For those who spend their time admiring the works of artists like Vincent van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Leonardo da Vinci, paintings like “Alchemist,” “Mona Lisa” and “The Starry Night” seem like urban legends. Leave it to the Guggenheim Museum to make seeing Pollock’s famous piece, “Alchemy,” the most underwhelming experience for those coming to see the museum’s latest exhibit, “Jackson Pollock: Exploring Alchemy.” The exhibit, which is on view from Feb. 10 through Sept. 6, suffers mostly from an awkward hole-in-the-wall location and set-up. While the painting itself is on the sixth floor of the museum, the exhibit is located in the basement, which is also home to the Sackler Center for Arts Education. To get to the exhibit one has to take the main elevator to the fourth floor, walk through another exhibit and take another elevator down to the basement. Aside from the art that it houses, the museum is a work of art itself.
From the outside, it looks like an upside down, three-tiered cake. On the inside, it almost looks like a small airport terminal. It is cozy with a modern twist, literally, since the museum is set up as an ascending spiral that allows visitors to walk from one exhibit to the next. When visitors to the museum reach its pinnacle, they can either take the elevator back down or retrace their steps, revisiting the same paintings once again. Upon entering the basement, visitors are met with a large photo of Pollock at work and a brief passage about his life as an artist and his history with Guggenheim.
Before he reached notoriety, Pollock was a custodian and a maintenance man at the museum. He was discovered by Peggy Guggenheim, the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, whom the museum is named after. As an art collector and prominent socialite in the 1930s and 1940s, she was able to use her status to bring Pollock fame and to give him the money to fund his artistic endeavors. To know that Pollock once roamed the same halls that now show off his art is pretty interesting and adds an eerie vibe to the experience. Unfortunately, that ends up being the most interesting part of the exhibit. The interactive kiosks and video screens give information on the techniques used to create “Alchemy,” but they take away from what could have been a more intimate experience given Pollock’s ties to the Guggenheim family and the museum. Nothing that was found in these kiosks is any different from what could be found on the internet about Pollock or his painting techniques. In fact, the Guggenheim website even has similar audio and visuals that could provide the same experience minus the hike and the entrance fee.
Aside from its location in the museum, the exhibit itself is set up awkwardly. One might find himself confused about whether the two armchairs in the room are for use or for decor. The room is about the size of a standard classroom—dull, gray and lacking life. It is the complete opposite of Pollock’s work, which is known for being messy, spontaneous and obviously brilliant. When one imagines Pollock creating his masterpieces, it is without a doubt that he centered his efforts on being spontaneous and creating beautiful imagery without being calculated and technical. The museum’s exhibit is based on those exact two things. The ideas of calculation and technicality are not something that Pollock spent much time thinking about, so the exhibit feels a little forced. No one looks at Pollock’s piece and tries to figure out the exact composition of the painting.
For its intents and purposes, despite being about a painting, the exhibit would have been more at home in a science museum. The kiosks offer information through X-ray images, 3-D printing models and the types of pigments used to create “Alchemy.” As a woman walked into the exhibit, she asked, “Where’s the painting?” One of the men she was with responded, “I could’ve looked this stuff up online.” They looked around in confusion and boredom before their eyes met the touchscreen kiosks. They played around with them for about 10 seconds like toddlers with short attention spans, thumbing through the digital pages, barely reading the information on the screens.
If Pollock and Guggenheim were alive today, they would be disappointed in the exhibit. Pollock once said, “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said. Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.” Had the Guggenheim museum thought the same, it would not have wasted time and space on such an exhibit.