Monday, May 16, 2005

Off color at the Guggenheim

Solomon R. Guggenheim died in 1949, dictating the rise of his great museum from beyond the grave. Frank Lloyd Wright died in 1959, six months before the museum was finished. "What we see today," writes Ada Louise Huxtable, "is not the museum Wright and his client had in mind." Moreover, the current exhibition by French artist Daniel Buren is about as far from Wright's vision as one could imagine.

By the 1930s, under the influence of German artist Hilla Rebay, Guggenheim had come to concentrate in the "non-objective art" being created by Kandinsky and others including Rebay herself. Since the Impressionist period art had been moving into abstraction, but this movement took it to another level: The artists, writes Huxtable,

claimed to have created a new kind of reality that extended pictorial space beyond the picture frame into real space, and that any division between the two ceased to exist. By experiencing paintings in this new way, the theory went--in a sense, by becoming part of them--viewers could reach a new understanding of art and reality. The harmony thus achieved would become a feeling of inner serenity, of oneness with the world, which, if universally practiced, could lead to world peace.

To further the mission of the collection--which was intended, audaciously, to be permanent and unchanging--Rebay charged Wright with designing a "temple of non-objectivity."

What he took as his mandate was second nature to him--a release from convention, the freedom to redefine a building type, in this case to rethink the art museum in an unprecedented way. . . . He returned to an idea that had preoccupied him for many years: the search for a plastic, sculptural architecture that would be unbroken by conventional walls and floors, where mass and space were one.

And so the spiral form, the "inverted ziggurat," a ribbon of gallery space from bottom to top. Or top to bottom: Wright "wanted the visitor to take the elevator up to the top and 'drift down' the spiral to the open space on the ground." (In an interview, Rebay claimed the design was her idea: "I explained to him what I wanted, a museum that goes slowly up. No staircase, no interruptions, He said, 'Have you a design?' I gave him a design. He said, 'Excellent.'")

To Wright, the great architect of organic form, it mattered that the site chosen for the museum was adjacent to Central Park. (Given his wishes, it would have not been in New York.) It is the park across the street, not the buildings nextdoor, that the museum was designed to speak to with it cylindrical shape (repeated, even, in the metal circles on the sidewalk). But the execution was compromised for various reasons, notably cost: Solomon's nephew Harry Guggenheim imposed the kind of discipline on Wright that he typically lacked (cost overruns were a very common complaint of his clients). And it wasn't just money. The Guggenheim family "had long viewed Hilla Rebay as a lady Svengali" with entirely too much power over Solomon, according to Huxtable; hence she was removed as director of the museum. The notion of the permanency of the collection disappeared. The direction changed dramatically.

Her replacement, James Sweeney, represented everything about modern architecture that Wright opposed: the whites and chromes and glass, the austere, the everything but the organic and the natural. "Sweeney repainted Wright's soft ivory interiors stark white--Wright avoided and abhorred white--and substituted artifical light at the top of the ramp's outer walls," Huxtable tells us. "All this was done to create the kind of shadowless, neutral ambience favored by the modernists whom Wright had battled all his life."

Even as imperfectly realized as it is, as Huxtable notes and anyone who has been there can confirm, "Wright's basic, powerful idea of unified space and structure" survives. "Whatever the dramatic, spiraling interior lacks in flexibility for exhibition purposes, . . . this soaring volume with its encircling ramps is an intensely moving experience."

But it is a severe test of Wright's architecture to ask it to stand up against the current exhibition by French installation artist Daniel Buren. When you enter the museum, the experience of the circular shape is assaulted by an 81-ft.-high wedge of glass. "Imagine a glass office tower slammed through the front of the building," wrote Michael Kimmelman in the Times. We're told in the exhibition's narrative that the glass introduces the city's grid into the museum--this space that was supposed to speak to Central Park. And it gets worse: Look up to the dome and you see a garish pinwheel of clear glass and magenta, a color Wright was as unlikely to use as he was the lime green of the horizontal bars that Burren has placed along the rim of the spiral ramp. These electric colors are Buren's hallmark--and they could not be more out of place here.

This is not the first time the central space of the Guggenheim has been used for a massive art installation. The first time was in 1971: Daniel Buren himself installed a gigantic striped banner there. The trouble was that it interfered with the sight lines of other art on display in the same show--by Donald Judd among others. They complained, and it came down. At least one critic suspects that this exhibit is Buren's revenge.

This Friday a new exhibit opens: on Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim's "Art of Tomorrow." That would be the one to see.

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