Go Go Guggenheim

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…

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