New York’s Guggenheim Museum may be an icon of modern architecture and home to some of the world’s finest art, but the two disciplines haven’t always seen eye to eye. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling rotunda, and in celebration of that birthday, the museum is putting on a series of exhibitions and events including The Sweeney Decade: Recent Acquisitions at the 1959 Inaugural, which runs through September 2.
In 1959, the revolutionary geometry of Wright’s museum, which replaced collection’s original home on East 54th Street, stood in dramatic contrast to the colossal rectangular façades of the Upper East Side neighborhood it inhabits. But perhaps more important for Wright—whose design philosophy “ from within outward,” is the title of a concurrent show highlighting the 15 years and 700-plus sketches it took to build the museum—the interior broke from the format of a traditional exhibition space, creating instead unusual conditions for viewing art.
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The famed curvilinear promenade of the main exhibition space may inspire dreams of rollerblading but it severely limits curators when it comes to putting up a show. For one thing, the distance for viewing is cut dramatically short. Wright also sloped the exhibition walls and designed them to expand as they move to higher floors, like a nautilus, so that paintings would be viewed at a reclining angle, as an artist sees them on an easel. Wright’s design has had many outspoken critics since the plan was first revealed in the late 1940s, but perhaps none more so than James Johnson Sweeney, the Guggenheim’s first director. Sweeney—who came to the museum after more than a decade as curator at MoMA—was charged with innovating the collection, and his approach often clashed with Wright’s.
“Sweeney did not think that art should be viewed under natural light and proposed instead innovative fluorescent lighting,” said Tracey Bashkoff, associate curator of collections and exhibitions. “He was critical of the sloping gallery space, not being closed and rectilinear, and concerned that this might distract the visitor from contemplation of the art on view.” Bashkoff notes that Harry Guggenheim, who led the board of trustees after his uncle Solomon’s death in 1949, often mediated between the architect and director, who resigned not long after Wright’s building opened.
In The Sweeney Decade, organized by Bashkoff, the curator invites viewers to revisit the tenure of the prescient and opinionated director. A champion of the American artistic avant-garde, Sweeney “added some 270 works to the collection—160 of which were from the 1950s,” says Bashkoff. Cézanne, Léger, Miró, and Rousseau were among the artists he collected, along with a group of Brancusi sculptures. “The collection had very few examples of sculpture [from the early days of] the Museum of Non-Objective Painting… He also acquired the first works by contemporary Asian artists.”
For this current exhibition, Bashkoff selected works acquired by Sweeney that appeared in the inaugural 1959 exhibition, including pieces by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Antoni Tapies, Karel Appel, and Alberto Burri. Sweeney, who was known for paring down the presentation of artwork, often stripped the frames off paintings and neutralized distracting elements. “White walls become the unifying frames,” he told The New York Times in a 1956 profile. “White walls are the natural habitat for paintings.” Wright’s design called for ivory—he felt white was more appropriate for a morgue.
Among the artists that Sweeney brought into the collection, there was also harsh criticism of Wright’s design. In a 1952 appeal to the director and the trustees, signed by 21 artists including de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and Philip Guston, the artists asked for reconsideration of the proposed exhibition space on the grounds that “the interior design of the building is not suitable for a sympathetic display of painting and sculpture.” Ultimately, Wright made no concessions based on these charges, winning the battle through stubborn refusal. Sweeney compensated by repainting the walls white for the opening and installing wires so that paintings could be viewed at 90-degree angles, lifting up from the receding wall. They are challenges Bashkoff still faces today: “The challenges are the linear nature of the ramps and the set divisions of the hanging areas. But they can also help you structure your installations. And certainly the way the galleries feel simultaneously public and intimate is unique to our building. Sweeney’s battle over how paintings are hung—that they needed to be brought off the slanting back wall of the bay and shown parallel to the viewer—resulted in methods that are essentially the way we still hang today.” So perhaps James Sweeney won after all.
Stephanie Gonzalez-Turner is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Art in America.