The Sadistic Pleasures of the Guggenheim Café

by Thomas Beller

07/19/2009

1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Sometimes I sit in the lunchroom of the Guggenheim Museum and write. If I can, I sit at the rear wall, where there are many framed black and white photographs of the museum’s benefactors, artists, and scenes of the museum’s construction. A bearded Brancusi sits with his dog; they resemble one another, both smiling. Thomas Messer, the museum’s first director, reads in his office, his hair very neat, wearing a tiny bow tie, looking both severe and angelic; a bearded Jasper Johns frowns intently at his canvas, to which he has lifted his hand. Diane Waldman and Roy Lichtenstein look flippant and rich in 1969. Joseph Beuys looks freaky and severe in 1979. And Salvador Dali, in 1978, perhaps the most immediately recognizable figure on the wall, looks like an aging playboy with his black cape and waxed mustache. Behind his dark glasses you can see his widened eyes.

I usually sit with my back to the room, facing this wall of pictures, and try to lose myself in work, wearing either earphones or earplugs. But recently I took a seat facing outward, where I had a view of the cafeteria and the cafeteria’s entrance. The doors to the cafeteria are open, and just a few steps beyond them are a pair of glass double doors that lead out onto Fifth Avenue. They are glass, floor to ceiling, with the logo of the Guggenheim Café neatly embossed in a frosted glass circle. Beneath that, in small lettering, are the café’s hours, and some small text about when the doors are usable.

Everything about these doors suggests that these doors provide the function of doors everywhere—that they open and close, that they are portals between one place and another. That they are, in other words, doors. But it is a ruse. These doors are almost always locked.

I get a call and hurry through the lunchroom to where there is better reception by the doors. For five minutes I stand there talking, a little ear-bud in my ear. While I’m there several people come towards these doors from Fifth Avenue. I shake me head, sometime shake my finger as though scolding a child, “no no,” then point down the block to the museum’s main entrance, where everyone must come and go.

I see a variety of facial expressions in response to my cue– surprise, indignation, acknowledgement, confusion. Everyone turns around quickly. They are tourists. Their sensitivity to their surroundings is heightened by both the imperative to ’see,’ and also the paranoia that they may make some mistake ranging from the fatal to the merely embarrassing. So they are unusually responsive to my directives. It’s kind of fun being the man who stands behind glass doors and says, “No.” I wonder if the little black wire in my ear adds to the ambiance of my authority. I’m secret service, plugged into the undercover security detail that in seeded throughout the museum, throughout the city.

Back at my table at the back of the room, I am now aware of the drama afforded by these locked doors. I find myself looking up to see if anyone else is coming towards them from the avenue, or trying to get out through them. I see a bit of both. It’s totally horrifying, the little pang of pleasure I get at the various scenarios. People coming from the outside are more quickly discouraged. Those coming from the cafeteria often struggle for a while. Logic says that they should now complete their visit with lunch and stroll out onto the avenue through these doors, rather then walk up a staircase and across the crowded museum lobby, to exit through the same doors through which they entered. So they pull on one door, then another. They pull and they push. One woman plants her feet and sticks her ass way out, to get leverage. She pulls and pulls. Then she stands there for a moment while the physical reality of the locked doors sink in.

A couple approaches from Fifth Avenue while another couple, coats just on, steps out of the cafeteria. They converge on the doors. First the outside couple tugs on one door while the inside couple tugs on the other. Then they switch doors, and they each tug again. It’s like a Marx brothers routine. Four people, two doors, face to face through glass. True to form, the outsiders give up a moment before the people inside. Perhaps this testifies to an innate desire to get out which is slightly stronger than the innate desire to get in.

Now an ancient, Fellini-esque figure has hobbled down the walk from Fifth Avenue with a gigantic bag on his back. It is drizzling. His clothes are grey with wet. He is completely hunched over. I’d think he was homeless but it looks like a nice bag. An art vagabond. He tugs tragically on the doors, then begins his hunched walk back to the avenue.

I keep looking up in the hopes of seeing someone else wrestling with the doors.

The Guggenheim Museum seems a particularly mean context for this—my own education in art took place when I first started roaming around galleries in the late eighties and early nineties, when almost every young artist was a conceptual artist doing installations. My response to most modern art involves feeling slightly defensive, wondering if I am being tricked, mocked, implicated in something without knowing. Can I simply make aesthetic judgments or do I have to engage in a philosophical debate with Baudrillard and Lacan every time my gaze falls upon an object?

I would guess this defensiveness and anxiety is present, to some degree, in many of the people visiting the Guggenheim. They see the art-work, they have lunch, and now the city awaits them, a place where their attention can return to the less complicated gestures of pleasure and survival. But no, they can see the city but can not enter it. Their route is impeded by these locked doors, which feature no visible signage to alert them to the fact that this is really a glass wall with handles, not doors at all. They have lowered their defenses too soon. The Guggenheim has implicated them in one last practical joke, and as they might have worried all along, the joke is on them.

Thomas Beller is the author of two works of fiction, “Seduction Theory,” and “The Sleep-Over Artist,” and a collection of essays, “How To Be A Man: Scenes from a Protracted Boyhood”. He is editor of the recently released anthology, “Lost and Found: Stories From New York.” He is a founder and co-editor of Open City magazine and mrbellersneighborhood.com. More information at, thomasbeller.com

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