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Go Go Guggenheim

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Now that it has been scrupulously and sensitively restored by the architectural firm of Gwathmey Siegel and Associates, Frank Lloyd Wright’s controversial swansong, the Guggenheim Museum, lives up to its reputation as perhaps the greatest building by perhaps the greatest modern architect in America. Which is not to say that it will live down its reputation as a monument to his megalomania. Wright’s disregard for an art museum’s requirements is more than ever evident.

When the scaffolding inside the building came down a few months back, it was possible for the first time to see this white elephant in all its pristine glory. The removal of all the later accretions—clumsy improvisations to adapt the space for exhibition and storage purposes—enabled the visitor to feel that he was inside a gigantic nautilus shell. Even the light from the new skylight had a mother-of-pearl shimmer. The ascent up that empty spiral ramp which heads for the sky verged on the spiritual, just as Wright intended. And how one’s perception of space has been intensified! Surprisingly, the bustle of people was not distracting. Comings and goings animate the spatial element, as in a Canaletto view of Venice. Flower arrangements brought in for some preview or other turned out to be much more intrusive. From past experience I suspected that works of art would prove equally disrupting. Just how much the well-known modern architect Charles Gwathmey had to do with the magnificent restoration is something of a mystery; but the result confirms once and for all that, ideally, Wright’s rotunda should remain empty.

By shamelessly tilting the balance in favor of architecture, Wright ensured that his museum would make most works of art look irredeemably awkward. Sloping floors, curved walls, unnervingly low balustrades, and limited angles of vision create horrendous installation problems, which his suggestion that pictures should be hung at a slight tilt never did much to solve. Across Wright’s beautiful rotunda, paintings have a way of looking like posters or pimples, sculptures from above like unclaimed luggage. All the more reason for being grateful for the set of new galleries that have been grafted onto Wright’s original building. Given the concessions that had to be made in the face of public outcry, Gwathmey Siegel’s addition, with its tasteful tartan facing, is inevitably a compromise, albeit an elegant one. But at least we have large flat walls, ingeniously if artificially lit from sources hidden in the ribbed vaulting, to show large flat paintings to the best possible advantage. There is also lavish space for offices, conservation studios, libraries, and storage, none of which had been properly provided for by Wright. To inaugurate these new galleries, the museum is exhibiting the best of what is left of its permanent collection, plus some recent acquisitions.

In the past the only major artist whose exhibits stood up to Wright’s concepts was Alexander Calder. His mobiles seldom looked better than in that spiral space. Dan Flavin, who works in neon, likewise won out over Wright. By using fluorescent tubes to transform the color and quality of the light in the rotunda, he dramatized Wright’s architecture in a way that Wright is most unlikely to have condoned. Flavin is doing this once again. A greatly enlarged version of his 1971 installation inaugurates the restored rotunda, where it is rumored that this artist intends to celebrate his marriage. Is the museum striking back at the architect? Manipulation of artificial light was particularly obnoxious to Wright.

Not that this consideration would deter the director, Thomas Krens. The towering former basketball player turned technocrat is out to make “Guggenheim” the biggest name in a huge new business he has invented: museum franchises. And if in the process he betrays the wishes of the foundation’s principal donors and sponsors—Solomon Guggenheim, Hilla Rebay, Peggy Guggenheim, Justin Thannhauser—too bad. Krens has made it very clear that he has no intention of letting the dead, let alone the living, derail his controversial schemes. There is nothing new about this. Controversy has plagued the Guggenheim since its conception. It is a tradition that has been passed down, from one director to another. Krens is simply taking it to stratospheric new heights.

Before examining Krens’s more fanciful projects, let us take a look at his most welcome innovation: the Soho branch of the Guggenheim that he has established on the corner of Prince Street and Broadway. Arata Isozaki, that master of architectural minimalism, is carving out of what was once John Jacob Astor’s main office and later a factory of bridal veils the most spectacular as well as the best equipped contemporary galleries in the city. The opening show will consist of a series of peculiar confrontations—Louise Bourgeois versus Joseph Beuys; Kandinsky versus Carl André, the minimalist sculptor whose reductive arrangements of bricks or steel plates induce a state of mystic gratification in some, mutinous boredom in others; Brancusi versus Robert Ryman, the most fastidious of minimalist painters, whose musical manipulation of whiteness, squareness, blackness, and thinness owes something to his early training as a jazz player. The living are not, as one might conclude, being pitted against DWMs (Dead White Males); these confrontations turn out to be more a matter of expedience. Krens wants to show off the several million dollars’ worth of Beuys’s work that he recently bought from a London dealer. Louise Bourgeois seems not to have been the museum’s original choice: it was only after protests from radical art groups at the inclusion of André (who was accused, and acquitted, of involvement in his wife’s fatal fall from a window) and the exclusion of women, blacks, and gays, that she is said to have been put on the list as a hostage to political correctness.

Krens’s other Guggenheim schemes may have been temporarily eclipsed by the New York openings, but they are by no means dormant: MASS MOCa (the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art)—the project that first brought him to public notice—for one. This is an attempt to revive a dying mill town, North Adams, Massachusetts. Krens proposes to turn the former Sprague Technologies factory, a twenty-acre complex of twenty-eight large smoke-stacked buildings, into a sprawling museum of minimal and conceptual art, which will house such sideshows as Building 5, empty but for three 300-foot-long “fluorescent light barriers” by Dan Flavin. (Aren’t three of these a bit much?) And how about the “cofferdams” with which Krens proposes to raise the levels of the two rivers—the north and south branches of the Hoosic—that flow sluggishly through the compound? In The New York Times, Grace Glueck, who has cast a skeptical eye on Krens’s activities, quotes him as saying he wants “to take advantage of the spectacular water element.” “Aggressive marketing,” he swears, will transform these dreary buildings filled with minimal artwork of minimal public appeal into a “must see” cultural attraction that will generate 606 new jobs and $7.4 million in income. The Guggenheim is now wedded to this project, and Krens has soft-talked the state of Massachusetts into provisionally approving a $35 million bond issue for what could well be the boondoggle of the Nineties.

Krens, who has master’s degrees in “Public and Private Management” and studio art, as opposed to art history (he employed a headhunter to hoist him to his present eminence), made a computerized analysis in the early Eighties of the financial statements of the nation’s largest art museums. He sees works of art as “assets that have to be maximized,” his museum’s collection as “$3 billion worth of stock,” 1 and financing for his multimillion dollar ventures seems to come to him as easily as it would to Steve Ross. To pay for all the recent construction work, the Guggenheim floated $54.9 million in tax exempt bonds. The director denies that the permanent collection has been used as collateral. However, the wording of the bond issue is ambiguous. If worst comes to worst, it is difficult to see how else the banks could be repaid.

In his endless quest to bankroll his projects, Krens has also had recourse to some radical deaccessioning, a practice for which his museum has long been notorious. In the Sixties and Seventies, his predecessor, Thomas Messer, came under attack for sanctioning the sales at Sotheby’s of around one hundred Kandinskys to enable him to stock up on Brancusis and Van Goghs. And although in 1976 he assured the public that the works enshrined in the museum’s new catalog2 were “a permanent component of the Guggenheim’s collection,” he went ahead and sold twenty more of them. Last year Krens followed suit. He persuaded the far-from-vigilant trustees (these now include an inordinate number of CEOs, who love the idea of running a museum along the latest corporate lines) into agreeing to the sale of three modern masterpieces: Kandinsky’s magnificent Fugue, Modigliani’s Boy in a Blue Vest, and a public favorite, to judge from postcard sales, Chagall’s Birthday. Krens claimed that the Kandinsky was what he calls “a loaner,” a minor work that was seldom hung. If Fugue was rarely on view, it was because other museums liked to borrow it. Ernst Beyeler, the Swiss dealer who paid $20.9 million for it, said that he would have paid twice as much, and that Fugue would never leave his collection, which is also destined to be a private museum.

Usually when an American museum director decides to deaccession a major work, he gives interested institutions a few weeks’ notice and thus a crack at keeping it in the US. According to the New York Times, when Krens hustled the three paintings into Sotheby’s he does not “seem to have considered the possibility of selling the works to other public institutions.”3 Since Agnes Husslein, the auction house’s principal scout in Vienna, is a good friend of Krens’s—she has also been involved in his project for a Guggenheim branch in Salzburg—it would have looked better, to say the least, if he had not acted quite so secretively or precipitately.

Three quarters of the $47.3 million proceeds from the sale was spent on a vast ensemble of minimalist and conceptual art that Donald Judd—one of the principal minimalists included—has described as “a pig in a poke.” This collection was acquired from an Italian art investor called Count (a late fascist title) Panza di Biumo. Thanks to the mutual admiration that has grown up between this dynamic little tycoon and the hulking Krens—“the long and the short of it,” someone calls them—the Guggenheim is now the proud possessor of such monumental works as Bruce Nauman’s Diagonal Sound Wall (a thirty-five-foot-long sculpture resembling seven upended mattresses), Robert Morris’s large untitled floorpiece of pink industrial felt, and Eric Orr’s forty-foot-long paper room installation, Zero Mass.

At least these pieces exist. Part of the Panza collection takes the form of blueprints or certificates that confer title to conceptual items that may or may not be doable. Woe betide Krens if, as Panza did with Judd and Flavin, he has specifications executed without the artist’s approval or supervision. The results could be deemed fakes. The best pieces will apparently stay in New York. The rest will be farmed out to MASS MoCa and the Guggenheim’s various European franchises. As Krens likes to say, “The only art you don’t make money on is art in storage.”

  1. 1

    I draw here as elsewhere on an unpublished study by Martin Filler.

  2. 2

    Compiled by Angelica Rudenstine.

  3. 3

    The New York Times, October 14, 1990.

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