Bilbao’s Guggenheim: New Colossus

Guggenheim Bilbao
Guggenheim Bilbao
The Washington Post, 26 Oct 1997, p. G, 2:1.

Bilbao’s Guggenheim: New Colossus

By Jason Edward Kaufman

Rising in a whorl of sculptural masses, the gleaming metal-clad colossus called the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao beguiles like few buildings in recent memory.

And, notwithstanding its radical idiosyncrasies and apparent disorder, the building can clearly serve superbly as a showcase for art. However, in the case of its inaugural show, Spain’s newest museum strikes one as so spectacular that it outstrips much of the art it was built to exhibit.

Should a museum be a neutral container, deferential to the art? The architect, Frank Gehry, thinks not. “Artists say they’re tired of that. They want to be in an important building, an important place,” he says. To be sure, he has delivered that.

But the art — even the works on a monumental scale — sometimes seems overwhelmed.

The exhibition — a 245-work survey, “Twentieth-Century Art: Masterpieces From the Guggenheim Collection,” on view through February — combines masterpieces of prewar art from the Guggenheim in New York with international postwar works acquired by the Basques for their own fledgling permanent collection, as well as loans from artists and private collectors.

Among the works commissioned are a rather disappointing cycle of paintings by Francesco Clemente, an atrocious group of three 20-foot red Venuses by Jim Dine and an installation of floor-to-ceiling signs with moving lights that beam Jenny Holzer’s banal phrases — “I bite my lip. I bite your lip,” etc. — in English, Spanish and Basque. Christian Boltansky has covered the walls of a recess with grainy black-and-white photographs of people and suspended from the ceiling light bulbs on cords in a memorial tableau he calls simply “Humans.”

The huge scale of the museum is unique in accommodating the monumental art made in recent decades. A gigantic badminton shuttlecock by Claes Oldenburg rests atop a three-story stone pillar in the atrium as if on a purpose-built pedestal. Yet in the largest gallery, which is nearly two football fields long, the architect seems to have gone overboard.

Gehry had planned to divide it with internal walls, but director Thomas Krens decided to keep it empty in order to preserve the world’s largest indoor space for showing art. This gaping cavern turns mural-size paintings into postage stamps and oversize sculptures into trinkets. Colossal canvases by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, hulking sculptures by Carl Andre and Robert Morris, even the gargantuan Swiss army knife by Oldenburg and Gehry — are dwarfed within this hangar. The only work that holds its own is Richard Serra’s “Snake,” a trio of parallel 13-by-100-foot S-shaped steel plates that wind along the center of the gallery. From an overlooking balcony the room seems cluttered.

A similarly poor installation afflicts another first-floor gallery in which abstractions by Gerhard Richter, figures by Magdalena Abakanowicz and other works are crammed around a stone circle by Richard Long in front of a striped wall by Daniel Buren. It’s all too much.

Among the most successful commissioned works is Jeff Koons’s “Puppy,” a huge flower-covered sculpture in the shape of a terrier that sits on the plaza in front of the museum. Basque separatists bent on disrupting the opening ceremonies were arrested trying to hide a grenade launcher within the piece days before the museum opened. One policeman was killed during the arrest — a sad reminder of the unrest that continues to plague the region.

Ten of the 19 galleries are white cubes of the sort that have become familiar in the modern museum era. These traditional spaces are ideal for easel-sized canvases, whereas other rooms are more unorthodox, with bowing, tilting walls and high ceilings that challenge artists to devise site-specific installations. Moreover, despite the museum’s apparent complexity, the plan is extraordinarily intelligible, with galleries radiating around the central atrium on each of the three levels. The visitor never feels lost.

Almost half of the 250,000 square feet is devoted to galleries, but some say the free-form peculiarities of the design pose an obstacle to display. Indeed, at first glance form follows fancy rather than function.

Gehry says he had in mind the fantastic cityscapes of Fritz Lang’s 1926 film “Metropolis,” with their automobile skyways linking futuristic towers. The interior is equally exhilarating, with catwalks crisscrossing the soaring atrium of undulating white walls and 165-foot glass-covered elevator towers. To walk through the building is to experience a constant unfolding of extraordinary vistas.

Future shows will be hard pressed to compete with both the inside and the outside of this stunning $ 100-million achievement — a collaboration between the Basque government and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation of New York, paid for entirely by the Basques and managed by the Guggenheim. It opened to the public Oct. 18.

It would be hard to overstate the visual impact of a piece of architecture that inevitably preempts the attention of anyone arriving to view the art inside. Erupting from the hard-worn fabric of the post-industrial Basque metropolis, the topsy-turvy tumble of titanium takes an anachronistic leap into the coming century, as if extraterrestrials had set up an embassy on the banks of the Nervion River. Seen along the axis of a downtown street it beckons like a mirage, a kind of mechanical abstraction of the verdant mountains beyond. Instantly it has become the centerpiece of the city and attracted attention worldwide.

Gehry’s masterpiece has been likened to a metallic flower, to the hulls of ships and to Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned spiral rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Its overlapping forms seem inspired by futurist sculpture, conveying a sense of centripetal motion, like an arrested implosion of the Tower of Babel. It is like nothing we have seen before.

The remarkable building will likely attract many visitors. But if the museum is to succeed beyond its initial novelty it must present a first-rate exhibition program, one that will make it a destination for Europeans who have found little of touristic appeal in the Basque country. Nonetheless, it is Gehry’s creation that is the main event. Already it has the feeling of greatness.

Jason Edward Kaufman //

[GRAPHIC: Photo, ap/santiago lyon, The design for the Guggenheim Museum in Spain, left, by American architect Frank Gehry, below, threatens to overwhelm its contents, including Richard Serra’s 100-foot-long “Snake,” right, which fills the center of the museum’s largest gallery.]

This article appeared in The Washington Post, October 26, 1997, p. G02.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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