It was a soaringly beautiful day yesterday. Sunny and clear and cool, plus the extra hour courtesy of Daylight Saving Time. I took the train to the Guggenheim. Actually, I took the train north and got out at 86th Street. Got food at Dean & Deluca and brought it to the Met, where I ate it on a bench in front of the museum, watching the sidewalk art vendors do their thing and the tourists making videos and taking selfies with their phones and the New York City Marathon supporters carrying their signs to and fro. And then I went to the Guggenheim.
The Guggenheim is interesting because it feels simultaneously institutional and luxe. Polished terrazzo floors and unending white, but also a triumph of design. The cocoon of winding floors, the keyhole-like entrance that appears unexpectedly maybe three floors up and leads to a reading room for kids, where in this case they were showing video interviews with Agnes Martin and people were watching quietly and attentively. There are what look like copper drinking fountains protruding from a rounded wall every floor and a unisex bathroom compartment (that’s what it feels like—a bathroom chamber) in yet a different arched wall that you pass as you wind your way upward. There are round coffee-table-like seats upholstered in putty-colored leather with mid-century-style legs in a honey finish that sit against the wall and in the stairwells. They feel like secret seats, a place you can go inhabit when you want a break from the museum environment, all the looking. The comfort of them feels extra welcome after all the hard surfaces and the coiling path that coaxes you north, as if stopping for too long would be a mistake.
The Guggenheim is minus windows almost exclusively, and so you are in a hermetic environment that’s concentrated on looking at art and being in that artist’s world. But there are surprises, like the brilliant sunny outpost that appears out of nowhere on an upper floor, where you can drink coffee or just look at a book or talk. There’s a padded bench at every “landing,” each with its own museum copy of the monograph plopped nonchalantly upon it, like you’ve just come across someone’s favorite easy chair and are browsing through a book they’ve been reading. And in this case, there was also a longish line of people waiting to see Maurizio Catalan’s solid-gold toilet, also ensconced in a rounded protrusion that normally houses a nondescript bathroom situation. But because you can’t see the toilet installation, only the line for the “bathroom,” and the line is visible only as you round the corner, it feels like discovering a secret. Or maybe like when you’re walking through a nondescript industrial neighborhood some evening on your way nowhere special and suddenly there are 100 lined up eagerly outside a door.
The Guggenheim offers free audio tours, if you’re willing to fork over your ID for your visit. I was, and I did. There were audio excerpts of interviews with Agnes Martin and insights from the show’s curator. The latter talked about Agnes’ move from NYC to Taos at around the time that Agnes was gaining fame in New York. The curator noted that some people speculated Agnes left to avoid the corruption of pride that could result from all the praise. People thought she was brave and iconoclastic to leave and go live and work somewhere off the big-city art grid. But it seems the real reason might have been because Agnes had been experiencing “bouts of schizophrenia” and leaving for a place as blank, if you will, as Taos was at that time would give her the safe space and freedom to cope without scrutiny and expectations.
The other benefit of the audio tour is being immersed in the exhibition. I made my through the rings of art slowly by slowly, sometimes stopping to listen to Agnes in her own words. There was a memorable speech to gave to students at Skowhegan, a speech she read from and that she had clearly worked hard to write because she wanted to really distill her thoughts. She talked about beauty being not in the eye but in the mind and of wanting to find a nonobjective way of expressing emotions (hence her grids). She suggested that we are all so conditioned from the day we’re born but that we can, by constantly asking ourselves questions, eventually discover how we really feel about things. I liked that observation especially. The idea that there’s a you to discover and reveal to yourself. It also makes me think about something Pipilotti Rist said in a recent interview about not confusing one’s experience of the world for a conclusion about how the world is. (Which I noted in a previous post.) Her point is that we have our experiences, many of which were outside our control and that were perhaps painful or damaging or fear-inducing, but there’s a bright world out there if we can open ourselves to its possibility.