Guggenheim Museum: Art meets life on an upward spiral

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The Independent Online
The Guggenheim Museum is just one of four world-class galleries in New York's swanky Upper East Side. Hamish Mykura says it's the people, more than the art, that make it memorable.

"My optimistic ziggurat", was architect Frank Lloyd Wright's phrase for his big, white, wonky concrete spiral of an art gallery when it opened on 5th Avenue in 1959. The sleek and opinionated residents of the Upper East Side have been less kind to it over the years. Woody Allen called it "a giant lavatory basin" and Jackie Onassis hated it to the last.

But it's still the New York gallery where you're most likely to see Woody Allen, and Alastair Cooke is a near neighbour. On its site facing Central Park, the swirling cartoon of a building mocks the heavy Victorian apartment blocks that stretch away to either side of it. The stretch of Fifth Avenue that runs south from the Guggenheim at 89th Street along the edge of Central Park is the prime location for two of New York's most popular and rewarding pastimes: looking at art, and looking at people.

The Guggenheim has three big competitors on the Upper East Side: the Whitney, the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum. The walk between them passes the homes of the most well-heeled and aspirational New Yorkers. Watching the complicated rituals that govern their overstuffed days is a fascinating pastime.

The Guggenheim is the most acutely fashionable of the four galleries. Visitors are squeezed through the entrance beneath a heavy concrete beam to emerge into the breathtaking central atrium, where the sweeping spiral ramp of the gallery winds in widening loops to the high skylights above. Here, socialites and tourists rub shoulders. Spotted in the shop - a midwestern tourist holding a print of Marc Chagal's Green Violinist, asking "Do you have this in yellow?"

Meanwhile the little restaurant below the gallery is, on weekdays, an ideal spotting ground for the rich: thin, manicured ladies-who-lunch, the "social X-rays" Tom Wolfe described in Bonfire of the Vanities. A pleasant afternoon can be spent listening to the loud exchange of confidences about boyfriends, graded according to value of jewellery received, while watching them push a piece of lettuce and a sliver of goat's cheese around their plates.

The ramp is the truly great feature of the gallery. Thronged with visitors, it spirals upward for a quarter of a mile to form the main rotunda. Children love it, and harassed Saturday dads struggle to control their hyperactive six-year-olds. At the top of the ramp the edge wall gets alarmingly low. Stepping back to admire a picture, a glance over your shoulder can induce head-swimming vertigo.

There are three best times to visit the Upper East Side. Stroll in the park about 7am, well before the gallery opens, when the east side of the park comes alive as a wave of single young professionals emerge from their tiny, expensive apartments with their tiny, expensive dogs for the first big chat-up opportunity of the day. The dogs are the catalyst for get- to-know-you doggy talk - isn't he cute? - and there are brisk arrangements to meet again tomorrow. Four o'clock on weekdays is another fine spectacle. At the park entrance near 68th Street, clusters of Filipina nannies kitted out by their employers in Victorian-style starched black-and-white uniforms rock babies in top-of-the-range prams. The mothers and fathers, meanwhile, are just two thirds of the way through their stressed, Wall Street days. On Saturday afternoons the Guggenheim museum is a central part of the City's Sunday improve-yourself ritual of morning workout, brunch, art gallery, dinner, movie. And the place swarms.

Each of the other galleries attracts a crowd to match the art on display. The Whitney Museum of American art has heavy concrete, serious exhibitions and visitors wearing hats, black polo-necks and earnest frowns. The huge Metropolitan Museum of art, sprawling into Central Park with three and a half million artworks, is so popular at weekends it becomes a sort of over-run art theme park. The Frick collection was the art-packed mansion of a union-busting coal baron, Henry Clay Frick. It still has the furniture and courtyards and playing fountains, and curiously is rarely visited by New Yorkers. With its crowd of international visitors it's hard to believe that the grinding traffic of Fifth Avenue is just a few feet away on the other side of the wall.

But the Guggenheim remains the most dazzling of the Upper East Side galleries, if not always the best place to see pictures. Works displayed here struggle to compete with the marvellous distraction of the building that houses them. In 1992, when the museum reopened after extensive renovation and the building of a new extension, it was relaunched with an exhibition by Dan Flavin, who specialises in illuminating works of architecture. Freshly painted and washed with Flavin's pastel neon, critics again acclaimed the central rotunda as an artwork to rival the works that hang in it. The crowds that throng the spiral gallery can be more interesting still.

The Guggenheim Museum (001 212 423 3500) is on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. It opens daily except Thursday; from 10am to 6pm Sunday-Wednesday, 10am-8pm Friday and Saturday. Admission $15; on Fridays from 6-8pm, you pay what you wish.