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Art: Last Monument

5 minute read

“A war between architecture and painting, in which both come out badly maimed,” declared Art Critic John Canaday on Page One of the New York Times; “The most beautiful building in America,” retorted Critic Emily Genauer in the New York Herald Tribune. “A building that should be put in a museum to show how mad the 20th Century is,” editorialized the New York Daily Mirror. “Mr. Wright’s greatest building, New York’s greatest building.” said Architect Philip Johnson, “one of the greatest rooms of the 20th century.” “Frank has really done it,” snapped one artist. “He has made painting absolutely unimportant.”

Thus in a babel of discord, and six months after his death, Frank Lloyd Wright’s last major work, the $3,000,000 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue (at 88th Street), opened to the public last week. Discord and controversy had marked it since the day it was commissioned 16 years ago. Wright had proposed “one great space on a continuous floor,” a gigantic, uncoiling drum of reinforced concrete that swelled outward as it rose, carrying within more than one-quarter mile of continuous ramps sloping upward six stories to a great glass dome 92 ft. above the ground. Paintings were to be tilted backward, “as on the artist’s easel”; lighting would come from skylights above the ramp and would be reflected downward by louvers. “The net result of such construction is greater repose,” Wright declared, “an atmosphere of the unbroken wave—no meeting of the eye with angular or abrupt changes of form.”

Away with Coffins. Spiraling ramps are not new in architecture. Assyrian King Sargon II wound a 6-ft. ramp around his 143-ft-tall Ziggurat at Khorsabad back in 706 B.C. What Wright did was avail himself of reinforced-concrete shell techniques to stand the structure on its narrower end, cantilever the floors inward, and top off the structure with glass, a material no ancient architect had to use on such a scale.

It was all too much for Manhattan’s building-code administrators, who haggled with Wright for years over the details (e.g., Wright’s original all-glass dome had to be considerably reduced in diameter, redesigned to include concrete ribs).

When the actual structure began going up, its exterior proved too much for many critics as well, was dubbed “the snail,” an “indigestible hot cross bun,” a “wash ing machine.” Robert Moses, New York City Parks Commissioner and Metropoli tan Museum ex officio trustee, decided that it looked like “an inverted oatmeal dish.” Wright fired back: “It’s going to make the Metropolitan Museum look like a Protestant barn.” Twenty-one artists signed a round-robin protest charging that Wright’s scheme for hanging would throw their canvases askew and the sloping ramp (3%) would provide no level base board for reference. Wright replied that the old rectilinear frame of reference was “a coffin for the spirit” and admonished them to wait and see.

What first visitors saw, as they walked through the newly opened doors, was a huge, sudden space that swirled breathtakingly to the high dome. This, they recognized, was a building whose closed outer face deliberately belied the soaring drama of its interior. “It’s like the Vati can,” exclaimed one painter, staring up at the great dome. “You would need a piece of sculpture the size of the old Athena in the Parthenon for this place,” worried Sculptor William Zorach. “Even when he made a mistake, he made a big one,” opined Sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. But, looking across the well at the opening show of 134 paintings and sculptures selected from the 2,500-odd works in the Guggenheim collection, most were forced to concede that the great curved ramps provided the most dramatic setting abstract art has ever had.

Three-Level Chess. Credit for the installation goes to Guggenheim Museum Director James Johnson Sweeney, who discovered that laying out pictures in a spiral museum is like playing three-dimensional chess at a distance of 80 ft. (the inner diameter of the core). Pointing and counterpointing pictures on three different levels at once, Sweeney was able to orchestrate modern art in a way that no horizontal museum can hope to.

To fit the museum to his tastes, Ultra-modernist Sweeney had used flat white paint and light to cancel out a good many Wright concepts. Canvases were mounted unframed on rods projecting from the dazzling white wall. Bright, fluorescent lights were installed in the side skylights, canceling out Wright’s sunlight but creating a brilliant background wall of light. As a result, the paintings seem to hover weightlessly in luminous space. “We are not trying to show nature effects in sunlight, but paintings,” Sweeney stated. “This is the most spectacular museum interior architecturally in this country. But my job is to show off a magnificent collection to its fullest.” Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright, on hand for the opening, doubted that her husband would have shown up, even if he had been alive. “He was too great an artist,” she stated firmly, “to forgive the slightest transgression in a creative work.”

But in the city he marked for destruction, Frank Lloyd Wright has built a final monument to his own idiosyncratic genius. It could be criticized and quipped about, but it could not be ignored. Just before he died, Wright predicted it could survive even an atomic bomb: “It would just bounce up and down in the blast, like a mighty spring.”

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