Around The Circle: A Visit To The Guggenheim – Lois Wu ’23

I always love going home over break, not only because I get to see my friends and family, but also because I have an opportunity to see all of the great art in New York City. This past winter break, I was able to see Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), one of Mark Rothko’s early works on the subway at the New York Historical Society, and Etel Adnan’s meditations on landscape at the Guggenheim Museum. I loved everything I saw, but was particularly struck by three exhibitions I saw at the Guggenheim with my friend Marion (shoutout to Marion for the photos you see here!) — Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Gillian Wearing: Wearing Masks, and Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle

The Guggenheim is not a very large museum. You can see all of it in one visit, if you have the patience to stay for a couple of hours. With the exception of the permanent Thannhauser Collection, all of the other exhibitions change regularly. But typically, there is only one exhibition on view in the main rotunda, one exhibition that visitors wind their way up through the six ramps. (If you’re unfamiliar with New York’s Guggenheim Museum, it’s constructed as one big spiral, with an additional tower attached to the side.) I had never been to the Guggenheim before at a time when the ramps were divided between two exhibitions. Adnan’s works were displayed on the lower ramps and Kandinsky’s works were displayed on the upper ramps, with the topmost ramp dedicated to spaces where visitors could sit and partake in artmaking activities. Wearing’s exhibit was located in a different exhibition space in the tower. These three independent exhibitions were all competing for my attention, which at times was distracting, but overall helped me synthesize what I was viewing. 

Entering the Guggenheim, I encountered Adnan’s work first. A Lebanese-American poet and artist, Adnan’s art mainly consisted of abstractions of the landscapes around her. Her work felt accessible, easily understood, mostly small works with solid swaths of color. Partway through the Adnan exhibit, Wearing’s work is introduced. A conceptual artist from England, Wearing explores themes of public versus private and real versus made up. Wearing produced works more in the form of video and photography and broke up the stream of paintings by Adnan and Kandinsky. Wearing dwells on ideas of identity and disguise—the self—and as a contemporary artist, provided appropriate reminders of the present day amongst the other works. As I got up to the upper ramps, I was welcomed with Kandinsky’s exhibit. An early 20th-century painter known for his pioneering work in abstraction, Kandinsky’s exhibit starts with his late-life works and moves backward in time towards his earliest works. A strong use of color echoes between Kandinsky and Adnan, though Kandinsky’s work was often much larger in scale. 

It was an unexpected combination of exhibits, but I loved traveling through each one and was reminded of how important synergy between different exhibits is. While I was at the MoMA, I similarly saw a range of exhibits on cars, architecture in China, and Alexander Calder’s works. But these exhibits were spread throughout the building, scattered amongst the MoMA’s permanent collections, and didn’t feel in conversation with one another. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my visit to the MoMA, but it was a different type of experience, one more self-defined by what I want to see, versus one that felt curated from top to bottom by the Guggenheim. The physical layout of a museum was something I had never kept much in mind in the past, but in the future, I’m going to keep an eye out for how exhibition ordering affects my visits.