I had an avant guarde moment when I entered the Guggenheim. Here was one of the world's most famous modern art museums. I'd seen it in films most of my life and I'd imagined cocktails, ladies with beads and the glitterati chattering on about Kadinsky or Chagall.
By the end of my visit I was on my knees in defeat.
I was begging for someone to explain it to me. I was desperate to understand what I had just seen. Help! Ignorant foreigner alert! My pretensions had caught up with me. I wasn't as clever as I thought I was. There was no bluffing with Modern Art at the Guggenheim. New York modern art squashed me like a bug.
If you visit New York, one of its icons is the Solomon R Guggenheim museum in the Upper East Side. Up there with the great's - the Pompidou, The Reine Sofia, the Tate Modern and the Bilbao Guggenheim - this is a museum worth seeing. And like most good museums the building itself is a stunning piece of art (see photo) with its white spiral exterior contrasting with the patrician apartment blocks of this wealthy area and bagging the best location opposite Central Park. It is one of the premier art museums on this side of the Atlantic. And when it was unveiled in 1959 it caused a storm of controversy with its elliptical striped dome jarring against the respectable aging brownstone apartment blocks either side. But the Guggenheim loves controversy. It wants to be daring, its building is so original--a hollowed dome with a spiral slide around the inside--it can mount some pretty daring exhibtions and the one I was to see would baffle the hell out of me....
It is quite a way from downtown and Times Square, and to get there take the rattling (6) line to 86th Street. Then walk north two blocks to E88th Street and then two blocks west to Central Park crossing elegant Park Avenue. Entrance is expensive at $15 and it is open from 10am to 8pm. If you can take a wander around the surrounding area of the Upper West Side. This is serious old money New York with livieried doorman standing outside each art-deco apartment block. They pay through the nose to live on Museum Mile and with the 'Met' and Frick' musuems not far away you are in the heart of cultural Manhattan.
Once inside you realise why this building caused such talk way back in the sixties. The interior is a hollow dome of white stone. Light comes from the skylights overhead and a ramp descends/ascends the perimeter of the dome weaving its way down down seven floor and ten galleries. The exhibtion on show in April 2003 was 'Mathew Barney: The Chremaster Chronicles', a strong exhibtion which seemed to involve celtic mythos along with some very strange imagery. Dangling from the centre of the ceiling was video screen showing showgirls and huge Scottish warriors in a surreal movie. I thought it might be more accessible from the seventh floor so I took the elevator with a plan to walk my way down. I tried to take pictures of the exhibtion but the attendant, who looked like Rosa Klebb in a bobcut, told me no!
Off in the side galleries were some very strange works of art, such as bar counters made entirely of salt and a highland sheep sculpture with salt dumbells instead of horns. To be honest, it could have done with a few more explanations. Most people were walking around with very baffled expressions on their faces. At one point, another video showed huge men in kilts chasing dancers in binliners--I was close to giving up.
I was saved from a trip to Philistine by the Hugo Boss Gallery. The 2003 winner was simple but beautiful. In a pitch black room, dry ice flowed over a set of changing multi-coloured lights set to classical music. The effect of the ever-changing swirling smoke and beautiful music was hypnotic and I sat on the floor and enjoyed it. This was simple, effective, and utterly accessible.
On my way out I was handed a visitor questionnaire by a patron of the Guggenheim. I did find it a little bit overpriced at $15 (especially as a lot of the world's modern art museums are free) but it is set in a stunning building. My advice is to come here for the architecture--it's the best piece of modern art in town.