Guggenheim Celebrates 50th With a Look Back

BY Arts Desk  June 18, 2009 at 3:12 PM EST

This summer, the Guggenheim Museum in New York is going back to its roots. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of its landmark building on Fifth Avenue, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright,, the museum is displaying a selection of works from its inaugural exhibition in 1959.

Dubbed “The Sweeney Decade,” the show highlights paintings and sculptures first brought to the Guggenheim by the museum’s curator at the time, James Johnson Sweeney. With an eye toward contemporary work that pushed the boundaries, seeking what he called “tastebreakers,” Sweeney gathered together new works from European and American artists.

He found in Europe diverse postwar trends like Tachism, from the French meaning stain or spot, exemplified in the work of Pierre Soulages, and also acquired works by the CoBrA artists (an abbreviation of its members home cities of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam), including paintings by Karel Appel.

Abstract Impressionism was also blossoming just downtown from the museum, and Sweeney strove to capture “fresh, unfamiliar concepts of our own,” found in the likes of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

In the article “New Directions in Painting,” published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Sweeney argued that artists should always strive to capture something new and unfamiliar, championing the more abstract works of the day. “Actually, this so-called ‘instability’ in the art of our period is its health. It is the sign of life in it, a sign of that constant urge to refreshment which, only, will keep the language of art alive,” he wrote.Click here for a slide show; 'Composition' by Willem de Kooning

Tracey Bashkoff, associate curator for collections and exhibitions, conceived and organized the show and included 24 works from the original exhibition. “I wanted to capture a little of the diversity that Sweeney had brought and introduced to the collection,” Bashkoff said. “I wanted to put together an exhibit that would have the feel of a recent acquisition exhibition in 1959.”

[Click here to listen to a slide show narrated by Bashkoff and see art from the exhibition.]

“The Sweeney Decade” is on display through Sept. 2. A second exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward,” runs through Aug. 23.