Thomas Krens
Thomas Krens; drawing by David Levine


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.”

The sale of an earlier chunk of Panza’s collection to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art was notorious for landing this institution with a huge burden of debt. The count had difficulty unloading a second section—the Italian government had refused to take it off his hands for nothing in return for housing it—until Krens came along. Krens talks of acquiring the remainder of Panza’s stock, but does he really need more of the same and will further treasures have to be deaccessioned to come up with the tens of millions of dollars needed?


Solomon Guggenheim, not to speak of his niece Peggy, who deeded her private museum to her uncle’s foundation, would be appalled at the way their patronage has been abused; at the way their wishes have been flouted; at the way expedience masquerades as lofty artistic principle. The present mess has its roots in the past. It is an alternately exhilarating and exasperating story, and more often than not it teeters on the brink of absurdity.

The founder of the museum was one of seven sons of a Jewish peddler from a ghetto near Zurich, who more by luck than skill founded the largest metallurgical fortune in the world. By 1914 the Guggenheim interests, which had begun with a couple of flooded lead mines in Colorado, encompassed gold, silver, diamond, tin, and, above all, copper mines all over the world, as well as smelting, shipping, banking, and brokerage. Solomon was the most stylish and sophisticated of the brothers: like the rest of them a not very faithful husband to a nice conventional wife. He enjoyed gentlemanly pursuits: yachting (he often sailed from the North Shore to his office on a converted destroyer), raising cattle, and above all shooting birds. And he liked to dabble in art.

Solomon would probably have continued to fancy minor old masters had he not fallen under the sway (circa 1926) of a Bavarian femme fatale, Baroness (when it suited her) Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen. She had been a theosophist, a follower of Madame Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner, a Dadaist (mistress of both Arp and Richter), and later a committed abstractionist. She also did hack portraits on the side, which is how she wormed her way into Guggenheim’s favors. After zigzagging from style to style and bed to bed, Rebay had developed a passion for a self-promoting Polish painter, Rudolf Bauer, a disciple of Kandinsky, whose work he travestied in a vein that can best be described as Bauhaus kitsch.

Once Rebay had snared her “Grand Old Man,” or “Guggie” as she called him, she maneuvered him into numerous purchases of Bauer’s work (at such exorbitant prices that he set up his own lavish gallery/museum in Berlin, complete with a chauffeur, a butler, and a large black dog to frighten people, because, according to Kandinsky’s wife, Nina, “he was a sadist”). Bauer would be Rebay’s nemesis. Her abject glorification of his wretched painting has cast doubt on her standards for assessing modern art. A measure of her judgment or the lack of it is the fact that, in 1939, Solomon Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting on 54th Street owned 215 works by Bauer, 13 by Rebay herself, and 103 by Kandinsky.4 However unprincipled and manipulative she was, and however much blame she deserves for foisting so many daubs on her benefactor, Rebay also deserves credit for assembling so many masterpieces, not only by Kandinsky but by Picasso, Braque, Léger, Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, and other leaders of the modern movement.

Besides her obsession with art that was gegenstandslos—nonobjective—Rebay suffered from a streak of elitist Nordic mysticism that smacked of Nazism. This and her hold over old Solomon explain why the other Guggenheims loathed Rebay. They referred to her as “the B” (for bitch, not baroness). Solomon’s niece Peggy (born 1898), had reason to feel particularly bitter. After being edged out of the enormously lucrative family partnership by his cannier brothers, her own father had gone down in the Titanic. His three daughters were thus the least rich members of the family.

Peggy’s resentment of her “wicked” uncle and his supposedly Nazi mistress took the form of competitiveness. In 1937 she infuriated Solomon by opening a London gallery called Guggenheim-Jeune (a pun on Bernheim-Jeune, the famous French dealer). When Peggy put on a Kandinsky show and provocatively offered her uncle a painting, Rebay, in pidgin English, warned her off her turf:

will be your gallery the last one for our foundation to use…. You will soon find you are propagating mediocrity; if not thrash [sic]…. It is very poor taste indeed to make use of…our work and fame, to cheapen it to a profit.

Undaunted, Peggy announced that she was going to start her own museum in Paris—something she knew Solomon also envisaged. Rebay exploded. How dare this “ghastly Guggenheim girl” compete with her sacrosanct uncle?

In her memoirs, Peggy admits that her art collecting had started as an antidote to boredom. Thanks, however, to a succession of illustrious mentors—Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Alfred Barr, and Herbert Read—she soon developed an astute eye. As war approached, she started buying a picture a day; a man a day was also on her shopping list, she once told me, “but pictures were easier to obtain.” Between the spring of 1939 and the spring of 1940, Peggy made a series of brilliant purchases. She came to prize her cubist acquisitions the most, but affairs with sundry Surrealists (she was briefly married to Max Ernst) engendered some historic acquisitions such as Ernst’s great Forest of 1927–1928 and Magritte’s La Voix des airs of 1931. With the outbreak of war, prices tumbled because nobody else was buying. For once she could outsplurge Uncle Solomon and his dreaded Rebay.

After Peggy fled Paris, she decided to set up her Art of This Century gallery in New York in direct competition with her uncle, who had arranged for Rebay to open the Art of Tomorrow gallery in a converted car salesroom on East Fifty-fourth Street. Rebay did her best to sabotage Peggy. She told real-estate brokers not to show her suitable premises; she also threatened to invoke Guggenheim influence and have Max Ernst deported if Peggy ever called her “an evil Nazi witch” again.

This did not deter Peggy. She had Frederick Kiesler, the avant-garde designer, do over two former tailors’ shops and install her paintings so freakishly—stuck out at odd angles from the wall on truncated baseball bats and lit by blinking spots—that it was virtually impossible to see them. Her collection had now been augmented with a number of works by her “discovery,” Jackson Pollock. Here Peggy was one up on Rebay. In 1943 Pollock had worked as a carpenter for the baroness and had shown her some of his paintings. There were “possibilities of development” was all the encouragement she gave him. Peggy had the sense to put him under contract, but she did not worship Pollock as much as she is alleged to have done. In the mid-1950s she begged a friend and me to take two major Pollocks off her hands for $10,000. Like fools, we didn’t.

Peggy’s Art of This Century shows were more of a draw than Rebay’s Art of Tomorrow ones. The latter were derided for their bogus mysticism. Paintings were hung touching the floor—“to mediate between heaven and earth,” Rebay said—while incense smoldered away and wheezy classical music was piped up from a phonograph in the basement. Women painters and sculptors were hired as hostesses—“votaries at a mystic shrine” (according to Rebay’s biographer Joan M. Lukach)5—to explain the overframed artworks, too many of them by Bauer and Rebay. Paintings by native artists were conspicuously absent. One of the few Americans on exhibit complained that Rebay had repainted part of the canvas he had lent the gallery and then botched the restoration. Self-aggrandizing pronouncements such as “genius is a special gift of God—to the elite of the nation” made Rebay’s political affiliations suspect; so did the fact that her brother, Franz Hugo, was a high-ranking Nazi, although she claimed that he had helped her save a number of “decadent” artists from Hitler’s clutches.

In 1942, Rebay and Bauer had a catastrophic falling-out. After rescuing Bauer from a concentration camp at much cost, Solomon Guggenheim had given him a house in New Jersey, complete with a housekeeper, whom he promptly married. Rebay retaliated by bombarding Bauer and his wife with hate mail; whereupon they sued. With Guggenheim’s backing, Rebay won in court, and the Bauers then denounced their former protectress as a Nazi spy. FBI men with binoculars staked out her waterfront estate, Franton Court (named in honor of her parents, Franz Josef and Antonie), and eventually raided the place. Far from communicating with enemy submarines, Rebay turned out to be hoarding food on a criminal scale: 1,400 pounds of sugar, 500 pounds of coffee, and much else were confiscated from her garage. Solomon Guggenheim had difficulty rescuing his muse from a detention center.

Before he died in 1949, Guggenheim repeatedly tried to persuade Rebay to resign as director of his embryonic museum. He was fed up with getting “more kicks in the pants than kicks out of his collection.” So said his nephew, Harry, who inherited responsibility for the institution and had to suffer torrents of “the B’s” anti-Semitic abuse before he could prevail upon her to go. Despite a written undertaking that she would hand back all the art she had purloined from the foundation, Rebay imperiously refused to “strip the walls of my house for that pigsty.” In the end Rebay left most of her considerable estate to her own foundation, from which the museum had to buy back its own property for a million dollars.

Rebay’s successor, James Johnson Sweeney, was more likable and serious, but he, too, was done in by controversy. This rich, outgoing Irishman had moved to Paris to be a poet and had helped James Joyce edit Finnegans Wake before going to work at the Museum of Modern Art. Although not always very discriminating in his passion for modern art, Sweeney seemed ideally suited to clean up Rebay’s mess. Within days of his appointment, however, he was drawn into a major battle. Some ten years earlier, at Rebay’s behest (not Mrs. Guggenheim’s, as family legend has it), Solomon Guggenheim had asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design a museum for him. Within a year Wright had come up with a plan for Rebay’s “temple of the spirit,” inspired by a Mesopotamian ziggurat—a place of prayer—he said. Sweeney hated it on sight and claimed that Wright had simply recycled a plan for a jam factory. (In fact it was for a lookout point in Maryland that had never been constructed.)

From its inception, the Guggenheim project was beset by obstacles, not least New York City’s draconian building code. Wright wrote countless letters to his cousin by marriage, the all powerful Parks Commissioner Robert Moses—“Dear Bob, the Moses”—but did not obtain a building permit until 1956 (seven years after Solomon Guggenheim’s death). When this materialized, Wright was exultant. “Dear Bob, thrice cousin,” he chided his recalcitrant relative, “We thank you and we thank you for being mystified, scared and devastated by the tower.” A few months later, the ninety-year-old Wright begged “Lieber Harry, the Guggenheim” to grant this special edifice a special name, “Archeseum” (as in architect or arch-duke). “Lieber Harry” was adamant: “It is to be designated, inscribed and known as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.”

The clash between the tyrannical architect and the pugnacious director would torment “Harry, the Guggenheim” for the next few years. By their very different lights, both parties had right on their side. Wright fought to protect the integrity of his work of art—as heavenward in its aspirations as Kandinsky’s—in flagrant disregard of basic museum needs. Sweeney fought to have a workable space for exhibiting the permanent collection and temporary shows as well as for offices, workrooms, and storage (all those dud Bauers and Rebays, as well as the new director’s more often than not dubious discoveries, took up a lot of room). But Sweeney never concealed his dislike of Wright’s basic concept. Modernism, he felt, should imply functionalism. And, however much one admires the building, it is difficult not to agree with him.

Wright and Sweeney fought over everything. The light: natural (Wright), artificial (Sweeney); the walls: curved (Wright), flat (Sweeney); the color: light tan or ivory (Wright), white (Sweeney). Wright attacked Sweeney’s spotlights as the meretricious tools of a fraudulent dealer; his white walls evoked nothing so much as “the toilets of the Racquet Club.” “To use our precious VIOLIN,” Wright complained, “we have a man who can only play the PIANO.” By 1958, Sweeney had had enough of Wright’s contrariness and resigned, then changed his mind when Guggenheim effected a truce. Wright feigned cooperation, but the moment Guggenheim’s back was turned—or, rather, broken in an accident—he resumed his machinations. From his sickbed, Guggenheim chided the architect for countermanding instructions and superseding his authority. Three months later, Wright was dead. He turned out to be ninety-one, two years older than anyone thought.


Later that year, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum finally opened. The originator of the project (Rebay), the widow of the architect, and the director of the museum were all kept from speaking at the inaugural ceremony for fear that they would “hold the museum up to ridicule.” In the summer of 1960, Sweeney had a searing row with Guggenheim and once and for all resigned. The director had supposedly pooh-poohed Guggenheim’s insistence on educational programs, but his real offense was ridiculing Wright’s building to The New York Times. He was replaced by a nonconfrontational Czech, Thomas Messer, who could be relied upon to do the trustees’ bidding—never more so than in 1971, when he fired a star curator, the late Edward Fry. Fry had refused to countenance Messer’s withdrawal from a Guggenheim exhibit that he, Fry, had organized of three polemical works—an attack on Manhattan realtors—by the German-born conceptualist Hans Haacke. The avantgarde rallied around Fry.6

Messer came in for more opprobrium when, besides deaccessioning the Kandinskys, he accepted “the private collection” of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings belonging to an old German dealer, Justin Thannhauser. True, this collection includes some important Picassos, but these are mostly too early to fit coherently with the rest of the Guggenheim collection. Also, Thannhauser’s insistence that his paintings be hung on dingy gold brocade (later ripped out) introduced a fustian note that was comically at odds with Wright’s inverted ziggurat.

Meanwhile Peggy Guggenheim had installed her Art of This Century collection in a small, unfinished palazzo on the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. By throwing open her collection to the public, Peggy turned herself into a Venetian landmark, an achievement that she was not going to allow death to undo. She wanted her art-filled palazzo to be her memorial, but who would fund it? There was no money for an endowment. Thanks to the tragic death of her father, no provisions had been made for Peggy beyond an $80,000-a-year trust fund, and this was destined to go to her children. No institution was prepared to assume financial responsibility for the collection, especially one subject to Italian regulations. At this juncture Messer came along. He suggested that Peggy put the bulk of her paintings on temporary exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, as a first step toward an eventual amalgamation of the two collections. She was in no position to refuse.

When Peggy arrived in New York for the exhibition of her collection in her uncle’s museum in January 1969, she was not pleased. Messer had warned her that there would have to be some light surface cleaning, not that a number of her best works would suffer radical restoration. Knowing that cubist paintings should never be varnished, Peggy had pursued a policy of benign neglect. Like most curators of his day, Messer seems to have been unaware of the cubists’ insistence on this point, and had allowed Peggy’s best picture, Picasso’s cubist Poet, to be “flattened on a vacuum table (and) coated with synthetic resin varnish,” as the Guggenheim’s cataloger, Angelica Rudenstine, scrupulously points out. Reports on the treatment of other major works—Picasso’s Atelier (1938), for instance—reveal that Peggy had further cause for displeasure.

Despite distrust of Messer, Peggy ultimately joined her collection with her uncle’s. However, she insisted that it remain intact in Venice. Nothing was to be subtracted and nothing was to be added. Before she died she took me on long gondola trips to discuss all this and told me how glad she was that the cubist paintings—of which she was proudest, despite their scrubbed and flattened state—would remain hanging in the dining room. This assumption has been consistently flouted—never more than now.

The day after Peggy died (December 1979), Messer arrived and took over. Her part-time curator, John Hohnsbeen, was told to pack his things. Peggy’s immediate family felt no less shabbily treated. None of the descendants received even a token item from Peggy’s $40 million, 326-piece collection. Peggy’s sister Hazel—who, according to Peggy’s biographer, was “widely believed” in New York to have thrown her two sons off a roof in 1928 to punish her husband for leaving her and who was “likened…to Medea” by her cousin Iris Love—was left a marabou bed-cover. (The police said the deaths were an accident.)7 No one had had the foresight to obtain a cremation permit, so Peggy’s body remained on ice for a month or more. Thus there was no funeral or memorial service. Next to where her ashes are interred, Krens proposes to erect a cafeteria.

When the palazzo reopened under the auspices of the Guggenheim Museum in April 1980, Peggy had been exorcised. Rooms, now painted dead white, were devoid of the idiosyncratic objects, primitive sculpture, and surrealist bric-a-brac—assemblages by her first husband, Laurence Vail, and her friend Mina Loy—which had given the palazzo its distinctive charm. The head of Peggy’s historic Calder bed had been put in a showcase. More paintings had been spruced up and now looked like glossy facsimiles of themselves.

On grounds that the terms of their grandmother’s gift to the Guggenheim Foundation have been badly broken, her grandchildren have brought suit in a Paris court against the trustees, who are headed by their cousin Peter Lawson Johnston. One of their complaints concerns a year-long (September 1990–September 1991) exhibition that the Guggenheim put on in the palazzo—an exhibition that pitted the sort of art that Peggy loathed (“I do not like art today,” she said. “I think it has gone to hell”) against specific works in her collection. In her bedroom a neon piece by Flavin cast an eerie green light on her Calder bed head. Elsewhere Pollock was paired off against Serra, Tanguy against Mario Merz, Vantongerloo against Judd, and so forth. Meanwhile, some of Peggy’s most fragile paintings were being trundled around the world in a two-year show of Guggenheim masterpieces, despite sound conservationist reasons for keeping them at home. Moreover, as her grandsons argue, although her deed of gift does not spell things out, Peggy says in her memoirs that she and her cousin Harry Guggenheim agreed that “the collection remain in Venice intact in my name…. Nothing was to be removed.”8 With some reason, they also claim that, thanks to Krens, the unique character of her Art of This Century collection, not to speak of her palazzo, is being threatened. The Guggenheim trustees, the grandsons feel, are flying in the face of Peggy’s expressed intentions and endangering, rather than safeguarding, the birth-right that she denied them.

Like many concerned Venetians, Peggy’s grandsons also question Krens’s other scheme for Venice. With tourism in mind, he has packed his board of trustees with hotel, entertainment, and media tycoons, some of whom are in serious financial trouble, and plans to take over Venice’s spacious but derelict customs house, the Dogana di Mare (just down the Grand Canal from Peggy’s palazzo and across from the Piazzetta where tourists gather), and have it refurbished by the eminent architect Aldo Rossi. Peggy’s small-scale museum will be upstaged. As if that were not enough, Krens also talks of establishing a third branch in Panza di Biumo’s dank and gloomy Villa Litta outside dank and gloomy Varese, with its seemingly inexhaustible supply of conceptual art, some of it (for instance, Maria Nordman’s walk-in light chamber contrived out of a horse stall) too unwieldy or too much part of the villa to be moved.

Nor is Krens’s cultural colonization confined to Italy. In Austria he has joined forces with Salzburg’s tourism-obsessed mayor to establish a Guggenheim franchise deep inside the Mönchsberg, the mini-mountain near the Festival theater. The prize-winning plan for this project—by the Austrian architect Hans Hollein, who welcomes the Guggenheim’s intervention in Salzburg as a “stroke of the Holy Ghost”—involves a huge Nibelungen cave in the form of a helix with ramps spiraling higher than the ones in Wright’s building. “What could be more perfectly postmodern than a building with no facade, an exterior completely at one with its environment in its absolute invisibility…?” Krens asked in his introduction to the catalog of the 1990 Salzburg exhibition of Guggenheim masterpieces. A museum burrowed out of the rock is an engagingly Wagnerian idea, but the vast cost and questionable feasibility of the scheme, combined with the lack of funds for more pressing causes, not to speak of a chauvinistic lack of enthusiasm for New York minimalists, have not generated much approval outside a local circle of vested interests. For the time being, the Salzburg Kunst Bunker seems to be on hold.

Krens has come up with yet another European Guggenheim Museum, in the Spanish city of Bilbao, the once rich, now troubled capital of the Basque country. Although it is part of a billion-dollar redevelopment scheme intended to establish Bilbao as an international center, this franchise also faces fierce opposition. According to the principal local newspaper, El Correo Español, the Basques are unhappy with their local government for agreeing to pay a major part of the $200 million costs for a museum of largely American art (the sculptor Eduardo Chillida is the only Basque there is much talk of including) to be rented from the Guggenheim for a fee of $18.9 million, above all a museum designed by an American architect, even the great Frank Gehry. Spain is especially rich in imaginative young architects. Hence considerable indignation when none of them was chosen for the job.

No less an authority than Carmen Giménez, the Guggenheim’s guest curator and founding director of Madrid’s Reina Sofía Museum of Contemporary Art, has expressed doubts about the Bilbao scheme on various scores. She feels that Gehry’s sand-blasted stainless-steel-and-stone building will compete with the art; and that anyway the work with which Krens proposes to fill it is too Anglo-Saxon. If there is to be a Guggenheim in Spain, it should help the Spaniards develop their own identity, she says. “If Tom wants to do a museum in Bilbao as if it were in Pittsburgh, he will fail.”9 The project is more likely to provide terrorists with a new target, a Basque friend says, than to lure back businesspeople and tourists who have been scared off by bombs.

All Krens’s schemes are predicated on a huge volume of public interest. But is the average Venetian or Basque or Salzburger, let alone the average tourist, remotely interested in something as recondite as felt floor-pieces? Will he or she appreciate the way most conceptual artists eschew aesthetic considerations and make their works look as drab and commonplace as possible lest the concept be distorted or overshadowed? Minimalism should prove more accessible, but I very much doubt whether my own admiration for such artists as Richard Serra, Robert Ryman, Ellsworth Kelly, and Brice Marden is shared by more than one in a thousand sightseers. Carmen Giménez has also expressed skepticism about the drawing power of minimalism. When she exhibited part of the Panza di Biumo collection in her Madrid museum, 150,000 people came, but that was over a nine-month period. To pay for themselves, Krens’s projects will have to attract millions of people prepared to pay hefty entrance fees.

The inordinate importance that Krens chooses to attribute to conceptual art and minimalism—the consummate manifestations of the modern movement, he would have us believe—seems much more of a matter of entrepreneurial chauvinism than of any deep artistic conviction. Like most other American businessmen, Krens is out to promote and export his product: art that has been fabricated in the US. Like many other American products, his is in danger of being superseded by imports from abroad—most recently from Germany. Hence his takeover of a Massachusetts factory site: a testing-ground and showcase for new lines and a warehouse for obsolete stock. Hence, too, his worldwide franchises and the establishment of potentially lucrative links (shades of Disneyworld) with hotel and tourist interests. Hence above all his corporate approach to his museum, which is as conceptual as the merchandise that it has been tailored to market. Krens’s incessant talk of “strategies” recalls the Eighties (so does his taste in art movements), when some financiers devised strategies—not least that of junk bonds, which are in effect a form of conceptual art—to enrich themselves at the expense of virtually everyone else.10 Indeed, the current Guggenheim schemes can best be understood as a new kind of conceptual art: a combination, perhaps, of Boesky and Beuys.

This Issue

July 16, 1992