We didn't call it "The GooGooMuck" for nothing

by Jim Knipfel

We sat around on the floor of my apartment, the group of us, slowly working on cans of beer and glasses of wine, not talking about the past much--there was too much going on right now to worry about--but still it was the shade of the past that hung over us. Like soldiers who'd been at Iwo Jima or My Lai, we couldn't escape the indelible glue of history. What we had been through together, however, was worse than anything Iwo Jima or My Lai had to offer. We were Guggenheimers. Most of us had escaped by now. Linda had just given notice. The few others who were still stuck there were plotting escape. I have no idea how they survived this long. Not a week goes by when I don't think about them still standing there on the ramps, and I always shudder.

When the Guggenheim reopened with that godawful Gwathmey-Siegel monstrosity tacked on the back, summer of, what was it? '91? '92? the museum's director, Tom Krens, had a funny idea. Instead of hiring the same Rent-A-Guards most of the other museums in New York were content with--guards who did their jobs, usually, but knew or cared little for the art they were protecting--the Gugg would go the European route and hire struggling artists to handle security. That way, not only would they care about protecting the Picassos and the Francis Bacon tryptich (though maybe not the Jim Dines so much), they'd have guards posted all over the museum who would actually be able, at a moment's notice, to talk about the artwork to visitors.

That's how we all ended up there. I'd been unemployed for about a year at the time, but was lucky enough to be married to a Frank Lloyd Wright scholar when the ad appeared in the Sunday Times, so I did my research and talked a good game at the interview. As for the rest of them, well, they were artists, mostly, and as desperate as I was. There were painters (a lot of painters), sculptors, musicians, architects, printmakers, writers, dancers, actors. Throw in a mad ex-Navy man, an exiled Eastern European revolutionary, a religious fanatic or two, a junkie, a smattering of potheads, a big armload of drunks and a few people who were unabashedly, openly insane, put them all in matching Italian designer suits with padded shoulders and ugly silk ties and there you have it, boom, instant subculture.

Unfortunately for Krens and his underlings, they had no idea what they were really getting themselves into with us. What are you hiring when you hire a group of struggling artist-types? You're hiring a group of smart-alecky fuck-ups who really can't do much of anything else; a group of young New Yorkers who enjoyed the company and conversation of each other much more so than that of angry French tourists or troupes of rich Jewish ladies from the Upper West Side, out to get themselves some “cultchuh.”

The job itself was a simple one, but a killer: stand in one spot (usually on an incline) for ten hours a day, four days a week, preventing visitors from getting too close to the paintings or taking photographs. It was a job that took its toll on our legs, backs and our minds sooner than any of us expected.

Most folks who visit art museums--be it the Gugg, the Met or MoMA--have no idea what the guards have to put up with during a ten-hour day. Wild packs of grade school kids out on a field trip, running roughshod and ramshackle over Giacometti sculptures; tourists explaining that they're allowed to touch the paintings because "zhey are Frwench" (an excuse heard by every single guard more than once); fat Americans demanding their money back, claiming that there's no "real" art in the museum; whining artists themselves thinking that we're there to serve them, and a museum administration doing everything in their power to get rid of us without bringing a class-action suit down on themselves.

Not every person who came through the museum was an unwashed, mindless jackass--occasionally someone with a tiny glimmer of intelligence would come through and ask a good question or two. Good questions I don't mind (old teacher's dictum or not, there is indeed, most certainly, such thing as a stupid question). I was always happy to be able to pontificate about the Guggenheim itself. I knew its history, I knew the lies that the tour guides were obligated to spread, it was a structure I loved dearly, and one I was happy to protect. So questions about the building's history I didn't mind. Unfortunately, questions like that were rare. Mostly I just got things like, "Where do you keep the Mona Lisa?"

Different guards dealt with things in their own ways, most all of them subversive. Some feigned no knowledge of English. Some turned draconian, maintaining a sense of order through threats of cheap violence. Myself, I resorted to the old tactic of semantic interference--giving people surreal nonsense mixed in with real information in order to confuse, disarm and get them the hell away from me.

One evening during a big show by Lothar Baumgarten, a silly German artist who was paid half a million dollars to have his crew of minimum wage "assistants" paint the names of North American Indian tribes along the inside of the spiral (and that's all), I was approached by a group of Japanese tourists.

"Uhh, es'cuse me," their translator asked hesitantly as the group stopped in front of me, "but can you tell me what this is all about?," gesturing to the names painted on the walls.

"Why of course I can," I said, snapping into "helpful, knowledgeable guard" mode. "All these names you see along here are the names of popular American snack foods. Every American tries to eat one or more of these snack items every day, and this is just the Guggenheim's way of celebrating a central part of our culture."

She nodded understandingly, turned to her group and translated. When she was done, they all smiled, nodded, thanked me and continued on their way. It was not long after that the guards were informed that they were no longer allowed to discuss the artwork with the visitors, that we were simply to inform them of when the next official tour was taking place.

Weekends were bad, packed as the place became with tourists and fools, but opening galas were the worst. Not only did they mean that a ten-hour day was magically transformed into a 16-hour day (sometimes for three or four days in a row), but it meant that we were going to be confronted with thousands of the worst people on earth: obnoxious rich people with free drinks in their hands. When you're dealing with these people way up close, and you realize that these are the beasts who rule the world, your hope for the future goes right down the crapper. So we gave them right back what we got. We were a hard-assed crew, a crew that took no shit, and so we treated them like dirt. Or at least I did.

As we were sweeping around from the top of the ramp, forcing a group of partygoers out of the museum at two o'clock in the morning after one of these galas, we ran into one man who simply would not move. Some skinny bald fuck in an Armani suit who leaned there against the wall, drink in hand, smirking at us stupidly, knowing that there wasn't a goddamn thing we could do about him. He had money, he had power, and he wasn't ready to leave quite yet. One of our supervisors asked him kindly to move downstairs, the party's over. Nothing doing. He leaned over the ramp and waved to his friends. "Smug bastard," I thought. That was it. I was tired, I was hungry, my back hurt, and I couldn't feel my legs. I wasn't about to let this corporate nothing prevent me from getting home.

"Let me try something," I whispered to the supervisor, who was standing there, helpless. I walked up to this man and leaned in real close, so nobody else could hear.

"What you have standing here," I hissed in his ear and gesturing behind me, "is an exhausted, but extremely angry group of people who've been here since eight-thirty this morning. We'd all like to go home, because we have to do the same fucking thing tomorrow night. So if you don't get your ass in gear and get moving down this ramp, I won't be held responsible for what they do to you--and I guarantee, they'll be on you like stink on shit." He drained his drink and started moving.

Now, I've found that most people stay with shit jobs about six months longer than they should. That was the case with me and the Gugg. At the one year mark, I stopped and thought to myself, "My God, I've been doing this for a year. A year is too long for anything." At that point I was doing little more than coming home a wreck every night and drinking myself to sleep. Even though I had three days off after a four-day stint, it took me two of those days to drag myself back into some sort of normal human shape, and the third day to gear myself up for the next four. It was no way for a man to live.

Something in my already-unstable head snapped after that twelve-month mark. I started hallucinating on post. After six or eight hours on my feet, I'd look across the rotunda and see a group of people transform into giant tufts of hair, slowly shuffling their way up the ramp. The figures in paintings started to move. I stopped understanding my own language. And, most frightening of all, I started making plans.

I spent most of my days, those last six months, standing there, staring blankly dead ahead, beautiful, glorious visions of slaughter playing in my head. I was at the top of the ramp with a tommy gun, mowing down everything beneath me, bodies exploding red and piling up in the rotunda as Handel's Hallelujah Chorus screamed all around me. I knew something was wrong when I decided that I was actually going to do it, and contacted a gun-dealer acquaintance of mine in Philly to see what I could get my hands on. I was going to make America forget all about postal workers. They'd learn that it was museum security guards that they really had to fear.

Before anything could happen, though, I split. Things were getting too bad. The administration was slowly removing things from us--little things at first: comp copies of exhibit catalogs, coffee in the break room, the water cooler--but soon health benefits started creeping away, and the paychecks started getting smaller. The Gugg was bound and determined to flush that initial mistake away, it seemed, and it was working. Most all the good people started splitting. After too long, I had to split too--unfortunately in my case it was into just another rum-sodden void, which eventually destroyed my marriage.

To this day, however much I love the building, I can't speak the name "Guggenheim" without a bitter taste on my tongue. My friend John, the architect, says that whenever he comes across the name "Guggenheim" in a newspaper or a magazine, he has to stop reading. And that's too bad, because for awhile there, it housed one of the funniest, most fascinating ciollections of fuckups I've ever known--the same people who were sitting around on my apartment floor, almost afraid to bring up the old days.

Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. All rights reserved.

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