A Museum's Empty Shell

John Haber
in New York City

Daniel Buren, Hilla Rebay, and Jorge Oteiza

Russia! and the Museum's Future

The Guggenheim would make a great museum, if only it did not have to hold art. One could take bubble baths in the normally dysfunctional rotunda pool. One could race up and down the ramp, in a death-defying display to make the mad dash through the Louvre in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à Part like a walk in the park. One could convert the tower galleries into condos, perhaps earning enough to rescue the museum's finances from its director's years of empire building. Thomas Krens rarely has the cash or the interest left to mount an art exhibition anyway.

Daniel Buren has a simple answer to the museum failings: he uses his trademark stripes and a mirrored scaffolding to make it literally a pale reflection of its old glory. Meanwhile, the Guggenheim offers insight into what went into the museum in the first place, with a retrospective of Hilla Rebay, the painter and museum director who first shaped the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Hilla Rebay's Veraline (Guggenheim Partners/Gary Snyder Fine Art, 1945)As for what the future will bring, a retrospective of Jorge Oteiza points at once to the museum's past vision, present politics, and sometimes empty shell. A postscript half a year later, on a blockbuster exhibition of Russian art, finds in that emptiness of present-day vision the sad and sure mark of Krens's tenure.

Stripes but no stars

No doubt you can name the building's strictures on art as well as I. You know the raised edges of flooring that keep one from approaching the art, at peril of a lecture from the guards, and the open rotunda that keeps one from stepping back, at peril of one's life. You know the narrow bays that have reduced many an exhibition to uniformly bite-sized chunks. You know how the slope makes any work of art look askew. You know how an exhibition comes to resemble an assembly line, with the art objects as means to the end of too rapid an exit. You know the cracks in the floor, enough to strike fear into museum-goers aware of the precarious survival of the other certain masterpiece of Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater.

Surely nothing could bring out Wright's typical aggression toward his clients so much as competition with art—and, by implication, with fellow creative artists. Then again, nothing could turn Daniel Buren's lifelong attack on art institutions into a song of praise so much as the Guggenheim. Thanks to Buren, one really can experience the rotunda almost on its own terms, contemplating to one's heart's content the spidery skylight above and the cracks in the floor below. (The former helps give his installation its title, The Eye of the Storm.) One's only obstacle lies in an enormous, right-angled wall of mirrors, running the museum's entire height.

To Buren's credit, the mirrors really do focus one's experience—even if no illusion, however ingenious, could heighten it. As one ascends, the mirrors alternately give the ramps the appearance of closed circles or of floors somehow nested within one another. As one passes through the wall once each floor, one can inspect up close the formidably ugly metal scaffolding that supports it, suggesting a museum in construction physically as well as conceptually. If one exhausts the wall's possibilities, as happens after about fifteen minutes, one can always find other exhibitions in the side galleries.

Twenty years ago, the French artist's striped flags seemed to turn up everywhere. And indeed, at the end of each floor, videos document previous Buren installations, such as his stripes applied to European railroads, while the two balconies overlooking Central Park receive his patterns as colored overlays to the windows. Paradoxically, he meant their banality to critique art institutions, but the work seemed to appeal more to the curatorial set than to other artists and the public. So did their functioning as an artist's trademark. In a famous previous encounter with the Guggenheim, some noted American Minimalists objected to his work's incursion on theirs. Now, with the entire rotunda to himself—and all for loving attention to a landmark structure—the paradox has found its fruition.

Buren can never quite live up to his own expectations or to the metaphor of art as a mirror. The criticism, like the emblem, says little at all about the physical, financial, and institutional limits facing real art. The installation may intensify one's experience of the site's glorious decrepitude, but the Minimalists with whom he fought could transform it. They could also make one aware of one's participation in creating that experience. The studied repetition of balcony windows brings one, at least mentally, back to earth. All this praise for the Guggenheim, however heartfelt and visually rewarding, may not cut that much deeper than Buren's former critique after all.

Buren tries to hold to the Minimalist love of its surroundings while writing off its environment as a con game. He tries to brand both the museum and the viewer, but both may prefer to find their own logo. He smiles at his own devices, but with a tense smile far from the laughter of Matthew Barney, who really does take that bubble bath in the rotunda. He treats everyday life as an empty shell, and when that fails, as at the Guggenheim, he empties it himself. A more vibrant appreciation and a more careful critique alike may care more for how a museum fills up in the first place. Ironically, another exhibition charts the career of Hilla Rebay, who helped the Guggenheim come into existence and served as its first director.

Creating the Guggenheim

Just who created the Guggenheim? Site-specific installations can tell only part of the story of the birth of the modern museum. Two exhibitions resurrect Hilla Rebay as founder, curator, patron, a painter herself, and the force behind a single-minded vision of modern art. Do many of her choices seem strangely remote now, like many a conversion from private collection to public museum? Do the museum's sadly unfocused exhibition calendar and its often half-empty tiers suggest quite another kind of dead end? Perhaps, but together they help put the museum's very sense of mission on the spot.

Born in 1890, Rebay was old enough for traditional academic training, with a skill especially obvious in the companion show this spring at D. C. Moore, curated by Gary Snyder. By her early twenties, however, as evident at the Guggenheim, the German artist was already working in collage and traveling in some heady circles. Jean Arp himself gave her a copy of the 1910 volume Concerning the Spiritual in Art, by Wassily Kandinsky, and by 1916 she was pulling off some impressive painting, with the thin, flowing surfaces of the Blue Rider and a dedication to abstraction well beyond most even within the movement. She was still paying her debt to Kandinsky's later style in the 1950s, with perhaps her best paintings. Did his influence lead too many artists to inert compositions, with geometric shapes arranged on two-dimensional fields of opaque white? Somehow, she managed to grasp the impulse toward a fluid, three-dimensional space rooted in the imagination, and she kept getting better at it as well.

Oddly enough, the years in between contained some serious detours. For one, she moved to America in 1927. For another, many prewar collages use the extended lines and bright colors of expressionism and Japanese art to conceive elegant, costumed women. She maintained enough of a reputation as a realist, too, that Solomon R. Guggenheim came to her with a commission. She completed his portrait, also on view in her retrospective uptown, but the encounter of artist and patron led to much more. She became the advocate for a Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and she converted her sitter into the collector who made it possible. She even gets credit for choosing Frank Lloyd Wright to design the museum's ultimate incarnation, and she famously terrorized the staff at its earlier midtown location.

For all that fabulous time line, her life does not fit entirely into contemporary narratives, modernist or revisionist. I want to see her as another lost woman artist, but I can hardly complain if she preferred to found a major museum and to serve as its first director—and if she stuck with painting almost until her death in 1967. I want to see her as a pioneer in legitimizing a supposedly "lesser" or "feminine" art form, fashion, but she appears to have lost interest in it once she could attain the geometric stratosphere. I want to appreciate her independence, but she kept sacrificing her own good judgment to a man: she considered her lover since 1933, Rudolf Bauer, as a leader in abstract art, and her acquisitions reflect that judgment more than he could ever deserve.

I want to appreciate, too, the sheer achievement of assembling one of the great collections of modern art. However, her own selections—much of a room at D. C. Moore and an entire tower gallery uptown—pale beside the museum's better-known works by Kandinsky and his peers. If she truly grasped what Kandinsky knew, she did not see when others did not. She also pursued that style decades after it no longer drove American art. She eventually found herself forced out as museum director.

The complex turns may make the best story of all. They reflect not just the multiple, at times conflicting pathways and obstacles facing a woman artist or professional. They also make one wonder again about the relevance of all this now, with abstract art persisting and yet growing more concrete and tactile, more varied in its invented landscapes and real installations, and no longer able to believe in the cutting edge. When the museum has the guts to return from empire building to self-examination—when it starts worrying about genuine growth in its collection and exhibitions—one may actually find out.

Consciously sculptural

Jorge Oteiza represents something of that hope, but the dilemma behind it as well. In his refusal of all representation and with the spiritual beliefs to back up that refusal, his sculpture picks up where Rebay's art leaves off, but his self-enclosed work may also underscore the problems in sustaining that art today. As a Basque sculptor, he suggests the promise of the Guggenheim's present partnerships, but his obscurity recalls the difficulty of turning its many branches into an artistically relevant internationalism. His retrospective uses the rotunda effectively, and yet, like Buren himself, it leaves the topmost level starkly and revealingly empty.

Oteiza, a new name to me, looks clearly back to European Modernism and forward to Minimalism. One can think of him as a sculptural equivalent of Josef Albers in the abstract painting of Homage to the Square. He made small, self-contained work from only slightly varied elements. The more than one hundred works fill only two of the museum's narrow tiers.

For one extended project, he stacked them on shelves the entire length and height of a wall. In reproducing the shelves photographically, the Guggenheim compares his experimental impulse to the modular elements and lack of closure in American Minimalism. One can think just as well of the scientism of a laboratory for modern art—or the "panopticon," as Michel Foucault put it, of an Enlightenment ideal library.

As with Albers, one sees the terms of earlier Modernism becoming elements of a core vocabulary. No wonder both cared so much about art education. Instead of a color wheel, however, Oteiza explores such matters as the cube and the sphere, the solid wall and the void, or the sculpture and its base. The solid materials, raised platforms, and open chambers look at times like early Alberto Giacometti without the nightmares, Russian revolutionary art without the dreams, or Isamu Noguchi without the machine and the garden. This is art that refuses an unconscious.

Oteiza's combination of spiritually and ruthless logic links him to the literature of his time, too, with its drive toward what Susan Sontag has called "The Aesthetics of Silence," and his career lived out that drive as well. He had a long life, but he started slowly, and he abandoned art largely in his early 50s. The show dates almost entirely from the 1950s. Thereafter, he dedicated himself—and the recognition that his art had earned—to education and the Basque cause. His thought experiment is not without beauty. Yet while the show has only those two rotunda levels, stopping appropriately enough before leaving the ramp's highest level entirely bare, I would not wish it larger.

With his formal elegance, encyclopedic logic, and political commitment, Oteiza could well stand for advanced art of the 1950s. His retrospective, way up the ramp, also suggests that the museum may have at least a tiny remaining interest in translating its worldwide franchise operation into art exhibitions. Whether it can sustain that interest or communicate it to others remains to be seen. After Buren, Rebay, and Oteiza, can the Guggenheim stir the unconscious at last? Will renovations of the Whitney and other museums, by Renzo Piano and others, upstage its architectural legacy?

Postscript: From "Russia!" Without Love

Six months later, an attempt at a blockbuster suggests strongly that the answer is no—and will remain no as long as Thomas Krens guides the museum's future. You can understand why I put off facing "Russia!" In covering so many centuries, would it lack enough depth for a single one? Would it rush past the touchingly grand and awkward religious fervor of early centuries, clear not long before in the Met's "Byzantium" survey? Would one miss the unusual scale of many icons, the hurried motions of their angels, or the cartoon earnestness in my own version here of the first Russian saints, Boris and Glebe?

Saint Boris in a revealing momentWould it bog down in centuries of largely forgotten painting and sculpture, by artists fumbling at European styles and the demands of a harsh aristocracy? Would the 1700s and early 1800s leave little more than portraits of unknown twits, by unknown twits, and for unknown twits? Would one march ahead to that sodden, soft-focus realism familiar from reproductions on the covers of paperback literary classics? Would Soviet propaganda overwhelm the few peaks that remain, including Suprematism and the Constructivists? Would one never sense the sheer daring of Alexander Rodchenko? Would present-day art focus on the totalitarian context behind its rebellion bury Ilya Kabakov's poetry in obscurity compared to Komar and Melamid?

Would the Guggenheim's desperate need to nurture its global empire and its connections to just a few overseas museums kill off its chances for more? Could the museum's alliance with the Hermitage, as in Las Vegas, show only tokens of Russia's great collections? Would it fall back on its usual offerings of Kandinsky or Marc Chagall, when one looks to a blockbuster for so much more? Would one see Kazimir Malevich's finest years at their worst, with thick, cracked surfaces that miss his soaring spirit? Conversely, would it fail to exploit these very limits—the fate of anti-Soviet art in the Soviet Union—for a more provocative and revealing installation?

Would the whole affair add up less to an array of fascinating smaller shows than incoherence? Would the glimpse at a great culture make Russia itself suddenly as remote as the Aztecs and as little connected to the Guggenheim's mission? Indeed, would the exhibition exemplify the museum's entire lack of mission these days? Has nothing replaced the institution's dedication to abstraction but displays of wealth and fashion? Is it now willing to serve as a puppet for authoritarian rule, in a display "realized under the patronage of Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation." Would its overflowing rotunda this month remind one by contrast of that often largely empty museum?

By this point, surely you know my answer—a sadly resounding yes on all counts. Perhaps the exclamation point in the exhibition title says simply that marketing has replaced curating. Perhaps it distinguishes the entire event from either the country or its art. Perhaps it will fool you into hoping instead for the musical version. As 2005 comes to a close, I still await the overture.

Even within the limits of so vast and foolish a survey, a smaller, more creative, and more flexible museum could have done more. It could have forged more partnerships, borrowed more widely and more wisely, and dwelled on the great years at the show's beginning and end. It could have left more out and supplied more context—and more questions. Instead, the Guggenheim has created basically a show about itself, and one can hardly admire the self that appears. In his tenure as director, Thomas Krens has run a landmark museum into the ground, leaving nothing but a famous name, a famous building or two, and a financial disaster. If "Russia!" has a redeeming side, it will make that conclusion inescapable to the art public and the museum's board alike.

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Daniel Buren ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through June 8, 2005, Hilla Rebay through August 10, with a smaller show at D. C. Moore through June 24, and Jorge Oteiza through August 24. "Russia!" ran through January 11, 2006.


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