Key Points:

At the starting point of the Guggenheim Collection: 1940s to Now, which has just opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, a long nose points the way to a treasure trove of 85 works by 68 artists from 22 countries.

Although its value has been kept secret for security reasons it is thought to be worth $1 billion-plus.

Those are the statistics but the nose, Le Nez (1947), by Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, is a clue to what lies ahead, a show which ranges through some of the most anguished, difficult and beautiful subjects artists have grappled with over the past 70 years.

Giacometti's nose has grown into a threatening barrel of a gun; conversely the mouth below is agape with fear. It's a strong introduction to an exhibition which is the first assembled by the Guggenheim Museum in New York for a major survey of its contemporary collection outside its own "McGuggenheim' network.

The show is designed specifically for the Melbourne gallery and will not travel to any other venue.

It is also the first major survey of art from an American collection to be seen in Melbourne since 1973, with works on loan from the New York, Bilbao, Venice and Berlin Guggenheims, including 10 pieces never before displayed in public.

The exhibition is divided into nine sections, some with tricky flannel-mouth titles such as 'postwar figuration' and 'minimalism, post-minimalism and conceptual art', but don't worry too much: visitors don't have to navigate the Guggenheim Collection alone, as a helpful audio guide, supplemented by film footage, is available for $8.

The small contingent of New Zealand media previewing the show had the benefit of an informative commentary by NGV international exhibitions curator Amy Barclay.

Yes, there is a great range of paintings by artists such as Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, Willen de Kooning, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Lucio Fontana, Pierre Soulages, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, and many more.

But my interest was more engaged in the miminalism-conceptual-contemporary art areas, led by American fluorescent lighting wizard Dan Flavin, whose two-room yellow and green corridors (Untitled, 1972-3) are, as promised, a glowing triumph of 'sculpture, space and architecture'.

Bruce Nauman's Floating Room (Light Outside, Dark Inside, 1972) may look like a wooden garden shed from the outside but inside, it induces a feeling of quiet calm, which may prove useful later in the show.

The Pop Art section opens with two works by Roy Lichtenstein, In (1962) and the huge Preparedness (1968), a study of machinery and soldiers made when American public opinion on the Vietnam War was beginning to turn.

The section includes works by George Segal and Claes Oldenburg and is dominated by Andy Warhol's multi-panel screenprint, Electric Chair (1971), made from a photo he found in 1963, the year New York state carried out its last capital punishment.

By using various colours and experiments with image transfer, the work is both lovely and troubling.

But not as disturbing as what is to come in The Legacy of Pop, in which Brit 'living sculptures' Gilbert & George render their vision of urban gay experiences in Dream (1984) and the massive Waking (also 1984), in which both men appear with the youths who represent, for them, 'the primal life forces of sexuality and religiosity'.

Jeff Koons' enormous Sandwiches and Mountains, from his EasyFun-Ethereal series (2000), are playful products of his imagination - and a huge team of studio assistants.

Koons' famous 1988 sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles is not in this show, but Paul McCarthy's 2001 take on that work, is. Where Koons' figure was porcelain, this Michael Jackson is black silicone, his head disintegrating, with a child whose head is in the same state, in his lap.

Contemporary Art: The Natural World is the section that will appeal to lovers of simplicity, offering the very fine painting Mummy (2004), by British artist Nigel Cooke - at first sight a stunning horizon of sea which closer examination reveals as a wasteland of toxicity.

Elger Esser's Ameland Pier X, Netherlands (2000), on the other hand, is a true study of a horizon, a large monochrome print of the line of land and sea that stretches into pure infinity.

Contemporary Art: Constructed Worlds was, for me, the most provocative element of the Guggenheim Collection. It includes the full five-part Cremaster Cycle by American master of the video fantasy narrative, Matthew Barney, edited especially for this show by Barney himself.

It is enchanting, in a Grimm fairy tale way.

The section also includes images by James Casebere (Asylum, 1994); an eerie family study from Gregory Crewdson's Twilight series (2001-2); Thomas Demand's Archive (1995), his reconstruction of Leni Riefenstahl's inventory; Canadian Sarah Anne Johnson's slightly spooky Tree Planting series, which mixes real people with images made from clay dolls; and Rachel Whiteread's huge sidelong model of a staircase cast from the air above her basement stairs.

Contemporary Art: Between Public and Private deepens the intensity, with performance artist Marina Abramovic's Cleaning the Mirror three-hour video sequence of her cleaning a grimy human skeleton lying in her lap; and stills from her Rhythm O performance (1975), in which members of the public were invited to mutilate her with a range of weapons, including a knife and a loaded gun.

She stopped the experiment when participation became too eager.

The weirdness continues with Maurizio Cattelan's limp figured We Are the Revolution (2000) and Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Untitled (Public Opinion, 1991), his response to the first Gulf War - a huge pile of bullet-like wrapped black liquorice pieces, which the audience is invited to eat.

Finally we have Ann Hamilton's table laden with 14,000 human and animal teeth (Between Taxonomy and Communion, 1990-96), six iconic black and white photos by Robert Mapplethorpe and two stills from Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, which traverse the territory from a masculinised self-study to a crime scene from her Disaster series.

Enough to give you the most satisfying creeps and thrills, like the entire show.

*Linda Herrick travelled as guest of Air New Zealand and Tourism Victoria.