An open letter to my friends at the New York Guggenheim
Dear chums –
Congratulations are in order! You good people have accomplished something I would heretofore have considered impossible. Indeed, such is the magnitude of your achievement that I feel compelled to laud it publicly.
You have made me miss Matthew Barney.
Let me explain.
This past week, the Better Half and I traveled to New York for a very short mini-honeymoon of sorts. Much of our time was occupied on what any right-thinking parents of small children would do when given the chance, which is to say we slept a lot. But since we hadn’t gone to the trouble of visiting such an exciting location to slumber our visit away, we also tried to enjoy some of Manhattan’s best offerings.
Now, I am a sucker for art museums. In fact, the glorious selection of absolutely world-class museums of all kinds was, I kid you not, one of the major reasons I chose to live in New York City in the first place. And of course your fine institution is one such. I have very fond memories of a particularly wonderful surrealism exhibition shortly after I first moved to the City, which I believe I came back to see at least three times. I was determined to visit at least one art museum on our trip, and when the Better Half told me he’d never actually visited the Guggenheim it was a no-brainer to go there.
Imagine my excitement to learn that an “only-at-the-Guggenheim!” exhibition was on display! Artist James Turrell had done something marvelous with the legendary rotunda, transforming it into a massive installation and doing something wondrous with light. Splendid! Surely it would be worth the admission price, even after we arrived and received the disappointing news that essentially none of the permanent collection was on display. No matter! Light! Wonder! Rotunda! In we went.
Oh, dear. No. No, my friends. No.
As impressive and arduous as it must have been to fill the entire spiral with a big screen and install the gently shifting colored lights necessary to produce what you are calling Aten Reign, I regret to inform you the end result does not an art exhibition make. Was the effect very pretty? Yes. Was it nice to look at? Yes. Was it alone worth the price of admission? Not by a longshot. Not when the entire rotunda was otherwise devoid of any art whatsoever.
(Fine, OK. Technically the exhibition included two other small galleries comprising darkened rooms with blocks or blotches of light shining on bare walls. I was… unmoved by their power. And the two other small, unrelated exhibitions were nice enough. But let’s get back to what occupied the overwhelming majority of the museum’s space and supposedly justified the ticket price, shall we?)
I know the definition of “art” is one of those fraught topics. I am hardly an authority on the matter. But gently shifting colored lights really don’t count if you ask me. Unless one defines “art” as “something at which a person can look.” In which case I am going to start referring to the rooms in my home as galleries, christen the house “Prado West” and start charging admission. (I’m sure critics will positively swoon for “Toy-strewn Foyer.”) As we strolled along the barren walls of the spiral within the screened-in rotunda, I wondered if the whole shebang had been underwritten by an emperor, and if so what his clothes looked like.
Which bring us to Matthew Barney, up until now my vote for your most ridiculous exhibition ever. Mr. Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle, which you displayed in grand fashion back when I still lived in the City, instantiates contemporary art’s most pretentious silliness and is the apotheosis of grandiose obscurity run amok. I described it to a friend at the time as “beautiful but stupid,” and my reaction was pretty much the same as Roz Chast’s.
But God help me, I would rather have strolled through another epic installation of Matthew Barney’s most obvious cry for a good Freudian analyst than a gigantic pile of nothing. As placid as it was gazing up into the grand curve of the museum as the light shifted from blue hues to red ones, there was no there there. It was a visual effect, not an encounter with art. And art is what I had paid to see. Please provide some next time.
PS> Confidential to my friend MS: I am pleased to confirm that you were mistaken in your assessment of Andrea Martin’s theatrical talents. She was marvelous, and delivered a literally show-stopping performance (she got a standing ovation midway through) the night we went to see “Pippin.” She deserves every inch of that Tony.