Seen from a Bird’s-Eye View: Deciphering an Unknown 1961 Film

After the Guggenheim Archives viewed this charming unlabeled film capturing museum guests wandering along the ramps and the first floor, Assistant Archivist Sarah Haug came to the Curatorial Department, thinking it would be easy to identify the exhibition based on the sculptures on view. Often, the identity of an artwork or two and a historical hunch about the surroundings are all that are needed to confirm with either the current collections management database, or in the archived wall lists of exhibitions past.

Working together, we quickly identified two sculptures from the permanent collection on the museum floor: Constantin Brancusi’s The Miracle [Seal I] and Joan Miró and Josep Llorens y Artigas’s Portico, both popular highlights of the collection in the museum’s early decades. Two other sculptures, filmed from above, proved to be much more elusive. From afar, one organically-sculpted stone piece looked suspiciously like a rabbit with two emerging “ears”: this bunny, it turns out, was Jacques Lipchitz’s granite Return of the Child, depicting a happy reunion between mother and child. (We thought the installation of a rabbit alongside Brancusi’s Seal was too cute to be true.) The last sculpture, which was only seen from a bird’s-eye view, was puzzlingly abstract, appearing as a rounded carved ball atop a compacted wood square. Thinking about our collection “from above,” we determined it was Brancusi’s Adam and Eve, a familiar favorite not often considered from a vertical vantage point.

Once we had the four sculptures identified, we reviewed wall lists for exhibitions held between 1959 and the late 1960s in which all four sculptures were positioned on the floor, but came up without any matches. Frustrated, but convinced the film had to be from the early-to-mid 1960s due to the distinct fashions of the visitors, we scoured the Exhibition records in the archives and discovered an informal sketch of the museum floor in the records of One Hundred Paintings from the G. David Thompson Collection (#128) held at the museum from May 26–August 27, 1961. While not associated with the Thompson Collection loan exhibition, this lovely installation of pieces from the Guggenheim’s sculpture collection welcomed visitors on the main floor before they ascended the spiral to see the loan exhibition. Our simple search was anything but simple: ultimately, it was satisfying to update that “Unknown” and identify the proper exhibition title.

Beyond the artwork, this film presents a lyrical look at the museum’s beloved spiral, tracing the curvature of the ramps while lingering momentarily on visitors that include a sprightly pair of dolled-up little girls, their fancy dresses creating a beautiful visual parallel to the greenery around the museum’s water fountain.