12.6.17 — Be Careful What You Wish for

Even great architects have to get things built. If there is one lesson in the hundreds of unbuilt projects in the Frank Lloyd Wright archives at MoMA, it is this.

Then again, some things should never come to be. “Never Built New York” presents an imagined city and a torrent of ideas, at the Queens Museum through February 18. Buckminster Fuller's Dome over Manhattan (Stanford University Libraries/R. Buckminster Fuller estate, 1960)I felt its pleasures and its regrets, but also one huge sigh of relief. In fact, Wright preferred open space, too—and I have added this to an earlier report on the Wright archives as a longer review and my latest upload.

Almost any architect you can name had a shot at New York City and a share in its disappointments. And almost every urban landmark became the target for a makeover, even Central Park. Frank Gehry finally made it into town with his bulging IAC headquarter in Chelsea and twisting tower near the Brooklyn Bridge, but not with a Guggenheim Museum by the East River—and Diller Scofidio + Renfro with the High Line, but not Eyebeam, the arts nonprofit, in the shape of an ascending folded ribbon. Michael Graves had his postmodern moment in the sun, but not with an annex to the Whitney Museum (today the Met Breuer). Marcel Breuer himself proposed a sports center in Queens. Left to their devices, I. M. Pei would have plopped a “hyperboloid” down on Grand Central Station and Wright a party-colored fantasy on Ellis Island.

Real estate being what it is, Manhattan gets most of the attention, although Norman Bel Geddes had a plan to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. If the outer boroughs fare poorly, public transit fares worse—unless you count bridges to New Jersey, a gondola by Sergio Calatrava, and yet another soul-crushing highway or two from Robert Moses. Luxury is the word of the day, although Isamu Noguchi and Louis I. Kahn designed a playground, and Buckminster Fuller hoped for apartments in Harlem. Why would they have resembled nuclear power plants? Why, for that matter, would anyone want to cover Manhattan with a glass dome? I hesitate to say, but futurism for Fuller has a mind of its own.

The curators, Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, are not saying either. And the exhibition design by Christian Wassmann makes things more puzzling still. A room follows plans north from the foot of Manhattan, but with only a handout to determine which is which. I promise that you will fail. The same handout applies to forty models in white, inserted into the great scale model of New York left over (and occasionally updated) from the 1964 World’s Fair. They literally shine.

The largest section sticks to plans for Flushing Meadow, including a glass entrance for the Queens Museum itself. Wallace K. Harrison proposed to place the United Nations there, and SHoP architects thought up a sports complex as recently as 2013. Still, almost everything here amounts to pavilions for the fair, which would have vanished in a few months even had they come about. One unbuilt pavilion, by Eliot Noyes, becomes the show’s centerpiece, recreated as a “bouncy-castle”—or, in plain English, an inflatable gray balloon. Why? For all the unbuilt city, the museum wants to be the star of the show.

Maybe Queens gets the last word for good reason: modern architecture had mixed feelings about urban density. Moses wanted to recreate New York as automobile country, with his expressways and housing projects utterly apart from the grid. And Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to make it over as the image of America. Queens never once mentions Wright’s towers—or his Broadacre City. First presented in 1932, it would have spanned four square miles, with everything from farm units to a factory. Fortunately the new Wallach Art Gallery of Columbia University tackles “Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem, and Modern Housing,” through December 17.

After a model of Broadacre City, it follows Wright out of the city, to prefabs that communities resisted and often lacked the skills to build. It weaves these together with Harlem housing, which it sees as an alternative to Wright’s failure to serve African Americans. Its fifty years of projects dispel all sorts of myths. If you think of Moses as the sole villain, they begin with “slum clearance” in the New Deal—and if you think of cookie-cutter projects for the poor, they eventually tried to learn from Jane Jacobs by adding shops and cultural centers, as well as integrating affordable and private housing. Yet the show’s parts hang only loosely together, and the projects end up dismaying alike. As in Queens, be careful what you wish for.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

9.25.17 — Museum Mile

The architect of a mile-high building sought to rein in skyscrapers. He found the loss of light and open space soul deadening. He hated congestion and unchecked growth—but he never, ever shied away from contradictions.

Frank Lloyd Wright contained multitudes. He designed more than a thousand buildings in the course of seventy years, roughly half of them built. He left hundreds of thousands of drawings and other records along the way. Five years after their acquisition, the Museum of Modern Art and Columbia University are still sorting them out. “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, photo by William Short, c. 1959)with a follow-up on Wright’s housing projects just opened at Columbia this fall, will have you doing the same—and it is the subject of a longer review, in my latest upload. With some four hundred objects at MoMA alone, through October 1, it can feel congested and unchecked, but it dares anyone to tease out the multiplicity.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.” Wright was no Walt Whitman, but he was distinctly American. It shows in his egotism and optimism, even in the face of the Great Depression. It shows in his salesmanship, which lay behind his drawings and press events.

There is a lot to unpack, and the lead curators, Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray, are delighted to tick it off. Fifty-five thousand drawings in the archives? (Check.) Three hundred thousand sheets of correspondence, well over a hundred thousand photographs, nearly three thousand manuscripts, and any number of films and models? (Check, check, check, and check again.) One can spend a long time amid the generous selection and wall text, dip in and out, or give up and turn away.

The show already follows a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2009, plus “Frank Lloyd Wright and the City” at MoMA in 2014 (and my earlier reviews will fill out the story). If that, too, sounds like overkill, it has its advantages. It can avoid the Guggenheim’s focus on itself, and it can point more firmly than last time to Wright as an architect rather than urban planner. Yet it can also add to the confusion. It brings separate scholarly curators to each of twelve sections, arranged by theme. If one does not already know Wright’s achievement from past shows, one may not learn about it here.

Fortunately, the themes help pin down the contradictions. Were they even real? Maybe Wright just changed his mind, between his Skyscraper Regulation Project for Chicago in 1926 and Mile-High Illinois some thirty years later. Yet he proposed a high-rise for Manhattan back in 1927, next to St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, and that never got built either. Both towers had the same foundation at that, a “taproot” set deep into the ground as an anchor for cantilevered floors. To add to the seeming contradictions, the idea of a taproot borrows from botany.

The contradictions may never quite go away, but they are also nurturing. Wright was never the dictatorial capitalist out of Ayn Rand—not when he cared so much for people, design, and nature. “Unpacking the Archives” leaves a delight in textiles and table settings as well as buildings. It leaves the beauty of his drawings for their fine lines and soft orange, blue, and green. A large model for the Guggenheim, just as well crafted, will make you want to restore its cream color and to obliterate the toilet tank for tower galleries, added in 1992. It will, at least, until you return to Wright’s building and try to find a decent place for art.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

9.4.17 — A Museum’s Visions

The Guggenheim Museum has every right to speak of visionaries. It built its collection on early Modernism, and it has a wing for Wassily Kandinsky alone.

Its building, too, is the work of a visionary. It might have descended on a city block from above, and it attracts crowds who would otherwise feel more at home with Hollywood special effects than with modern art or Manhattan. Wassily Kandinksy's White Line (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1920)It even looks like a UFO. For a time, though, the artists and architect must share credit with others. With “Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim,” through September 6, the museum pays tribute to its founders—and itself. Even if you know the collection by heart, you will encounter an unfamiliar vision.

The show opens with Kandinsky, but successive levels then pick up the small circle that helped Solomon R. Guggenheim build the collection and take it public—and it is the subject of a longer review in my latest upload. By introducing one collector at a time, it presents a short history of modern art as well. Despite itself, the museum also calls attention to its limits. The exhibition comes to an abrupt end with the opening of that six-story spiral on Fifth Avenue and the birth of Abstract Expressionist New York. Could their vision belong to a now distant past? Maybe not by accident, it also comes just a few months after the Guggenheim positions itself in today’s global art market, with a gold toilet by Maurizio Cattelan.

The Guggenheim is no ordinary museum, quite apart from its round peg in the urban grid’s square holes. The Whitney has moved, in no small part to display its growing collection—while MoMA has grown, slighting its collection on behalf of flash and real estate. The Guggenheim, in contrast, still depends on its quirky origins and architecture. The ramp puts temporary exhibitions at a disadvantage, while the permanent collection has to settle for two modest tower galleries. One displays the Justin K. Thannhauser collection of art from Camille Pissarro to early Picasso. The other limits itself to Wassily Kandinsky and inventing abstraction.

With “Visionaries,” looking gets a little easier, although the focus has hardly changed. The Guggenheim has congratulated itself before, with exhibitions centering on its first director, Hilla Rebay, and its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Now they become just two points in a complicated time line. Just keeping track of the museum’s precursors, locations, and changing names takes some doing. It is also worth the effort. The show becomes the story of half a dozen individuals and an expanding vision of modern art.

It starts, though, on familiar ground, with Kandinsky at his grandest and most lyrical. His abstraction holds the ramp off the rotunda and the adjacent High Gallery. For a moment, the museum looks like a pretty decent place to view art. That will change, but Kandinsky will reappear more than once as a touchstone of abstraction in the twentieth century. Wall text throughout mostly sticks to the work, too. This is about visionaries, but first and foremost their vision.

Does its abrupt end with Jackson Pollock leave the story just incomplete—or is a museum dedicated to the new no longer able to spread the news? One need not decide, for the show ends with a sparkling turning point. Pollock’s 1947 Alchemy, on loan from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, has the impasto of his Surrealist phase and the all-over impulse of his drip paintings. Newly cleaned, its colors gleam amid the thick black oil. For all the points in the show’s time line, it has no floor for Solomon R. Guggenheim alone. As Pollock attests, he could defer to competing visions.

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.