Reopened Guggenheim opts to stress building's beauty over its role as museum


New York -- From the time it originally opened in 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York has been the subject of lively debate between those who contend it's a Great Building and those who contend it's a Lousy Museum.

The Lousy Museum people say that its continuous downward ramp, its low ceilings, its slanted walls and lighting difficulties make it a terrible place to show and to look at art. The Great Building people say that Wright's monumental architectural statement is more than worth any difficulties it might cause.

Two years ago it closed for restoration and expansion; today it reopens, and the Great Building people win.

In moving many of the museum's functions, both exhibition and behind-the-scenes, elsewhere, and in opening up the entire Wright building to the public for the first time, the project in effect bowed to the essential nature of Wright's soaring rotunda as a triumphant, soul-lifting experience. By giving that space over for the reopening to a single work of art designed to show off the space, this museum dedicated to 20th century art in effect presents the architecture as one of the great works of 20th century art.

As a result of the entire $60 million project, the Guggenheim has expanded its presence in New York, allowing us to see more of its collection than ever before, and allowing us to have the grandeur of Wright's building unalloyed. In effect, we can have our cake and eat it, too.

The restoration of the Wright building stands as only one -- if the most important -- of several aspects of the giant Guggenheim project. At the Fifth Avenue and 88th Street site of Wright's building, the firm of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates has achieved a restoration/expansion that adds a 10-story annex containing offices and four floors of galleries (three of double height), increasing the total exhibition space from 31,000 to 51,000 square feet.

At the same time, the museum has leased a 19th century building at 575 Broadway in the downtown SoHo art district, with interior spaces designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki. This building adds another 30,000 square feet of exhibition space.

And the museum has also moved into a 27,000-square-foot technical and storage facility on the west side of Manhattan, further relieving space pressures on the Wright building.

According to the Guggenheim's statements, the main complex's story annex, called the tower building, is based on a proposal Frank Lloyd Wright himself made for a "background" building at the site. In its narrow, rectangular presence at the back of the site, it attempts to be deferential and in fact probably intrudes upon Wright's statement as little as any building of its size could. It's so slim that the elevator core projects into the building's four gallery levels, making somewhat narrow spaces even narrower.

The real problem with this addition, however, lies in what the architects call its "tartan" facade, a pattern of limestone squares punctuated by four modest, painstakingly placed slits. The effect is so careful and proper that in its relationship with Wright's superbly muscular grandiosity it looks like Lillian Gish Meets John Wayne.

Once inside the museum, however, all possible reservations are overcome by the sense that Wright's building has been freed to become itself at last. In the main rotunda, the huge skylight floods the space with light, and the great, thrilling spiral of the ramp is at last open all the way to the top (formerly the top two of the building's seven levels were closed off for storage).

Moreover, all four floors of the smaller rotunda at the northern end of Wright's building, some of which were formerly given over to offices, have been opened up as public space; they connect at all levels with the main rotunda and on the second and fourth levels with the annex's galleries. Those galleries in turn connect with the main rotunda at the second, fourth, fifth and seventh levels, affording extraordinary freedom of movement and flexibility for exhibitions.

At more than one level, the public can also walk out on the terraces and roofs of Wright's building -- one of which has been turned into a tiny sculpture garden -- and enjoy the greenery of Central Park across Fifth Avenue. To anyone who has any feel for architecture, discovering Wright's building to the full for the first time creates a sense of exhilaration that must be something like a child's first visit to Disneyland.

To inaugurate the reopening of the main complex and the opening of the SoHo building, the Guggenheim has mounted an exhibition program called "The Guggenheim Museum and the Art of This Century." Designed to show off both the range and riches of the collection and the scope of exhibition possibilities, it consists of three parts.

Two are uptown. For the main rotunda, artist Dan Flavin has created a site-specific neon installation designed to emphasize the architectural qualities of the space and to underscore the Guggenheim's commitment to contemporary art. As a work of art, it is only partly successful; a column of pink neon rising in the center of the rotunda, from the floor almost to the skylight, makes a dramatic statement about the height of the building. And, in the rotunda's one tall gallery, off the ramp, blue and red banks of neon produce a wonderfully subtle modulation of color across the opposite wall. Elsewhere, however, the placement of neon segments is somewhat foursquare, and tends to fight with rather than enhance the flowing curve of ramp and walls.

A show of almost 200 works from the permanent collection inaugurates the galleries of the annex and the small rotunda. Beginning with a selection of late 19th century masters including Degas, Gauguin, van Gogh and Cezanne, the show's -- like the collection's -- strengths peak in the pre-World War II 20th century, especially emphasizing Picasso, Leger, Mondrian and Klee. The top two floors contain postwar works, primarily American, from Pollock, Rothko and Kline to Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns; but they do not impart the same feeling of being at the heart of the collection.

The SoHo building was not open on the day of the uptown press preview, so there was no chance to glimpse either its spaces or its inaugural show. As a complement to the single contemporary work and the overview of the collection uptown, the SoHo show will highlight six artists in depth: Brancusi, Kandinsky, Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Ryman and Carl Andre.

Works by the last two artists are also from the Guggenheim's recent acquisition of more than 200 minimalist and environmental works of the 1960s and 1970s, from the collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo of Varese, Italy. (That purchase caused much comment two years ago when, to fund it, the Guggenheim sold three works from its permanent collection, one each by Modigliani, Kandinsky and Chagall.)

At last Tuesday's preview, Guggenheim director Thomas Krens articulated what the first SoHo show indicates with its inclusion of contemporary and older artists: SoHo will not be devoted to newer art and uptown to "classic" 20th century works; rather, both will show both. Upcoming shows uptown, for instance, will include the early 20th century Russian avant-garde and a collaboration between German film director Wim Wenders and American performance artist Laurie Anderson. SoHo shows will include Chagall's 1920 murals for the Jewish Theatre in Moscow and contemporary German photography.

A museum's expansion

Under the leadership of Thomas Krens, the fourth director in its 55-year history, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has begun to expand in several directions, raising questions about its future.

It has just completed a $60 million expansion in Manhattan, financed by a bond issue that will require hefty future funding.

It has bought the Panza collection of more than 200 works of minimalist and environmental art, selling three older works from the permanent collection to do so.

It has signed an agreement with the Basque region of northern Spain to create a Guggenheim Museum in the city of Bilbao, to which the Guggenheim will send works of art from its collection.

And there has been talk of other expansions -- in Salzburg, Austria and in Venice and Varese, Italy.

Will New York's Guggenheim become a mere fiefdom in some great empire of art, its collection dispersed across the world? And is all this economically feasible? Specifically, might the Guggenheim sell more of its permanent collection to pay off the bond issue if it runs into financial trouble down the road?

At last Tuesday's preview, the director spoke to those issues. There is nothing definite yet about Salzburg and Varese, he indicated. Bilbao will have its own collection, for which the

Spanish have committed $50 million, and to which the Guggenheim's will act as a "classical base."

Even with its recent expansion, the Guggenheim can show only a tiny fraction of its holdings; the director indicated that the opportunity to show more at additional locations will only serve the art better. "Museums should serve the art and not vice versa," he said.

As for the possibility that the Guggenheim might sell works of art to pay off the bond issue, Mr. Krens was not equivocal. "I can assure you absolutely that that will not happen," he said, "and I can be quoted on that."

Museum reopens

What: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York reopens to the public today after a two-year renovation and expansion.

Where: At two locations: the original museum at Fifth Avenue and 88th Street uptown, and the new downtown Guggenheim Museum SoHo, 575 Broadway at Prince Street.

Hours: Uptown, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except Thursdays, when the museum is closed. Downtown, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, closed Tuesdays.

Admission: Uptown, adults $7, seniors and students $4, under 12 free. Downtown, adults $5, seniors and students $3, under 12 free. Two-day pass to both museums, adults $10, seniors and students $6.

Call: (212) 423-3500.

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