One of the most powerful and haunting experiences of the retrospective exhibition of work of the artist Bill Viola at New York’s Whitney Museum last year was a double-sided video projection showing a walking man; small and distant at first, the figure advanced slowly and deliberately, until, larger than life, it filled the whole screen on both sides. As the figure grew, flames began to lick at the bottom of the screen on one side, and water appeared to rain down from the top of the screen on the other. While the man’s relentless advance continued, the hot orange flames leapt higher and higher and the cool rain became a torrential downpour. The final images were of a full screen of brilliantly flaming fire, and on the reverse, a drowning avalanche of water. Both figures had been totally consumed.
Once seen, this is impossible to dismiss. It can be read as obvious symbolism—man destroyed and regenerated by his passage through the elements of fire and water. Called “The Crossing,” the work repeats the cycle over and over. It can be taken as a morality play or a stunning piece of visual theater, a deeply disturbing use of the arts of film and sound. An unforgettable image, it transmits something intangible and profound.
That makes it incontrovertibly a work of art. The concept and the techniques push the edges of art, pursuing meanings and ways to deliver them that force the viewer to radically revise what he believes art to be. Does this extraordinary imagery make you confront mortality on the artist’s disturbingly graphic terms? So do the depictions of innumerable martyred saints by Renaissance and Baroque masters; even for today’s secular audience the religious imagery has an inescapable impact. Images from mythology such as Titian’s powerful The Flaying of Marsyus remain visually and emotionally forceful.
Viola filled the Whitney’s galleries with remarkable images. The installation, created by the artist in collaboration with the theater director Peter Sellars, not only drastically altered normal perceptions and sensory responses, it also challenged the museum’s plan, spaces, and traditional purposes. When the lights and projectors and recordings go off, the walls are blank; there is no longer anything there, no art at all. Where sound and image and motion had overwhelmed the viewer there is only a void—empty and dark. The relationship between the building and its contents—the ongoing, difficult, and uneasy connections between art and architecture—like the art itself, no longer visibly exists. Once Viola’s transitory images are gone, the space will be completely transformed.
It is in the art museum that the relationship between art and architecture is particularly sensitive and symbiotic—an interdependence further complicated by the fact that two major arts are involved and are often in conflict. The artist Donald Judd observed that art engages in a special dialogue with the space it inhabits. The thesis of Victoria Newhouse’s book, Towards a New Museum, an unusually comprehensive and insightful exploration of today’s art museum, is that the “dynamic interaction between art and architecture” is the single most important factor in the design of the art museum, ultimately responsible for its success or failure. It affects not only the nature of our communication with the art, but also our perception of the works of art themselves.
The connection between container and contents has been an uneasy, ambivalent, consistently controversial, and passionately debated subject since the first portrait or predella was transferred from a palace or a church to a museum built for the purpose of collection and display. In our own time, this forced marriage has involved architects, designers, directors, and curators who have conspicuously and variously addressed, ignored, or misunderstood the importance of the alliance. The ambience provided by the setting can diminish the art or raise the viewer’s responses to an exalted level. The relationship is the secret of a great museum.
Perhaps because of this challenge, the art museum is among the most coveted of architectural commissions. It provides the opportunity for the advanced and experimental design that legitimizes architecture as art as opposed to its more pragmatic practice. But the museum is also an institution buffeted by unprecedented changes in art and society and subjected to questioning about its public purposes; in the critic Arthur Danto’s words, “the manifestations of chaos in what once had been the serenity of tempular space” is another challenge that requires the rethinking of the museum’s aims, form, and content. Danto does not find it surprising that these new museums should be “among the most brilliant architectures of the Post-Modern age.”1 The commission for an art museum has brought international celebrity to more than a few architects; the most obvious example is Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
In the minds of many, the museum is the cathedral of our time. It is a “sacred space,” in Victoria Newhouse’s words, that provides the serenity and splendor, the feelings of awe and reverence, the opportunity for contemplation and enlightenment essential to the human condition. Clare Melhuish, in her analysis of the “museum as a mirror of society,” writes that the museum translated the sacred into the secular; established as a civic monument it has become a community center,2 a place peculiar to this century that uniquely combines inspiration, instruction, and entertainment.
The museum is still the sacred space defined by the classical Beaux-Arts imagery of the nineteenth century, with its processional route of grand entry, great stairs, and formally aligned galleries that encouraged the hushed, elevated ambience, the “aura” that the nineteenth century, with its reverence for the awesome and sublime, perceived as essential to the experience of art. The aura is still there today, in even some of the most radical new buildings—Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and Kiasma, the recently opened Museum for Contemporary Art in Helsinki, by the American architect Steven Holl, are conspicuous among those that employ a startlingly different architectural vocabulary for essentially the same ends.
These museums, and others like them, expand the sensory and intellectual experience of being in the building as a physical and spiritual corollary to the demands of new kinds of art. At both Bilbao and Helsinki, soaring curves and angles and free-form spaces enclose us in a giant, light-filled sculpture. Space is literally reshaped and so is our understanding of it. Stairs, walkways, and ramps are constructed with open views, combining circulation of visitors with constantly changing perspectives of the interiors and their exhibits. Moving through the building, we experience visual revelations and visceral sensations unlike any we have known before.
Somewhere at the heart of even the most unusual of these structures, there tends to be a more conventional series of grand, skylit galleries to accommodate a more traditional kind of art. They occupy a central space crossing the axis of the building at Bilbao, and they form one side of the Helsinki museum. James Stirling’s much-visited Stuttgart Staatsgalerie features a traditional enfilade of exhibition galleries, and Rafael Moneo’s Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm provides superbly lit and proportioned rooms of familiar configuration. But the classic idea of an atrium and a dome, when it survives, or of recognizable rooms in a linear plan, has been stretched, warped, and twisted to relate to the new forms of art that go beyond the painted surface or the sculptured form for complex and even cinematic effects: the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari frequently come to mind.
No wonder the architecture often gets most of the attention. Writing about recent museums, the German critic Claus Kapplinger points out that it is not uncommon for the building, rather than the collection, to be the main attraction—as has been the case with the Pompidou Center at Beaubourg, where many tourists never enter the museum, preferring to ride the dramatic exterior escalator for the spectacular view. Architecture provides the recognition factor and the publicity value that attract visitors and are useful for marketing.3 Museum boards of directors understand this—they routinely seek “signature” buildings from celebrity architects through international competitions.
Frank Gehry’s commission for Bilbao was preceded and followed by several Gehry museums in different parts of the world. Richard Meier, the architect of the new Getty Center in Los Angeles, has also built the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona and a decorative arts museum in Frankfurt. A Spaniard, Rafael Moneo, won the competition for the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, and a German, Josef Kleihues, was chosen for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Tadao Ando, with a long list of museums in his native Japan, is building a museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is the work of another Japanese, Arata Isozaki, and a Swiss, Mario Botta, was selected for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The job of redesigning and expanding the Museum of Modern Art in New York has been given to a Tokyo architect, Yoshio Taniguchi.
Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi who favors angled planes on an aesthetic collision course in designs of abstract, prismatic beauty, was selected recently for arts buildings in Cincinnati and Rome. Hadid is more widely known among architects for her unbuilt designs than for her completed work; anything she builds is bound to raise a city’s cultural visibility. Some museums are constructed before there is much of a collection to be seen—the Galician Center of Contemporary Art in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, has a constant stream of visitors, with very little art on its walls.
The drawing power and financial byproducts of these new museums make them important for urban and economic renewal. The most spectacular example is the Bilbao Guggenheim, with its softly gleaming, titanium-clad, cloud-like shapes that provide both a dramatic new civic image and a revitalizing force for a depressed industrial city. This $320 million gamble—the Basque government paid the bill in exchange for collections and administration from New York—bet the future of the city on culture and tourism. It appears to be paying off; the first year brought crowds far beyond estimates. The building has quite literally put the Spanish city on the map.
The new museums tend to be as different as their patrons, programs, and collections. Renzo Piano’s Beyeler Museum, built for a private collector of classic modern art in Basel, Switzerland, is a gentle and seductive building of extraordinary refinement and sensitivity to its setting, carried out with suave expertise in every beautiful detail. In contrast, the electrifying shock of the hard-edged minimalist geometry of Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus for exhibitions of advanced art in Bregenz, Austria, ignores nature to create its own, enclosed identity; it is an austerely elegant building that jolts one awake to an awareness of the untried and unknown.
Regardless of style, the new museums depend on the money and prestige, the allegiance and support of members of an international power elite who use cultural philanthropy to testify to their social and financial success. But this kind of patronage carries less of a guarantee than when royalty was in charge; galleries in our best institutions change donors’ names with alarming frequency. (The André Meyer galleries in the Metropolitan Museum, established only twenty years ago, no longer exist.) The most conspicuous architectural monument of our time, the corporate skyscraper, has turned out to be less an instrument of immortality than a real estate investment. The museum makes position and power real.
Today’s museum has moved far beyond the original cabinet of curiosities to a virtually open-ended compendium of almost everything our society values or reveres or simply wants to record. The US alone has spent $4 to $5 billion on building museums in the last decade.4 Some six hundred new museums have been constructed since 1970,5 from the Holocaust Museum on the Washington Mall to a shrine in Clinton, Oklahoma, for the artifacts of Route 66, a nostalgia-driven trip down the Depression-era cross-country highway of deco diners and mom-and-pop motels. Great art competes with the limitless kitsch called collectibles. The treasure house and the theme park grow closer all the time.
In fact, the museum and the theme park are the two most visited tourist attractions in the US today. Increasingly, the two borrow from each other and compete for tourist dollars. If anything, pervasive commercialization has only increased the museum’s appeal. As home life erodes and the old city center dies, the museum is an increasingly popular destination. The temporary solitude of Acoustiguides or Artphones (technology for indoctrination keeps improving) leads to the communal lure of shops and restaurants, with concerts and “happy hour” wine tastings devised to avoid the dreaded attendance “plateau” that could suggest decreasing interest or support. New York’s Museum of Modern Art has just put the contents of its several shops on the Internet for on-line sales.
For members there are previews and openings and restaurants that function and look like clubs. For charity galas, the museum rents itself out. The right price will buy the Egyptian Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan for a night; dinners with carefully mismatched plates can be catered in the kitchen of the Tenement Museum downtown. All this is accompanied by cries of desecration and trivialization, but at the same time, as Arthur Danto and others remind us, none of it would exist without the prospect of seeing art or the artifacts of history—not as a privilege, but as a right enjoyed since the French Revolution opened private palaces and collections to the public.
With the increasing fragmentation of society, that right has been subject to debate, and museums have been dragged into the multicultural and ethnic and gender wars. Art museums are accused of perpetuating an elite ideology through an entrenched, dominant culture and of excluding the work and the participation of minorities. Subject to pressure from politicians and community activists and from their sources of public money, museums are attempting with defensive uncertainty to be “politically correct” and to cultivate diverse constituencies. Those in a position to be relatively independent make token populist concessions—New York’s Morgan Library has added a restaurant and the Frick is contemplating a buffet. Virtually all are paying more attention to educational programs for the general public and the participation of women and minorities. James Cuno, director of the Harvard University Art Museums, is concerned that scholarship is suffering as a result,6 while others simply worry that the museum will be weakened in its primary function of collecting and exhibiting. Education and the redress of past inequities, they say, are things others can do better.
But while many museums are emphasizing head counts and outreach programs, and looking to Disney for lessons in accessibility and crowd control, a kind of museum counterculture has been growing, with artists and collectors creating small, elegant, and often hard to reach museums where personal and esoteric tastes are uniting art and architecture in a variety of radically conceived buildings. Relatively free of political or funding pressures, responsible largely to themselves and their private patrons—the Beyeler collection in Basel is a recent example—these museums are not shaped by or subjected to surveys. It is in such places that we find some of the most beautiful and adventurous modern architecture, and some of the most intriguing attempts to deepen the experience of art.
Newhouse has probably seen more of the recently built art museums, public and private, accessible and remote, popular and recondite, than anyone else. Her book includes the obvious examples, like the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Getty, and an assortment of unpublicized buildings that are known to a much smaller number of people in the art world. She does not hesitate to criticize the results, taking account of the political and economic pressures that lead to compromise and flawed decisions. Among the largest and most prestigious institutions, she notes the successful remodelings or additions, the “wings that fly”—Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery, James Stirling’s Stuttgart Staatsgalerie, Venturi and Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery—and the unsuccessful “wings that don’t fly,” a list that includes a series of transformations at some of the world’s most revered establishments.
These renovations can be sharply distinguished from earlier directors’ almost universal practice of lopping off their monumental Beaux-Arts front stairs in an effort to modernize their architecture and popularize their institutions. But on the whole, in Newhouse’s view, today’s directors aren’t doing much better. She calls their extravagant building programs “woefully deficient,” and places the blame squarely where she thinks it belongs. “Museum trustees, directors and staffs have done things to their buildings,” she declares, “that would be unthinkable if applied to their collections.”
In New York, the additions to the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim all come in for criticism. Nor does she spare Paris’s Grand Louvre. In each case, Newhouse writes, the museums have sacrificed architectural quality to expansion, making bad bargains with commercialism and abject concessions to donors. The Met’s Temple of Dendur is “forlorn” in its mammoth glass-walled enclosure, designed more for social functions than for art. The Lila Acheson Wallace wing, added for modern art, is a “confusing jumble of undistinguished spaces.” She calls the Lehman wing, built partly to mimic the townhouse that held Robert Lehman’s private collection of Old Masters, “a twice-fantasized reproduction” constituting “a misleading use of historical replication”—its galleries designed “in imitation of 1905 rooms that were themselves an approximation of what the appropriate background for the paintings might be.”
Of Gwathmey Siegel’s controversial 1992 expansion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, Newhouse states bluntly, “Those to whom this incomparable treasure was entrusted have destroyed his concept.” Michael Graves’s proposed, but fortunately never executed, expansion of the Whitney would have “cannibalized” the distinctive 1966 Marcel Breuer building. The Louvre’s old entrances, inadequate as they were, prepared one for a grand experience in which the viewer was immediately confronted by the art; now I.M. Pei’s sleek underground entrances lead to escalators and retail stores.7 “You don’t enter a palace through its basement or via a shopping mall,” she writes. So much for Pei’s pyramid and French cultural authorities.
Cool and uncompromising, Newhouse’s judgments are made with a precision and elegance that draw on the firsthand experience of each building and collection. She asks in each case how effectively decisions about style and technology serve the intent and purpose of the institution, the patron, and, above all, the works of art. She is equally skillful at conveying the emotional and sensuous responses evoked by these structures and how they work in their social setting.
She shows herself, on the whole, to be more perceptive than most other critics. The new Getty Center in Los Angeles, for example, widely criticized before it opened as elitist, exclusionary, and uncertain of its identity, has been deluged by crowds unaffected by such criticism—over one million people in its first six months.8 Parking reservations are required. The single, subsidized fee of $5 per vehicle includes families and groups. But the public, accustomed to ordering expensive tickets months ahead for blockbuster shows in cities like New York and Boston ($15 per person for the Monet show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, $17.50 on weekends), and to making reservations far in advance for small, private museums like the Barnes collection in Pennsylvania, or to standing for hours in long lines in hot sun at Disneyland where family admission can soar to $100, does not, on the whole, object.
The problem of too many visitors is equally serious at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, as museum attendance in general continues to climb. Professional projections made during the planning process woefully failed to predict the number of visitors for either institution, which are easily double the estimates. In the early months after the opening, those who came to the Getty by public transportation either waited or were denied access when crowds exceeded the limits set by fire regulations, a situation that has subsequently eased.
My own impression is that those who succeed in reaching the Getty after the short, scenic tram ride from the bus stop or garage enjoy both the spectacular views of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean and the museum itself, which has been vastly enriched by purchases made during its construction. It now has everything from the newly acquired Old Masters and hugely popular pictures like Van Gogh’s Irises to superb collections of drawings, photography, and decorative arts, displayed in galleries that range in design from elegant restraint to glittering excess. The ornate French furniture that J. Paul Getty collected has been installed in elaborate period settings. Combining a great site and great art in what may be the world’s most opulent art park, the Getty is a seductive day trip; visitors stay twice as long as experts projected and focus on the museum, which exacerbates crowding further. There are places to eat and to loiter in the landscape. The tram ride to the top of the hill, Newhouse points out, is in the best California theme park tradition.
Richard Meier’s usual all-white façades were rejected by museum authorities with conservative taste, who were reacting to strong community concerns about the suitability of white for the exposed hilltop and the intense California light.9 The pristine, high-modernist buildings of beige travertine and off-white porcelain enamel have been called conventional and predictable by those who would have preferred to see the foundation’s considerable resources devoted to a more daring or experimental approach. For those less concerned with dramatically new architecture, the Getty offers a sophisticated populism: the architect provided a superbly executed, risk-free style for a foundation of growing, semi-autonomous institutions requiring the comfort of consensus. Newhouse’s reservations are shared by others; she objects to the use of period trim in the decorative arts rooms designed by the architect Thierry Despont, and she finds the garden that the Getty commissioned from the artist Robert Irwin disruptive of the landscape.
Some have compared the Getty to a high-class theme park, but Newhouse considers this a plus. She makes a point that many seem to have missed: the Getty has embraced art and contemporary life in a distinctively twentieth-century West Coast way.
The distance between art and life is a theme throughout Newhouse’s book; she is aware of the implicit irony of the fact that the museum itself bears much of the responsibility for separating the two. In her view the community education programs and other populist practices that distress so many others can be justified when they truly bring people and art together. Like many before her, she is convinced that the removal of a work of art from its original setting for the artificial isolation of the gallery is an act that deprives art of both context and meaning. The museum has established a different way of seeing art, one that emphasizes its most abstract, aesthetic values. The intimacy associated with the historical or natural settings in which works of art were originally seen is lost and cannot be recaptured. Such displacement has usually been justified by citing dangers to the work of art—vandalism, deterioration from exposure and pollution, or the possibility of disappearance from the public domain.
In the notorious and still contested case of the dispatch of the Elgin marbles to England, the British claimed they were carrying out a rescue operation after gunpowder stored in the Parthenon exploded. But the trip from Athens to London in 1806 was made at a time when an overwhelming lust for classical art was matched by a growing desire to possess and organize art in categorical, iconographic displays meant to be universally instructive. The ultimate virtue of bringing great works of art together in one place was its professed scholarly neutrality, and the emerging model was the art museum.
But can there be any neutrality, any objective, disinterested presentation of art? Art is infinitely susceptible to manipulation and modification through the tastes and beliefs of those who own or control it and the fashions in vision and interpretation that are the cultural markers of any age. Each generation finds what it needs to fit its own sense of history and personal and philosophical concerns. If the nineteenth-century museum reduced art to didactic expositions of period and style, the twentieth-century museum stripped the crowded traditional galleries bare to make way for “the white cube” in which time and place are totally suspended. The ideas of universal values and of the timeless versus the temporal, the assumption that there is an immutable aesthetic reading, are continuing fallacies; no installation or interpretation exists that is independent of the attitudes, tastes, and concerns of its own time.
Modernism treated this isolation as appropriate for contemporary and historical work alike. Few questioned the premise of objective, abstract presentation at the time, and the exhibitions of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the 1920s and 1930s did much to validate and spread the practice. Alfred Barr’s impeccable installation of the landmarks of modern painting and sculpture in serene white rooms of appealing human scale was paralleled by René d’Harnoncourt’s dramatic use of light and color for the display of the tribal arts that were closely associated with modernist theory and practice. Clutter was eliminated for an intense aesthetic and emotional experience. This is a strong legacy, growing out of a moment in history that the Modern brilliantly captured. But as Newhouse makes clear in her criticism of subsequent expansions, the Modern has been unable to meet, or deal with, reevaluations of its mission as well as its ambitious building programs ever since.
Newhouse concludes that the ideal of the neutral setting is wrongheaded. She takes particular aim at the kind of anonymous container that dethroned classism as the preferred architectural style after World War II. “There is bland architecture that isolates and deadens art,” she observes, “and there are expressive spaces that point up, elevate and animate art to make it part of our lives.”
In Newhouse’s view, today’s postmodern, pluralistic climate can give museum directors far more freedom to display art in the ways they choose. With these wider choices, however, the risks increase; the boundaries of both art and architecture are being stretched beyond recognition. As architecture challenges the right-angled and the perpendicular, it denies everything we feel instinctively about stability and structure. It defies even the appearance of gravity with free-form shapes, such as those of Gehry’s Bilbao museum, or sharply angled planes, as in Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. Such buildings were previously impossible to design or build. There was no way to calculate the engineering requirements or the costs of complex surfaces and structures using new or unconventional materials without the help of computers. As a result of increased computer use in design, the line between architecture and sculpture is eroding.
Architecture has moved much closer to the other, less earthbound, arts. And as artists reject what they see as the political, economic, and even ideological controls of the museum, they are rebelling against established institutions with new forms of art deliberately conceived to be difficult or impossible to collect and display—earthworks, video art, environmental art, performance art, conceptual art, deconstruction and installation art, anti-art. Some contemporary art self-destructs, or it is so large or immovable that it mocks gallery limitations. Some artists, like Donald Judd, at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa—a twelve-building complex open to the public in southeastern Texas that houses his own and other artists’ work—have taken over the preservation and display of their art in defiance of the museum’s authority and control. What started as an act of rebellion against the academy with the Impressionists’ Salon des Réfusés of 1863 has led to the alternative spaces that are defining how more and more art is seen today.
Newhouse is clearly most interested in those examples where the new art and the new architecture come together, where collaborative experiments take the radically new to unfamiliar and sometimes baffling ends. None leave the visitor unmoved. All are deeply absorbing aesthetic experiences.
On entering Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus in Bregenz, for example, it is as if you walked, Alice-in-Wonderland-style, into a world totally unconnected to the one outside, stripped of all disorder and ordinary references, a world of spartan essentials that express a rigidly refined and controlling personal vision. (See illustration on page 12.) Approaching the building, all you see is a delicately proportioned translucent glass box. Close up, one finds that the glass wall is actually double—a wall of individual, rectangular etched panels attached to a steel frame, like feathers on the wing of a bird, backed by another wall of solid glass. Inside the outer glass walls are three asymmetrically placed concrete walls that bear the building’s weight and define but do not fully enclose the interior exhibition space; they stop short of the exterior glass wall, allowing daylight to filter through. The area between the glass and concrete walls contains elevators, stairs, and ducts for heating and air conditioning, which can be seen in ghostly silhouette through the outside glass. A separate small building of strongly contrasting black concrete houses the museum’s offices, library, and other services.
Immediately upon entering the Kunsthaus, the visitor is plunged into a room of breathtaking, luminous austerity—a single perfectly proportioned space almost 80 feet square and 14 feet high, with diffused, even light coming through the translucent glass walls. The building consists of four such single-room galleries, stacked one to a floor, divisible when necessary, with two more floors underground. Between the ceiling of one level and the floor on the next is a space six feet deep that acts as a light catcher, channeling daylight from the exterior glass wall, funneling and directing it through translucent glass ceilings so that every gallery, on every level, is miraculously and mysteriously top-lit by natural light. The concrete walls are polished to a gloss, consistent with a somber palette of grays and black used throughout the building. Details of doors, handles, and installation hardware are minimal and elegantly devised. At night, the museum glows like a lantern.
In this paradoxical building with its exquisitely refined use of both concrete and glass, we see modernism reinvented as ultimate cool. In a setting of Zen-like purity, the changing exhibitions of experimental and avant-garde art—including, for example, works by the American artists James Turrell and Mike Kelly—take over completely and are invested with a heightened intensity. Newhouse writes that the “galleries’ puritanical quality” can be “a liability—in its suitability to a limited number of art forms.” But that is also the building’s point: the architecture is tuned to art that seeks new sensory forms such as Turrell’s use of floodlights to illuminate the building’s “entire height with changing colors,” as Newhouse writes. The extraordinary effectiveness of the Kunsthaus is in the way the architecture and the art within can speak the same language, sharing an equal sensibility, so that the whole becomes exhilaratingly more than the sum of its parts.
What we are seeing, finally, is an extraordinary leap as the various arts come together in a way that could not have been conceived or imagined before. This is what Newhouse calls the “new museum.” She traces its history from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, begun in 1956, with its controversial rejection of both the Beaux-Arts tradition and the neutral modernist model in the continuous space of its dramatic skylit spiral, to the Pompidou Center in Paris by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers a little over a decade later. The Guggenheim eliminated conventional galleries and radically reordered space and form. The Pompidou was conceived as a fluid and transparent box for multimedia arts—an ideal of nonstop kinetic activity that couldn’t be carried out conceptually, and more practically, failed to display art successfully, but that created a new kind of museum nonetheless.
Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim has completed the breakdown of the idea of the museum as either grand palace or all-purpose container. With the incorporation of site-specific works such as Jim Dine’s trio of giant red Spanish Venuses in Bilbao, the art museum has entered into a new phase. Major parts of the building are the result of the active collaboration of artist and architect from the first, conceptual stage of design. They create a much more radical fusion of art and architecture than the traditional blank niches and walls reserved by architects of the classical tradition for sculptures, paintings, and frescoes. Dine’s trio of Venuses in Bilbao reworks one of his familiar subjects to powerful effect. Rising twenty feet, pushing through what would be a normal ceiling plane, if one existed, the rich, red, rough-surfaced forms are seen against the sharp diagonals of a soaring metal-framed glass wall with a backdrop of river and hills. While the conventional view of the work would stop there, the architecture treats the sculpture as a changing drama revealed continuously from ascending or descending viewpoints on a Piranesian ramp.10
Another site-specific work at Bilbao, a brightly colored, hard-edged abstraction by Sol LeWitt, fills a three-dimensional architectural space and encloses the viewer with what might be called surround-color. The museum visitor, whose view is customarily restricted to a flat or shaped surface on the wall, is now contained and encircled by the vivid space-as-work-of-art, receiving constantly changing impressions of line, color, and form while literally walking through the LeWitt abstraction. In each case, the site-specific work and its surroundings succeed in enhancing each other’s effect.
How do the new art museums, with their single-minded emphasis on the art experience, fit into a society obsessed with the accountability of institutions to a public with a variety of expectations? Do they educate or instruct, address the pluralism of our heritage, revise cultural history? Are they sending messages that are “politically correct,” or any messages at all? To suggest today that an art museum need not be directly accountable to the public at large, that it is not a medium for the delivery of political or social messages, is to risk cultural excommunication. But art mirrors life, and the museum will inevitably deliver messages if it deals with the art of our time.
Artists have never relinquished the positions of outsider, protester, commentator, and visionary, even though they find it hard to fill these roles today. Irony, pornography, activism, revisionism, appropriation of the work of others, calculated and escalating outrageousness, attempts to shock or extend the boundaries of permissible experience, have been among the artist’s instruments, weapons used against the conventional world in the service of the artist’s ideas about it. By the 1970s, when no subject was too remote or taboo, many believed this was the death of art. Arthur Danto saw it in another light; he stated, in a radio interview, that “art had turned into philosophy,” with artists questioning conventions and institutions in the disturbing manner of Dada rather than continuing in Cézanne’s tradition of direct visual observation. Denying the concept of beauty, they were exploring the edge between pornography and art, morality and art, and politics and art, in media beyond accepted limits, using art as a vehicle for both propaganda and intimate self-expression. Some of this work doesn’t deserve space in any museum; still more is marginal, and much has already become a bore. A show called “Sensation” at London’s Royal Academy in 1997 transgressed what many visitors thought were acceptable limits—from Damien Hirst’s exhibit of butchered animals in formaldehyde, now in some well-known museum collections, to a variety of scatological and pornographic references. But in the end, sorting out the new art will be the museum’s job, and always has been; the bad calls of the past are buried deep in Beaux-Arts basements.
Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto of 1909 called museums “cemeteries” and demanded their destruction. Not only are we building more museums than ever, we are raising things from the dead—restoring and reconstructing fantasies and simulacra of a real or imaginary past. One museum that defies the popular trend has been built on the site of a twelfth-century fortified bishop’s palace at Hamar, north of Oslo, in order to preserve and present its history. A brilliant, unconventional design by the Norwegian architect Sverre Fehn, the Hedmark Museum fuses past and present in the display of objects excavated at the site, from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries, from religious treasures to farm machinery and ordinary articles of domestic use. (See illustration on page 12.) The artifacts are displayed in the remains of an old stone barn built later on the same site, unrestored, but closed in with glass that covers the ragged openings in the old walls. The visitor follows a winding ramp inside the ruined barn; the path widens to create exhibition areas or narrows to become a bridge directly over the visible archaeological dig. The controlling but nonintrusive architecture underscores the continuity of history through the artfully exposed excavations and the dramatic presentation of the artifacts of centuries of art, religion, and daily life.
The irony of this beautiful and original solution that sets a new standard for museum design is that Fehn claims, like Marinetti, that he does not believe in museums, and deplores our obsession with them. He is convinced that their central role in contemporary culture is part of our denial of death, our fear of loss, the preoccupation of a materialistic society that values objects too highly and believes that they can ensure memory and immortality. He may have a point—it could be a dread of oblivion and a pharaonic desire to keep our treasures with us that has led to the museum’s revered place and our worship of what it contains.
But the art museum goes beyond the preoccupation with material things. It is dedicated not only to collecting and preserving, but to the search for meaning that has always been among civilization’s highest achievements. This has produced a unique building type today, based on an unprecedented kind of collaboration between artists and architects. At its most successful, it is a new art form.
April 22, 1999
Arthur C. Danto, review of The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age, by Douglas Davis (Abbeville, 1990), in The Print Collector’s Newsletter, Vol. 22, No. 5 (November/December 1991), pp. 183-185. ↩
Clare Melhuish, “The Museum as a Mirror of Society,” Architectural Design (November/December 1997), pp. 22-25. ↩
Claus Kapplinger, “Architecture and the Marketing of the Museum,” Museum International (October/December 1997), pp. 6-9. ↩
Jacqueline Trescott, “Exhibiting a New Enthusiasm, Across US, Museum Construction, Attendance, Are on the Rise,” The Washington Post, June 21, 1998, pp. A1, A16. ↩
Jayne Merkel, “The Age of the Museum,” Oculus, published by the American Institute of Architects, New York Chapter, February 1998. ↩
James Cuno, “Whose Money? Whose Power? Whose Art History?” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 79, No. 1 (March 1997), pp. 6-9. ↩
In the final phase of the Louvre’s ren-ovation, taking place now, an additional, street-level entrance will be opened, leading directly to the galleries. ↩
Trescott, “Exhibiting a New Enthusiasm, Across US, Museum Construction, Attendance, Are on the Rise,” p. A1. ↩
I served on the Architect Selection Committee for the Getty and on a Design Advisory Committee that functioned for the first few years of its planning and design but did not continue into the later years of the project. My responses are affected by what I learned through my closeness to the project. ↩
In New York, Dine’s Venuses, in green, stand in a vacuous plaza, flanking a featureless building in a standard Avenue of the Americas officescape. Drained of meaning and impact by the utter ordinariness of their surroundings, scale notwithstanding, they lose the battle against a setting that was meant to be urban and monumental but only lets out into the traffic of Sixth Avenue. ↩