John Haber
in New York City

The Pompidou Center at the Guggenheim

Barely up the Guggenheim's first ramp, I wanted to call every one of my friends. I had to beg them to come up right away. The museum has long tossed around the word masterpieces like a mantra, or maybe a logo, but this was intense. It was a museum of modern art concentrated into in a single visit. I thought about the logo only later, and by then it might have been too late for modern art.

Calling modern art

The only thing that kept me from the telephone, other than my cheapness, was the promise of the second ramp and Cubism. It was a visit to Paris ten years ago that made me cherish late Braque, and I wondered if I would see that very work again. One tends to forget Georges Braque after Cubism, even now that Picasso's women and later career get so much scrutiny. Matisse's L'Italienne (Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1916)One may see no more than mindless decoration in Braque's dark tones. At the Pompidou Center I had the revelation of his late work, a reconnection to vision within the perplexities of the Cubist image. That discovery is exactly the sort of modern masterwork for which the Guggenheim—and this exhibition—exists.

Of course, my impulse to gather my friends in distant cities was an impractical ideal, but "Rendezvous: Masterpieces from the Centre Georges Pompidou" begins on just that note. Its introductory wall text cites André Malraux's "imaginary museum." Malraux conceived of art as a twentieth-century feast for the imagination. He proposed that one can now put together one's own ideal museum at a moment in his one's head. Art may find itself scattered through private collections around the world. All it takes, however, is the kind of connection I made just that second—to my friends or to Braque.

I tend to write off Malraux as dreadfully superficial, a Sister Wendy for the establishment of a couple of generations ago. He stood for high culture—meaning, of course, French culture—right when American art was making the notion all but irrelevant. His art of the mind sounds bloodless, like the "virtual museum" of today. In them both, I hear art world clichés for upper-class esthetes. They encourage one to skip through works of art as rapidly as a slide show, as easily as selecting clothes from a walk-in closet.

Modern art was in fact dedicated to showing how much the slide show leaves out. Just catch the Jackson Pollock retrospective a mile or two downtown. That will teach Malraux the precision of painting, the complexity of standing amid an installation, and the time it takes to experience beauty on terms as unfamiliar as it demands. Still, the Guggenheim puts Malraux's imagination right there on the walls, as if to turn his idealism upside-down. With selections from the Georges Pompidou Center, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's own permanent display. Modernism's life blood is flowing again.

I had already seen the first-ramp's airy alcove, devoted entirely to Henri Matisse and Matisse's influence. With the joy of a sketch paired next to a completed early painting, one treats oneself to questions. When a thick, black outline cuts briefly into a woman's body, does it define her body sensually, pick up complex shadows in single stroke, or allow line to cut free of vision? That includes free of a male's complacent eye for female flesh. And why did Matisse go after a full-size sketch? Clearly he was never simply the colorist, in contrast to Pablo Picasso as draftsman.

Nearby French Window from Paris faces the Italian Girl from New York. In the first, one sees how close Matisse came to abstraction. In the latter, too, one sees how thoroughly he probed representation. The girl's black hair tumbles into a veil, which in turn merges with the picture plane. And in both one sees how dark his sensuality could be. I thought of Marcel Duchamp and his punning Fresh Widow, with black covering the construction's glass panes.

Nearby the Guggenheim actually moves paintings around, taking over the Thannhauser wing for the first time in memory. Work normally on display there looks much better out in the light. I particularly admired Picasso's Accordionist, in which he too drew back from the edge of abstraction. The rearrangement also shows how well the Guggenheim's expansion has integrated the old wing into a newer tower gallery attached. There, a room for Fernand Léger makes him out as rather more complex than in a retrospective not long ago at the Museum of Modern Art. These paintings blend Cubist architecture, village houses, and puffs of pipe smoke to suggest the strangeness of meditation.

Three institutions . . .

A thrust into the Thannhauser wing also gives space to the Pompidou Center's design collection. Along with Malraux's imaginary museum, the show takes as its theme the separate development of each contributing collection.

The Guggenheim began as one man's private collection with a mission, the "museum of non-objective art." The term, adapted from Wassily Kandinsky and his theories of abstract art, meant freedom from representing mere objects—the freedom to engage the spiritual in art. (No, it did not mean that for this guy money was no object.)

Peggy Guggenheim was both more private and more public. Her collection remained out of the public eye, but she herself worked hard for young artists.

The Pompidou Center, in contrast, only begins as a new home for the Musée Nationale de l'Art Moderne. Its space for furniture may at first glance seem like the Museum of Modern Art's mission in New York, to encompass all of modernity. Actually, the Center houses not just varied media and all sorts of public events, but a cultural center. Its notorious architecture, a building's skeleton without a skin, makes sense in light of this populist ideal. It defines art as exposed to the public, ever developing, and playfully unpretentious.

That said, furniture makes a healthy contribution to the Guggenheim. The Pompidou center brings Breuer's comfortable-looking chairs into the Thannhauser wing. Upstairs, some tacky appliances in "organic" shapes communicate the plastic tastes of the 1950s.

Upstairs, too, I found hints of a postmodern reconstruction of art history. A tower gallery slips George Baselitz, from the recent past, in next to Max Beckmann and his jaded Weimer scenes, well before Beckmann in New York. Across from both, a glass case contains a strange contraption from the 1940s, by Hans Bellmar. A life-size doll, a girl with breasts exposed, holds a second doll made of two pairs of legs joined at the crotch. It anticipates a range of sexual critiques and postmodern fantasies, from Laurie Simmons to the "Brit pack."

. . . Or one storewide sale?

That one conjunction in a truly huge exhibition also shows what this show leaves out. The reference to Malraux tells a great deal about the Guggenheim's limits. I felt it as the upper ramps got duller and duller. I felt with a shock the Paris esthete and the powerful museum back rooms and private institutions that his world bred. I was onto something when I called masterpieces a logo. The exhibition has an ideal I could call MacArt.

One senses the problem if one looks further into the show's second theme. Just how distinct are the three museums? They appear to have grown together into one massive European asylum. It is modern art as the Georges, Solomon, and Peggy show.

Try to guess who owns what. No points, now, given to me and my friends who already know the Guggenheim by heart.

I love Joseph Cornell's small wooden cabinets, with all the magic of a pharmacy chest for the aches and pains of memory. I love that Claes Oldenburg soft drum kit. He might have collapsed the towering sculpture of Constantin Brancusi with a ghostly thud. Bet that anything as American as these must come from New York? Bet that anything as provincially French as an abstraction by Pierre Soulage or Henri Michaux has to come from the Pompidou Center? Oops, you lose.

The exhibition's focus on the museums and their histories, rather than art, takes on a disturbingly corporate sound. Since it follows the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp, it necessarily has an echo of the assembly line and what Wright called "the art and craft of the machine"—or Malraux's bloodless textbook. There they are, masterpieces from the imaginary museum. It may explain why artists hang in the context of other artists only when the collections hold relatively few of their works. The Kandinksy section, for example, has no space for Gabriele Münter or others in the Blue Rider movement.

Did I say that I first saw my late Braque in a Pompidou Center corridor? Even with the Guggenheim's typically first-rate curating, the six-story ramp acts as a perpetual corridor. Paul Klee's small, witty paintings look outright comical on a wall some six feet away. The Brancusi display down in lobby resembled a yard sale. Come to think of it, maybe the entire wide-open structure has the character of an indoor shopping mall.

Tearing the imagination

Museums long took American art as a footnote to European Modernism. Pollock or Arshile Gorky, his contemporary, still drop amid André Masson and Matta. (Anyone care to remember him these days, except as father of Gordon Matta-Clark?)

At least in this Surrealist company one can dispense with old critical talk about Pollock's flatness. He can hardly appear either as a front for American capitalism. On the other hand, speaking of capitalism, this assembly reminds one that the museum has become a multinational institution. A work even turns up from the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

That institution assimilates modern art to fine art. For Robert Rauschenberg a torn, blood-red painting combines understanding and respect for abstraction with ferocious parody. Here it sits as one pretty painting amid pretty paintings. Their esthetic ideal so wins out that I hardly noticed the numeral 5 in a Jasper Johns not much further along, one of many works by Johns in gray.

The European tradition has little room for irony, much less humor. It also has no time for women. Sonia Delaunay's pioneering abstract paintings make for an interesting exception. Le Bal Bullier from 1913 stands out next to work by her more well-known husband, Robert. Its size and subject matter, a party, made me think of Pollock's Mural, in his retrospective at the Modern. I wondered if Peggy Guggenheim knew of the Delaunay when she commissioned his outsize painting. I wondered, too, if she mistook it after all for Delaunay's elegance and warmth.

Saddest of all, the multinational institution of high Modernism comes off as a dead end. Like other encounters with "masterpieces" at the Guggenheim, a 1996 survey of abstract painting and "The Tradition of the New" from 1994, this exhibition pretty much ends twenty years ago, with Art Povera. And once again that style assimilates the show's other token woman, Eva Hesse. It stops just when art most actively engaged the museum itself.

A real gallery has life that Malraux's tradition never imagines, just as my friends have lives that can never entirely merge. It has the power to tear the imagination to pieces. Here the imaginary museum peters out altogether, amid the torn and solemn fragments of fine art.

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"Rendezvous: Masterpieces from Centre Georges Pompidou and the Guggenheim Museum" ran through January 24, 1999, at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.


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