Cannot Look Away: Visiting the Guggenheim

Cannot Look Away: Visiting the Guggenheim

The first trip for the NYC Semester on Contemporary Art took me into Manhattan to see Artistic License: Six Takes on the Guggenheim Collection, at the Guggenheim. The exhibition, comprised of six influential artists invited to pull from the museum’s abundant collection of modern art and arrange it all thematically into six separate shows, was a grand opener to the course. It was my first time visiting the Guggenheim, as in the past I had only heard about it.

View of the rotunda from the first floor; Artistic License organized by Nancy Spector, 2019.

It was quite the introduction. The premise of the show alone was fascinating, because of the kind of perspective it offered by having artists curate. Before attending the show, the class was asked to ruminate on whether or not being an artist posed an advantage to curation. The question remained fresh throughout the experience, and whether or not I agree is something I will elaborate on later. 

Walking into the Guggenheim was an almost otherworldly experience, as it reminded me of the Pantheon. What appears to be a more condensed, solid looking building from the outside suddenly opens up upon entry, with the circular floors seeming like they would continue winding into the sky if not stopped by the intricate glass ceiling. The ceiling wasn’t the most impactful sight there, though. Each show that I witnessed (which regretfully did not include the last two on the uppermost floors of the museum) was stimulating in its own way, some for similar reasons and some for just the pieces that resided within. 

Non-Brand, curated by Cai Guo-Qiang, 2019, installation with paintings and drawings.

The first two floors, Cai Guo-Qiang’s Non-Brand and Paul Chan’s Sex, Water, Salvation, or What is a Bather? I found very interesting in both their theme and the artwork collected for them. I enjoyed looking at the different approaches that famed artists employed before settling into their signature styles. Some surprised me, like Miro’s almost Fauvist use of color and brushstroke in “Prades, the Village,” while others made sense, like Duchamp’s “Apropos of Little Sister,” which looked similar to the earlier work of Duchamp that I’ve seen.  I also enjoyed walking through Chan’s visual narrative on the rejuvenating power of water in times of chaos. I especially appreciated the blue carpet, a change to the viewing environment that immersed me further.

Lawrence Weiner. “TO THE SEA ON THE SEA FROM THE SEA AT THE SEA BORDERING THE SEA,” 1970, text on wall.

Richard Prince’s exhibition, “Four Paintings Looking Right was just as interesting, and made me question the authenticity of American abstraction, as it was meant to do. Yet the exhibit that stuck out the most had to be Julie Mehretu’s Cry Gold and See Black, because of how heavily the pieces within impacted me. Mehretu’s exhibit seeks to identify abstraction as a means of expressing the tumultuous post-war period from 1945 up to the modern day, and do so on a global scale, so reads the wall text introducing her portion of the show. And she convinces me completely. Destruction, suffering, and hardship have been captured well in figurative art, but there is something more genuine, more raw in seeing pain conveyed through abstraction. Explosions of color and the fracturing of shapes bring to mind the detonation of bombs, and the destruction of houses. The twisting of certain sculptures made me think of bodies, gnarled and in pain. One work in particular, Romare Bearden’s “Evening 9:10, 461 Lenox Avenue,” (1964), made me feel alienated, with its subtle yet unnerving collaged composition. The fractured alienation was no accident, seeing as the subject matter of the work pertained to African-American life in the age of the Civil Rights movement.

Romare Bearden,“Evening 9:10, 461 Lenox Avenue,”1964, Gelatin silver print on fiberboard, 68.9 x 90.3 cm.

But the defining work of the exhibit for me was a work that I could not look away from, no matter how hard I tried. The work in question, “Three Studies for a Crucifixion,” (1962) by Francis Bacon, is one of the most intense works of art that I have ever witnessed. I am not entirely certain if my first reaction to the work was that of surprise or revulsion. Yet Bacon’s violently red triptych really drives home the significance of seeing a work first hand, as opposed to a photograph. The disturbing imagery of a contorted, bloody body writhing around and staining a divan is enough to curdle anyone’s blood, and the other sides of the triptych offer no solace. Two sinister looking figures glare directly at the viewer in the left panel, making one question their involvement in this gruesome scene, and whether or not they will enact the same on the viewer. On the right panel, a disemboweled form slides down the side of some edifice, a pile of teeth, open flesh, and so much blood. I could feel my stomach turning while looking at this piece, and other people were stopping alongside me to view such a creation. There was no peaceful Christ like other depictions I had seen in art, just human suffering etched in vivid, horrid detail. The perspectives of the three triptych panels also unnerve me in that they suggest a first person perspective. Further prompted by my reflection in the glass that encased the work, I felt like I was in the place of that abused corpse, that I was very much in danger. It reminded me of the first time I saw Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Street, Dresden,” (1919). There was that same automatic feeling of discomfort, of impending danger. And just like the “Street, Dresden,” I could not tear my eyes from Bacon’s work. 

Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for a Crucifixion,”1962, oil with sand on canvas, three panels, 198.1 x 144.8 cm each. Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

No matter how many times I turned around and tried to move forward in the exhibition, I found myself returning to “Three Studies for a Crucifixion.” It was almost as though I had to remind myself that I had seen such a thing, and every reminder was more upsetting than the last. As I was to read later on the Guggenheim’s website, Bacon’s intention was to evoke a strong emotional response with his slaughterhouse imagery. It perhaps then one of the most successful attempts at emotional evocation I have ever seen.

In answering the query of whether I believe that having an artist curate provides a new and possibly stronger experience, I must say that Julie Mehretu’s exhibit convinces me quite a bit. While I don’t necessarily believe that being an artist inherently grants you a special gaze in life, I like to think that knowing how to express one’s suffering and or distress through art allows an artist to appreciate it in another’s work. And Mehretu organized an exhibit that screamed with pain and disturbance, an exhibit that was powerful from start to finish. I look forward to seeing more artists curate at the Guggenheim in the future.

View of the rotunda from the second floor, overlooking Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Crucifixion,” 2019.


All photos (save for “Three Studies for a Crucifixion) are courtesy of Kirstin Waldmann © 2019.

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