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The top 20 paintings at the Guggenheim in New York

TONY delves into the museum’s collection to pick the top 20 works from its enviable holdings of Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

©Ezra Stoller

Ezra Stoller, Guggenheim Museum, 1959

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (and its holdings in painting, sculpture and other mediums) is arguably unique among institutions in that the museum actually sits within the most famous work in its collection: The Guggenheim building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. With its inverted conical exterior, and spiralling, ramp-filled interior, Wright’s edifice often threatens to overshadow the art displayed inside of it. Yet this hazard shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the quality of Gugg collection, especially the canvases, which, more often than not, speak to the Guggenheim’s origins as the home for abstract art—or, as it was originally called, The Museum of Non-Objective Painting. With that in mind, TONY offers its picks of top 20 paintings in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection

Édouard Manet, Before the Mirror (Devant la glace), 1876

The work of Édouard Manet is often mistakenly lumped in with Impressionism because of its fluid brushwork and lucid color. In truth, Manet’s technique was the result of his close study of Spanish painters like Goya, while brighter palettes only appeared later in his work. Manet was really a provocateur, out to upend the historical conventions of painting by introducing obtrusive references to contemporary life into his compositions. The matter-of-factly naked prostitute portrayed in his iconic 1863 painting, Olympia, is one such example. That painting also recalled Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538, and in similar fashion, this oil study of a lady of the evening admiring her reflection evokes a related theme: Venus before the mirror, a subject explored not only by Titian, but by Rubens and Vélasquez.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection

Paul Gauguin, In the Vanilla Grove, Man and Horse (Dans la vanillère, homme et cheval), 1891

Gauguin, the former tarpaulin salesman and stockbroker who famously fled Europe and his bourgeoise family life to pursue a supposedly more pure and spiritual existence in Tahiti, was an important progenitor of Modernism’s primitivistic strain, which looked to preindustrial cultures as a way of dumping the historical baggage of Western art. It didn’t always work out that way, as this painting demonstrates, since the stillness and equipoise of its horse-whisperer derives from an echt classical source: A figure from the sculptural frieze on the Parthenon.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Paul Cézanne, Man with Crossed Arms (Homme aux bras croisés), ca. 1899

Cézanne’s role as a precursor to Cubism is especially evident in this late portrait. Besides exhibiting the hallmarks of Cézanne’s style (the way each faceted brush stroke serves as a piece in a self-referential jigsaw, puzzling out the formal essence of the painting), the work also physically skews its subject—especially, the sitter’s angular face, which seems to be rendered from different directions all at once. The approach Cézanne takes in this study is a harbinger of the abrupt shifts in perspective that would soon become features in the work of Picasso and Braque.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; New York; © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York/ADAGP; Paris/Succession Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp, Apropos of Little Sister (A propos de jeune soeur), October 1911

Before he utterly transformed art with his introduction of the readymade, Marcel Duchamp was a painter, most notably of Nude Descending a Staircase, which rocked the Armory Show of 1913 (the same year that Duchamp would create his very first readymade). This painting of his 13-year-old sister predates Nude by a year or so, but, like the more famous canvas, it is deeply indebted to Cubism in the way conjures the attenuated figure of the young girl as an S-shaped series of interlocking facets.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection

Franz Marc, Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh), 1911

Marc, a German Expressionist and founding member of The Blue Rider group was known for injecting pantheistic themes into his work, including a theory of color in which different hues were ascribed various qualities found in nature—for instance, yellow symbolizing femininity and blue, masculinity. It’s one of the reasons this otherwise whimsical image of a cow romping through the woods has been interpreted as wedding portrait, depicting the artist, represented by the mountains in the background, and his bride—the cow. One can only imagine, then, what the splotches of blue on her belly and behind are suppose to depict.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Kazimir Malevich, Morning in the Village after Snowstorm, 1912

While not as radical as Malevich’s later Suprematist compositions (like Black Square), Morning in the Village is arguably the most beautiful and sublime of the vaunted Russian-avant gardist’s works. In this timeless scene, a country hamlet stirs itself after a blizzard, its streets and rooftops blanketed by a purifying white that erupts in prismatic shards of blue and red touched with accents of yellow, black and grey. At once formal and hallucinogenic, it rivals the work of Bruegel as a panegyric to peasant life.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Natalia Goncharova, Cats (rayist percep.[tion] in rose, black, and yellow), 1913

Along with her collaborator and companion, Mikhail Larionov, Goncharova was a key figure of the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde, whose work played an important role in pushing art towards abstraction. She was also a woman artist at a time when there were noticeably few such figures. Despite its representational subject (it purportedly depicts two black cats joined by a third, a tabby) the painting’s sense of overall composition, and absence of any real distinction between foreground and background, makes it seem like something that could have easily been created several decades later.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Vasily Kandinsky, Black Lines (Schwarze Linien), December 1913

No one with any assurance can point to the first truly abstract painting in art history, but this one comes pretty close. It is, oddly, the result of deliberately slow product roll-out, at least according to the Guggenheim. It turns out that well before he created this canvas, Kandinsky knew precisely where he wanted go with respect to abstract, or non-objective art, but he was concerned with public reaction. So in the paintings leading up to this one, he maintained tenuous connections to representation, before finally dispensing with them altogether here.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Artillerymen (Das Soldatenbad), 1915

Kirchner was part of the branch of German Expressionism known as Die Brücke (The Bridge), based in the city of Dresden. He was a quintessential painter of modern life, at least as it played out in Germany during the years bracketing World War I, and his agitated style certainly matched the tenor of the times. He was drafted into the German army in 1914, and was later discharged for mental instability. This scene of soldiers crowded into a shower is drawn from his service years, and its mood of claustrophobic unease is palpable. Within it, one can almost divine an eerie foreshadowing of the Nazi death camps.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Estate of Karl Nierendorf, © 2013 Foundation Oskar Kokoschka/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ProLitteris, Zürich

Oskar Kokoschka, Knight Errant (Der irrende Ritter), 1915

Nothing beats a painting with a great backstory, and this work by Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka has one in spades. It involves his love affair with Alma Mahler, widow of the great composer, who became pregnant with the painter’s child while carrying on a simultaneous relationship with future Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. She decided to undergo an abortion, which caused a scandal, even within the relative sybaritic confines of the Viennese art world. Summing up his less than equanimous reaction to the situation, Kokoschka portrays himself as a knight broken on the field of battle. Indeed it was Kokoschka’s wearying penchant for self-dramatization that drove Mahler into the arms of Gropius.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2013 Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbild 5 B (Picture Red Heart-Church) (Merzbild 5 B (Bild rot Herz-Kirche)), April 26, 1919

Schwitters was something of a one-man Dadaist movement, preferring to live and work in Hanover, Germany instead of Berlin, Paris or Zurich, cities with larger, more organized groups of like-minded artists. He developed his own style and philosophy, called “Merz,” a word which, while apparently nonsensical, actually originated as part of a newspaper ad he clipped for a collage—a notice for a commercial bank. “Merz” was simply the last syllable of the German for commerce: kommerz. This point speaks to how Schwitters self-consciously maintained a connection in his work to the mass-cultural origin of his materials. Though a long way from Pop Art, it was enough to later influence such artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The piece here was one of a number of key Merzbilds, or Merz-pictures, that Schwitters created within the same year.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Thannhauser Collection, © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso, Woman with Yellow Hair (Femme aux cheveux jaunes), Paris, December 1931

The subject of this painting is Marie-Thérèse Walter, who first met Picasso in 1927 when she was 17 and he was a married man of 45. She soon became his mistress and model, appearing frequently in his works during the following decade. Picasso was fond of depicting her while she slept, because he thought it captured her in her most vulnerable, intimate state. Here, she lays her head on an arm that looks like a fleshy, sensual extension of her flaxen locks.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Pierre Bonnard, Dining Room on the Garden (Grande salle à manger sur le jardin), 1934–35

Bonnard was the odd man out of 20th-century art. Although a contemporary of Picasso, he made work that was considered a throwback to Impressionism. But he was no painter of modern life; he was a painter of memory. Bonnard based his canvases on heavily annotated drawings hastily scribbled on small scraps of paper. These weren’t studies so much as notes to himself, meant to jolt his recollection of a subject as he sat down at his easel. Interiors like this one—created in years before his death in 1947, and mostly at the home shared with his wife, Marthe, in the South of France—are prime examples of what he achieved. The results, lush and vibrantly colored paeans to haute bourgeois domesticity, also posses an otherworldly evanescence, describing a place where past and present collide, where ordinary things become extraordinary.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2013 The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jackson Pollock, Ocean Greyness, 1953

Painted two years before Jackson Pollock’s untimely death, Ocean Greyness has sometimes been compared unfavorably to the artist’s more famous “drip” paintings: A example of his downward slide, as he struggled with alcoholism, fame, and groping his way towards some new style. Yet there is nothing second-rate about this canvas, even though its churn of image fragments (eyeballs) and overall compositional effect has been cavalierly dsimissed as “peekaboo” abstraction. It’s a great painting and seems especially contemporary in its attempt to balance abstraction and representation. It communicates in no uncertain terms, the personal sense of turbulence that wound finally consume Pollock.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

Fernand Léger, The Great Parade (definitive state) (La grande parade [état définitif]), 1954

By the time he painted The Great Parade, Fernand Léger’s reputation as a pioneer of Modern Art had been long established. Over the years, his style—which streamlined Cubism’s forms, and expressed an optimistic outlook on the mechanical age and its promise of social progress—increasingly relied on bold black, even cartoonish, outlines, which, in this painting, nearly resolve into Pop Art.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2013 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Willem de Kooning, Composition, 1955

One of the titanic figures of Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning’s approach to painting was both ferocious and radical, yet, at the same time, oddly conservative: He deflected purist notions of abstraction and maintained a tie to the figurative traditions of Western art. This was especially evident in his famous series on women. Nonetheless, he devoted much of the latter part of his career to pure abstraction. The fiercely compelling Composition marks a turning point in that regard, and is, perhaps, even more exemplary of his style than his women—a flurry of wet-on-wet brush strokes, whiplash lines and repeatedly reworked passages of paint. Like all of De Kooning’s canvases, Composition captivates, but also unnerves you.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © 2013 Al Held / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Al Held, Untitled Y, 1960

During the early- to mid-1960s Al Held’s work was something of a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, adding Pop Art verve to geometric abstraction, and pioneering a style that became known as “hard-edge.” Untitled Y, with its unabashed reveling in color locked into an architectural scheme, is a case in point. Its title foreshadows a series Held created later in decade—know as the “Alphabet Paintings”—in which he trnasformed letters into graphically bold compositions.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Gift, Harry N. Abrams Family Collection, © 2013 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Andy Warhol, Orange Disaster #5, 1963

Warhol once famously said of his work that there was really nothing to it beyond surface effect, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Warhol was a devout Catholic, a fact well known to his circle of friends, if not to the public at large, and in hindsight, it’s become ever more apparent that his work grappled with some pretty big themes—life, death and slavation among them. His “Disaster” series is his most profound in this respect, though when the paintings were originally exhibited, they were treated as little more than hipster send-ups of tabloid sensationalism. This is true to an extent: The serial repetition of the image of Sing Sing Prison’s death chamber does indeed recall the blaring of headlines from every street corner. But the purgatorial confines of the room (and especially, the cruciform appearance of the electric chair), its implacable march across the canvas, and the dramatic interplay between dark and light tones all suggest a concern with sin and redemption.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, Korn, 1982

Like Warhol, Richter has often discourages wider readings of his work, though one can argue that his seeminlgy opaque treatises on painting and its relationship to photography—the deconstructions of genres (portrait, landscape, still life) and styles (Expressionism, Minimalism, Realism)—have never been as neutral as he’s purported them to be. Korn was one of the first abstractions created by Richter that didn’t rely on a previously photographed study; more to the point, it’s filled with Richterian flourishes—the blurs and ellisions—that undermine the argument for photography’s supposed objectivity trumping painting's subjectivity.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, © James Rosenquist

James Rosenquist, The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (painting 2), 1997

A founding father of American Pop Art, Rosenquist was a billboard painter before turning to art. This background accounts for the large scale of his work, his technique (a kind of brushwork in which forms are broadly limned, as if meant to be seen only from a distance) and of course, his imagery, which borrows heavily from advertising. All of these elements come into play in this work, part of a suite of paintings commissioned by the Deutsche Bank in Berlin. They were prompted by the artist’s observations of life in Germany, following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall (notably, the economic disparity that existed between the newly rejoined halves of Germany at the time). The works depict late capitalism as a turbulent seascape worthy of Turner: A roiling wave of logos, products and package designs, breaking upon the shore of the eye.