New York City's most controversial building, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, last week opened its spiral exhibition ramp to the public. A monument to the late philanthropist's vision, even more a temple to its architect, the late Frank Lloyd Wright, this "organic" concrete form looms--almost leers--over Fifth Avenue at 88th Street, provoking speculation that Wright was playing a private "cosmic joke."
The joke, critics say, is not only on New York but on the artists whose pictures hang inside what Robert Moses once called "an inverted oatmeal dish." The museum's function, they maintain, has been defeated by the overpowering design; Wright's blindness to all other arts except architecture caused him deliberately to subordinate the hangings to the walls.
The walls, indeed, arrest the eye, encircling an irregularly shaped shaft of space and supporting an inclined plane whose waist high, fragile balcony has been said to invite suicides. Annexed to the dome which houses the art is a small auditorium, whose peaceful proportions contrast dramatically with those turbulent ones of the dome itself.
The paintings hang on the curved wall, two or four to a partition. Towards the top, where the curvature makes flush hanging impossible, Museum Curator James Sweeney has devised metal rods which project the paintings into the air, causing them seemingly to float in space. Arranging the pictures was necessarily an imposing task; not only must they co-ordinate with their neighbors, but also with those on opposite walls.
It has been said that Wright deliberately made Sweeney's awesome job more difficult. Wright might not deny the charge. He never pretended painting or sculpture were in the same class with his buildings.
The so-called "art silo" breaks with the tradition which has copied palaces for museums--European palaces which are, in fact, makeshift. With his genius for asking basic questions all over again, Wright searched for the simplest way to show pictures.
In the process, however, Wright created new problems. While his structure, shaped like a snail shell with portholes, may attract, it also repels as no mere skyscraper can. In his grand manner he committed glaring faults (for instance, the office space was designed for gnomes).
But he does succeed in showing pictures in a more dynamic way than they have been previously exhibited: colors explode from the several tiers, shapes and patterns echo to a frightening crescendo, and above it all hammers the spiral and the circular dome.
This dominance of central theme should perhaps have been muted. Wright himself should perhaps have been muted, in that his power as an artist makes lesser artists pale. Though Modigliani and Miro may stand up in the Guggenheim Museum, though Leonardo would appear well there, products of lesser painters might be at greater advantage elsewhere.
By challenging painters and sculptors to match his genius, Wright created a very real and exciting tension, if a formidable one. Harry F. Guggenheim, Chairman of the Board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, commented on the occasion saying, "Let each man exercise the art he knws." Frank Lloyd Wright exercised his; he left a challenge for the artists to match.