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.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Robert Hughes, Requiem for a Featherweight. Thus do the masters of art criticism do things:

    CONFRONTED BY such puffery, the cynic might conclude that if the système de la mode likes anything better than a hot new young artist, it is a dead hot new young artist.

    The only thing that brought Basquiat back into the spotlight was bis death. Schjeldahl waxed indignant at some unnamed shrugger who wondered, “What else could he have done?” The remark was an appropriation of the famous line about Elvis Presley’s death, that it was a shrewd career move. The difference is that, whereas rock ‘n’ roll would be immeasurably the poorer without EIvis, Basquiat never looked like he was turning into a painter of real quality. His “importance” was merely that of a symptom; it signifies little more than the hysteria of instant reputation that still so grotesquely afflicts American taste. His admirers are like a posse of right-to-lifers, adoring the fetus of a talent and rhapsodizing about what a great man it might have become if only it had lived. Apparently Neo-Expressionism has at last found its Thomas Chatterton—Wordsworth’s “marvellous boy,” the fame-struck baby poetaster whose name, thanks to his suicide at 18, lives on, while his work remains wholly unread.

          • I figured as much, but I can’t resist a cheap joke; and given his well-documented habit, knocking the word “stuff” off the end of your comment was about as cheap as it gets. It practically paid me

  2. When I was back in NY, I saw the armory show WS. I am usually a defender of conceptual art and shocking art but this show deserved all the criticism for wankery that is usually given to conceptual art shows. Example: there was a side by side video, one video featured a woman dressed as Snow White felating part of a tree. The other video featured the artist (I believe) in a Walt Disney mask doing crime scene sketches of a naked Snow White lying in the woods. There was other stuff involving now White making fudge and then shitting it out on a looping video. I will note that it was not my idea to see this but a friends.

    For other art exhibits, I saw Art and the Civil War at the Met. Lots of Homer Winslow. I also introduced LeeEsq to Turner. He was underwhelmed, the damn heretic.

    • Are you sure you were at the armory show WS, and not at one of the theaters off of Times Square that somehow survived Disneyfication? It would explain quite a bit.

        • I’m the reverse. I can see why people like Turner but Turner doesn’t really inspire that much in me. He strikes me as a sort of proto-Impressionist, somebody attempting something experimental but not quite getting it right. Renoir is somebody who succeded at when he was tryign to attempt, which I would describe as attempting to capture the joy of life in painting. I look at Renoir’s works and feel warmth and sublime bliss. Its like experiencing a perfect summer day.

          • Turner becomes weirder and more Romantic as he grows older. He becomes obsessed by weather, attempting to capture something ineffable and sublime in his increasingly abstract paintings. But as a young man, he’s a capable draughtsman, producing solid stuff most people haven’t seen. Everyone’s seen Burning of the Houses of Parliament — to see it without understanding how much Turner’s consciously abandoned to reach this level of abstraction. He’s about a century ahead of his time.

      • No he isn’t. They painted at completely different times, were interested in completely different subjects, and aesthetics. Turner is powerful. Renoir is merely pleasant.

        • Renoir captured the sheer joy of life in his paintings. One just looks at them and feels of the warmth of the summer sun. I once spent two hours transfixed at a Renoir painting.

  3. She deserves every inch of that Tony.

    I said that I didn’t think she was funny. I honestly have no opinion on her private life.

  4. What’s the joke about 4’33”? The first movement profoundly questions the nature of art and what constitutes music, deep and thought provoking. Unfortunately, it goes downhill after that, with the later movements merely retreading the first and not raising any new issue.

    • It’s like a lot of classical music. Once it becomes familiar, it works better without all the repeats.

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