Happy Birthday, Guggenheim
For half a century, the Guggenheim Museum has defied New York’s grid and the rules of urbanism. It has unfurled out of the city’s pavement into a continuous spiral with no clear ending. It harbors art with unease and bulges out over the sidewalk to defy scale and propriety. There is no logical place within it for any of the functions, such as education or café, that now make up such a central part of the museum business, let alone for the million or so visitors that come there every year. Despite all of that, it remains one of the icons of American architecture, celebrated by appearing on its own postage stamp. This beautifully arrogant and useless gesture celebrates its fiftieth birthday this week. Happy birthday, Guggenheim, you don’t look a year over, well, eternity?
For that is what the Guggenheim aspires to bring into our daily lives: the immeasurable. It is the perfect embodiment of the “non-objective art” Wright designed it to house. Its true birthday present is therefore not the rather misguided Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective that trivialized its forms this summer, but the current exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky’s work, which opened September 18th and runs through January 13th, 2010.
Wassily Kandinsky, Yellow, Red, Blue
The exhibition is not particular innovative, and it is by no means the first time the Guggenheim has presented this Russian abstractionist’s oeuvre. They have more of it than they have of any other artist, so they should show it off. Yet it is also at the core of what the museum was set up to do: to open up a space in our culture that would allow a spiritual transformation to take place. That is perhaps not a very fashionable idea these days, but you have to respect if you want to enjoy either Wright’s or Kandinsky’s work. Both men dedicated themselves to resistance to the rationalization of the same modern world that allowed them to be successful, globe-trotting art mavens; both saw nature and folklore as the remnants of our connection to something that we did not and could not make or control. Both sought a unity of all arts, including music and literature, which would construct an ephemeral, but all-encompassing counterpoint to the grids and the grinds, the grit and the grossness of the metropolis.
The building blocks of that new unreality were geometric fragments: Kandinsky’s “point, line and plane,” and Wright’s extended lines, pinwheels, and later spirals. Their works were originally, and always remained, essentially landscapes. Wright sought to bring the outside in, create a human-made cave, and extend the building out to form a tempered, sheltered version of nature. Kandinsky started with neo-Impressionist landscapes, graduated to fiery versions of scenes from Russian folktales, and kept abstracting his mountains, dales, and vistas into triangles, squiggles, and, yes, spirals. Both finally left context, which is to say, the real world, aside and created self-sufficient universes that have no need or place for corporeal presence, but ask us to dissolve through our eyes into that unknowable all they believed we could intuit and then attain through the orchestration of light, tone, form, and shape.
Does it work? No. The paintings remain pretty artifacts. The Guggenheim is not a very good building. It does not function for the purpose for which the client, Hilla Rebay, intended it. But it is a promissory note for salvation, a vector along which we can travel on the way to enlightenment. It is only a shame that, once you get to the top of the ramp and run out of Kandinsky’s to view, you have to turn around, worm your way through masses stupefied by their audio guides into hearing about art, rather than looking at it, and reenter the fray that is Manhattan. Glance over your shoulder as you make your way to the downtown skyscrapers, and you will see the Guggenheim’s bulge, a Pillar of Salt stultified by the very fact that it is built, serves a function, and now is a monument. It is no longer a path to art, or even an embodiment of Kandinsky’s art, or an avatar of non-objective art, but a container of a certain group of paintings to be visited. It is, in the other words, a tomb, in whose interior we can view the spectral echoes of the spiritual spiraling out of control.