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.