By Carter B. Horsley
Over the past couple of years, the Solomon
R. Guggenheim Museum has permitted its great rotunda to be altered
by special installations and the latest is by Nam June Paik, the
video artist, for his current retrospective that runs from Feb.
11 to April 26, 2000.
Paik has created a quite magical green laser
light fountain that soars almost the full height of the rotunda
and has covered most of its large circular floor with scores of
television sets showing various videos of his, while also projecting
a pleasant but uninspired laser-light show on its fine skylight
and also projecting some of the videos on large screens on one
side of the ramp, as shown in the photograph above.
The overall effect is garbled, but still impressive,
largely because of the green laser light fountain. The large video
projection screens on the ramps are weak images and detract from
the otherwise "electrifying" impact of this aspect of
Nam June Paik has been the artist of television,
as opposed to the video artist. He likes to put television screens
in odd settings, some of which have been very effective and charming
and some which have been extravagant exercises in self-indulgence.
This exhibition at the presents him at his
best and at his most boring.
This rotunda installation is not as effective
as Arata Isozakis sculptural pylons attached to the ramps
for the great China show at the museum, shown above, nor Frank
Gehrys simple cladding of the ramps in highly reflective
material imitating the chrome fenders of motorcyles for the recent
motorcycle show, shown below.
What would Frank Lloyd Wright think about all
these very substantial, albeit temporary alterations to this masterpiece
of modern architecture and world landmark? Pompous genius that
he was, he would probably disapprove, although he certainly would
have been somewhat amused and pleased that the new ways were being
found to highlight his architectural space. Isozakis pylons
were intriguing because they were angular, indeed contrapuntal,
and had straight lines and thus were in principle antithetical
to Wrights vision, yet their scale and positioning were
very sensitively handled to create considerable visual interest
and counterpoint to Wrights curves while also adding a definitely
Oriental flavor to the space that was most appropriate for that
Gehrys flashy application of chrome-like
material, on the other hand, did not violate the rotundas
form while also giving a very exciting hint of how more wonderful
the space could be with better materials than its original stucco.
It, too, was exceedingly appropriate for that exhibition.
Paiks adaptation of the space, apart
from the large projection screens on the ramps, introduced a quite
lyric motion and color to the great space with its tall laser
fountain and the strobe-like garden of television sets is very
effective from almost all angles from above and quite dizzying,
which is appropriate to Wrights space.
There is a serious problem involved with all
of these rotunda installations and that is that if all subsequent
major exhibitions are to "have their way" with the space,
when will visitors ever experience the pure, unadulterated Wright
rotunda? Historic preservation and landmarks are issues that most
New Yorkers now take fairly seriously. Should they be concerned?
Clearly, these are not inexpensive installations
and while it can be argued that they are only temporary and that
no permanent alteration to the space has been undertaken that
begs the issue of the spaces inherent greatness, long recognized
by the Guggenheim and everyone else. It is one thing for an artist
like Christo to wrap the Reichstag, or whatever, but it returns
to its normal state fairly soon. The world may be a canvas for
artists, but care should be taken not to permanently "bury"
other artists, and architects, work without very careful
study and reflection and hopefully no one would suggest doing
so to the rotunda or the Mona Lisa.
When it first opened, some critics bemoaned
Wrights rotunda design for overpowering any works of art
that might be shown as well as for arguing that its spiral ramp
was inappropriate for the hanging of paintings. They were basically
wrong, especially for large, "modern" paintings that
when viewed from across the rotunda are seen in a scale that often
is more meaningful than up close.
The Guggenheims commitment to architecture,
of course, has been greatly bolstered by its commission of Frank
Gehry, who created a building for it in Bilbao, Spain, that is
even more sensational, and great, than Wrights. Indeed,
Thomas Krens, the museums director, may well be the most
enlightened museum director on the scene now (although, to be
fair, Philippe de Montebellos record at the Metropolitan
Museum of Art has been quietly very impressive and delightfully
What then should be done about these rotunda
installations? It takes a lot chutzpah to attempt to tamper with
such a famous and great space and these installations have, by
and large, been very good and very successful. It is very encouraging
to see great challenges met with fine imagination, and it is astounding
that there has been so little commentary about these efforts in
the art press.
One solution might be to leave the rotunda
alone, but build a twin rotunda just for such installations. Unfortunately,
the park drive north, the bridle path and the reservoir prevent
such a twin from arising in Central Park directly across from
the Guggenheim, the most obvious solution. Perhaps some enlightened
patron, however, will offer to built such a "pavilion"
in the center of the reservoir that could be approached along
the walkway that occasionally appears when droughts lower its
level and ends in the great waterhouse that featured so prominently
in the finale of "The Marathon Man," the movie in which
Laurence Olivier keeps asking Dustin Hoffman, "Is It Safe?"
Conceivably the New York Zoological Society could occasionally
convert its interiors into a great birdhouse to replace the ones
it got rid of at the Central Park Zoo.
Such a new pavilion is not likely to raise
too many hackles among the citys Preservation Set, which
has seen fit not to insist on a replacement and/or removal of
the ugly fence around the reservoir that mars views of the park
and its surrounding environment (see The City Review article on
fences). The pavilion would not only serve as a fine memorial
to Wright and Mr. Guggenheims fine gift to the city of his
great museum, but would also be a folly not inappropriate for
the park. Presumably, Gehry could cover it in chrome, or mylar,
or whatever, to provide dazzling reflections of the park and the
skyline, or perhaps Nam June Paik could cover it with television
sets showing reruns of mayoral press conferences, and the city
could have lifeguards on duty and permit swimming in the reservoir
for those willing to sign waivers, or whatever, and such activities
would create fine opportunities for artists to wallow in their
bucolic fantasies. Of course, the swimming proposal would probably
elicit major protests from the citys communities in Coney
Island and the Rockaways and they certainly deserve attention,
and inspired development encouragement from the city. If the swimming
proposal goes down the proverbial drain, then bring on the gondolas
and have architects, including Michael Graves, design them and
make money for the city/museum.
Such reveries, of course, are inspired, in
part, by Nam June Paiks frivolities. This impish artist
may not be a master, but his creations have always had a good
sense of humor and irony and his importance in the history of
"conceptual" art is high. Indeed, Paik has long been
part of a group of artists such as John Cage, the musician, and
Merce Cunningham, the choreographer and dancer, whose significance
is greater than their individual works. One of the best videos
in the exhibition, in fact, is of Cunningham dancing a duet with
his outlined image, and, indeed, it is in the spirit of such a
virtual duet that one dares to suggest a second nearby "twin"
for such installations.
Such suggestions and reveries are not irrelevant
as the museum launched a campaign April 18, 2000 to erect a major
"satellite" museum on the East River south of the South
Street Seaport that has been designed for it by Frank Gehry as
sort of an inflated version of his great Bilbao facility for the
museum, one that uses the same type of highly reflective and shimmering
and wildly curved facade. The museum had previously sought a site
at Battery Park City along the Hudson River, but could not rally
support for it, but its new proposal seems to have garnered considerably
more attention and interest although some local opposition is
expected. A full review in The City Review of the East River proposal
will be forthcoming after study of the plans.
The Whitney Museum under former director Thomas
Armstrong's leadership launched several "satellite"
museums that were very handsome and brought the museum experience
closer to many workers both in Midtown at the Philip Morris Building
and in Lower Manhattan at the Federal Reserve Plaza Building.
More recently, the Museum of Modern Art has made an affiliation
with P.S. 1, the fine art center in Long Island City and is involved
in its own major expansion (see The City Review
article). The subject of satellite museums was raised during
the controversy over the appropriateness of Thomas Hoving's exhibition,
"Harlem on My Mind" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
many years ago.
The more museums the better.
Clearly, the Guggenheim, under the leadership
of Thomas Krens, its director, has become a major international
force in the museum and architectural world and has greatly enhanced
its prestige among the city's great cultural institutions. Its
choice of Gehry for both Bilbao and New York is as inspired as
the Guggenheim's initial selection of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Wright's Guggenheim is without question the
most modern building of the 20th Century in New York. While there
are many wonderful skyscrapers and Art Deco wonders, none is as
fantastic as Wright's Guggenheim just as Gehry's Bilbao building
set the global architectural stage for the 21st Century. One might
encounter less criticism of such remarks if one only categorized
them as the most "exotic," but their importance lies
not in their influence, like Lever House or the Seagram Building,
but in their mind-blowing liberation of the imagination. There
have been great "follies" in the past. One should not
forget Boulée, or Piranesi, or pagodas, or the Pyramids,
or the Colisseum, or the Taj Mahal, or Ludwig's castle, or the
Eiffel Tower, but these visions and realities were fairly logical
successors to the advances of technology or the excesses of wealth.
Wright's Guggenheim predates the far-out visions of Archigram
and Peter Cook and the super-intellectuality of Peter Eisenman
and Gehry's Guggenheim culminates the great Deconstructivisit
experiments of the late 20th Century with a masterpiece that challenges
all subsequent architecture. Wright's Guggenheim was only one
of his many fantastic projects, but no others had such visibility
and so mightily challenged their context.
The Guggenheim, then, should not be faulted
too severely for fooling around with Wright's rotunda, and part
of its argument for the new Gehry East River project is that it
will house art after 1945 and that Wright's building will house
pre-1945 art. That statement, of course, is not a pledge to keep
Wright's rotunda sacrosanct, but it is a rationale step in that
direction. We should therefore have a lot of Guggenheims!
In October, 2000, the museum resumed transformations
of its great rotunda when Robert Wilson put scrims of diaphanous
material just behind its ramps for the Armani exhibition (See
The City Review article on the Armani exhibition).