four more exhibition galleries and the reopening of the upper ramp of the roundabout (on the 6th floor), thus achieving an uninterrupted visit circuit and fulfilling Wright’s original vision for the museum.
Wright achieved a brilliant building whose architecture is as novel today as it was fifty years ago. When the museum first opened, some, including artists, criticized Wright for creating such an unusual museum environment that it threatened to eclipse the art it contained. Over the years, however, artists and art curators have found the museum to be an encouraging challenge and have even used the building as an inspiration when creating works designed specifically for their space.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum stands as an eloquent testament to Wright’s architectural genius and the foundational adventurous spirit that made it possible.
The museum’s permanent collection
The history of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum New York is essentially the history of many and diverse private collections that have grown (and continue to grow) over the years thanks to significant donations and acquisitions, giving rise to a rich and multifaceted permanent collection that dates back to the late nineteenth century and goes all the way to the present day.
These are the main milestones in the creation of the museum’s current collection:
- Between 1937 and 1949, Solomon Guggenheim donated to the Guggenheim Foundation approximately 600 works of art by artists such as Marc Chagall, Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian or Pablo Picasso.
- The donation of Justin K. Thannhauser’s prized collection of masterpieces of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and French modern art, including works by Vincent van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso and Camille Pissarro, greatly expanded the historical range of the Guggenheim collection.
- In the early 1990s, the Guggenheim acquired more than 350 works of minimalist, post-minimalist and conceptual art from the famed collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and his wife Giovanna, giving greater depth and quality to the post-war collection.
- In 1948, the Guggenheim Foundation expanded its collection with the acquisition of the entire estate of New York art dealer Karl Nierendorf (1889-1947), which included works by leading German and Austrian expressionist artists, surrealist painters such as Joan Miró, and works on paper by Paul Klee, as well as some of the early paintings by abstract expressionist Adolph Gottlieb.
- In 1953, the Guggenheim Foundation received the small but important legacy of one of the most influential figures in the art world of the 20th century: Katherine S. Dreier (1877-1952). This included important works such as Brancusi’s French Girl (1914-18), a bronze sculpture by Archipenko (1919), a standing mobile by Calder (1935), an untitled still life by Juan Gris (1916), and three collages dating from 1919 to 1921 by the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters.
- Thanks to her continuous contacts with artists throughout her life, Hilla Rebay (who was the first to take over the management of the Guggenheim) built up an important collection of her own art. Part of this collection, including works by Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian and Schwitters, was donated to the Guggenheim Museum in 1971, four years after his death.
- In 1992, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation named the Guggenheim Foundation the beneficiary of over 200 of Mapplethorpe’s best photographs and unique objects. The donation, which took place in several phases, made the Guggenheim the largest public repository for the work of this important American artist, inaugurating the museum’s collection and photography exhibition program.
- In 2001, the Bohen Foundation, a private charity, donated 275 works by 45 different artists to the Guggenheim, with the central goal of greatly expanding the museum’s collection of films, videos and new technologies that represent the dynamic and vital intersection of art with the new millennium. Donated works range from the important photographic works of Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sam Taylor-Wood and Sophie Calle to installations that occupy an entire room and incorporate large-scale videos by Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Pierre Huygue and Willi Doherty.
Guggenheim Museum New York opening hours
- Monday: 10 am–5:30 pm
- Tuesday: 10 am–8:00 pm
- Wednesday: 10 am–5:30 pm
- Thursday: 10 am–5:30 pm
- Friday: 10 am–5:30 pm
- Saturday: 10 am–8:00 pm (from 5:00 to 8:00 pm pay what you wish)
- Sunday: 10 am–5:30 pm
- Closed on Christmas Day.
Fares (year 2019)
- Students and senior citizens (over 65) with identification document $18
- Children under 12: Free
- Entrance to the museum on Saturdays from 17:00 to 20:00 hours is pay what you wish.
How to get to the Guggenheim?
- Take subway line 4, 5 or 6 and get off at 86th Street stop. Walk west on 86th Street, turn right on Fifth Avenue and go up to 88th Street.
For more information about the museum and to discover the temporary exhibitions that are currently taking place in the museum, I recommend you visit the official website of the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum.