New York is the city of the rectangle, of the sharp right angle. Our streets form a severe grid, our buildings are boxy and regular. Until you get to the Guggenheim, that is. Frank Lloyd Wright’s delirious spiral of a museum sits among the towers of Fifth Avenue like a steroidal peacock among guinea hens. Architectural critic Herbert Muschamp described the look best when he wrote, “What else but a building brought back from a dream would be windowless, have walls and floors that tilt and twist, begin on the top floor, and spiral in towards the center like an enigma.”
Visiting the center of this 1959 masterpiece and trudging up the ramps of curving halls transforms the standard museum experience into a profound journey (and sometimes a battle against vertigo), no matter what artworks are on display. Early critics dismissed the museum (Newsweek’s insipid review was headlined “Museum or cupcake?”), but I think today even the most jaded visitor will feel the power of the place, the symbolic weight of infinite circle upon circle upon circle.
Beyond the architecture, the museum is popular thanks to its curators’ skill at mounting blockbuster retrospectives on top contemporary artists (like Robert Mapplethorpe, Cecilia Vicuña, and Gillian Wearing) and topics that combine art with history and in some cases sociology—shows on contemporary Middle Eastern and North African art, Aztec culture, the photography of motorcycles, to mention just a few that created headlines in past years.
Aside from the architecture and changing exhibits, the Guggenheim is known for its concentration of artworks by Kandinsky (150 in all), Brancusi, Picasso, Miró, and Mondrian, among other modernists. In addition, the museum devotes permanent gallery space to the stars of the Guggenheim’s core collection, towering figures such as Chagall, Brancusi, Mondrian, Miró, and Kandinsky, among other modernists.
And to answer the question that nobody ever voices aloud: No, there haven’t been any suicide jumps from over the low-slung rails, nor has anyone ever accidentally fallen to their death.