This New Yorker Cartoon Documented the Guggenheim’s 1959 Opening
Caitlin Dover | Jul 10, 2017
Cartoonist Alan Dunn captures the feeling and dialogue of the opening of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in his cartoons for the November 28, 1959 issue of the New Yorker.
When the museum that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Solomon R. Guggenheim opened to the public in the fall of 1959, visitors in hats and furs crowded to see it, and Wright’s architecture soon prompted “fiery debate” (in the words of the New York Times). “One of Mr. Wright’s most joyous monstrosities,” opined the New York Mirror, and another reporter described the experience of “slither[ing] up the ramp, one hip higher than the other.” Meanwhile, architect Philip Johnson declared the museum to be “Mr. Wright’s greatest building. New York’s greatest building.”
Naturally, the New Yorker captured this hot-button cultural moment with wit and style—and did so in a multi-page cartoon.
The cartoonist, Alan Dunn, worked for the magazine for 47 years, and also contributed drawings to Architectural Record. His career paralleled the emergence and evolution of modern architecture, and he was adept at depicting the new styles while lampooning the mores that accompanied them. His Guggenheim drawings pair detailed representations of the building with off-the-cuff remarks from bemused visitors. A dramatic, ground-up view of the rotunda is the setting for a woman commenting to her companion, “It reminds me of the old Wanamaker’s.” Walking down the ramps (shown complete with circular-patterned terrazzo), a woman in heels and stole says to her friend, “Let’s come back and really look at the pictures.”
Emma Allen, the present-day cartoon editor of the New Yorker, notes, “Dunn’s talents as an architectural draftsman imbue the scene with a feeling of something reported, believably real. I’m not certain whether the dialogue was overheard, imagined, or a combination of the two, but certainly Dunn has made a study of a museum-going milieu, and nails the chatter.” Dunn’s visitors investigate the port-hole-style windows, climb the ramps with apparent trepidation, and, of course, judge the building and their fellow visitors alike. As Allen says, the spread perfectly delivers “a sly mix of humor and gimlet-eyed observation.” For today’s readers, it also gives us the feeling that we were there.
© 2017 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation