On October 21, 1959, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York opened the doors of its new home, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. With its spiral design that is wider at the top than at the bottom (like a fat tornado), and a main display space that unrolls as the visitor descends a ramp from the top floor, the Guggenheim’s iconic structure, on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, is as easily recognizable as any of the modern art treasures it houses.
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Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861-1949) was one of 10 children of Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss-born Jew who immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1847. Although he started out in importing and sales, Meyer made his fortune – one of America’s largest – after he began investing in mining and smelting. By the end of World War I, he and his family are said to have controlled more than three quarters of the world’s supply of silver, copper and lead.
After studies in Switzerland, Solomon Guggenheim began working in the family business, taking charge of its gold-mining operation in Alaska, the Yukon Gold Company. Simultaneously he began collecting art, starting in the 1890s with old masters,
In 1895, Solomon married Irene Rothschild, daughter of a German Jewish clothing manufacturer, who joined her husband in his pursuit of fine art. (Irene also became an important New York philanthropist in her own right, founding and guiding a nursery for the children of Jewish working women on the Lower East Side, which expanded and diversified into a large educational center, and later a neighborhood health center.)
A taste for the non-objective
In 1919, Solomon Guggenheim retired from day-to-day business to devote his attentions to collecting. His focus moved from classical art to abstract modern in 1927, after he met Hilla Rebay (Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen), a German painter who became his art adviser. In 1930, Rebay took Guggenheim to meet expressionist painter Wassily Kandinsky in his Dessau, Germany studio, and from there he went on to collect works by Chagall, Modigliani, Mondrian, Leger and many others.
Initially Guggenheim displayed works from his rapidly expanding collection in his apartment at New York’s Plaza Hotel, which he opened to visitors. But in 1939, two years after creating a foundation to advance the appreciation of modern art, he and Rebay opened a museum in temporary quarters in a former automobile showroom in midtown Manhattan, with the not-too-scintillating name Museum of Non-Objective Painting. It was renamed for its benefactor.
That led to the decision, in 1943, at the suggestion of Irene Guggenheim, to turn to Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s best-known architect, to design a new, permanent home for the museum. Wright accepted the commission, which he worked on until his death, six months before the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1959.
By then, the foundation’s collection had expanded greatly, with the 1948 purchase of the estate of art dealer Karl Nierendorf, containing 700 pieces.
The Guggenheim was Wright’s only museum design. Originally, he envisioned it as a six-sided ziggurat, but 16 years and 700 sketches later, what emerged was a round, white-faced spiral that grows wider as it ascends.
Beautiful as the museum structure is to most viewers, it has always been controversial as a display space. Even before it opened, 21 artists wrote an open letter expressing their disapproval of the gallery, with its low ceilings, slanted floor, and shallow space in which to stand and look upon hanging art.
Nevertheless, the Guggenheim, which has undergone several renovations and expansions, the most recent of which included construction of a $10-million tower offering new exhibition space, quickly became, and has remained, one of New York’s most identifiable architectural icons, and its exhibitions are often wildly successful. And while attempts to open additional Guggenheim museums in Las Vegas and Guadalajara have failed, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain has been highly popular since its opening in 1997. A new museum, also designed by Gehry, is scheduled to open in Abu Dhabi in 2017.