The Guggenheim: An Assessment of Wright’s Masterwork

When it opened in 1959, the Guggenheim Museum generated delight and derision in equal measure.

The Guggenheim Museum

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On a blue afternoon toward the end of October in 1959, a number of notables gathered at 1071 Fifth Avenue in the city of New York. They were met to dedicate the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Aside from a motor salesroom on Park Avenue, this mass of concrete was the city’s only example of work by the world’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Therefore its opening was an occasion for oratory, and thousands of citizens waited behind barricades while the men of distinction sounded off. The mercifully short speeches ended by 2 p.m., and the patient public shuffled in to view the wonders of the Guggenheim.

The visitors saw an enormous circular room, 75 feet high, topped by a dome of geometrically patterned glass. Around and above them a gently graded ramp rose for seven stories, its walls affording exhibition space for 120 pictures from the museum’s collection of contemporary art. Places to sit and rest the feet tormented by the ramp’s hard marble flooring were scarcer than teetotalers at a brew master’s ball. Few of the visitors complained of this discomfort, or of anxiety that might be caused by the lowness of the parapets around the looming void between the ledges, for all knew that something fundamental and astounding was here. Instead of strolling from room to room, as in every museum hitherto known to man, they were “enjoying an experience in the continuity of space.”

As they flowed downward and outward, the visitors exclaimed: “Thrilling!” “Grand!” “An indescribable joy!” Among professional critics, the enthusiasm was equally great. … The New York Herald Tribune summed it up by reporting that the Guggenheim had “turned out to be the most beautiful building in America.”

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum
Wright or wrong: With the Guggenheim — a symphony of triangles, ovals, arcs, circles, and squares — Wright dispensed with conventional museum design. One newspaper called it “the most beautiful building in America,” but many hated it.
Shutterstock

There were those who disapproved. These objectors called Wright’s work a washing machine, a marshmallow, a cupcake, a corkscrew, an imitation beehive, and an inverted oatmeal dish.

A bystander paraphrased Kipling by murmuring, “It’s ugly — but is it art?” And the New York Mirror published an editorial titled “THE MONSTROSITY,” calling on the Guggenheims to “prove their love for New York by tearing the thing down.”

Amid the controversial publicity surrounding the dedication of the Guggenheim, one thing was clear — Frank Lloyd Wright had achieved fame beyond any American artist. In fact, he was one of the most renowned Americans in any line of work, recognized as promptly as a champion athlete or a television star. People got to their feet when he entered a room, as though before royalty. And, his stock answer to the question, “Which do you consider the greatest of your buildings?”

“The next one,” Wright would reply with a twinkle. “Always the next one.”

—“Frank Lloyd Wright: Defiant Genius” by Finis Farr, January 1961.

Read the full five-part series at saturdayeveningpost.com/wright.

This article is featured in the May/June 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives. 

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