-- THE two Las Vegas satellites launched last year by the Guggenheim Museum
will disappoint those who have been hoping to have their faith in the
mother institution restored. Lodged in the base of the Venetian Hotel,
an architectural collage of vapid scenographic effects, the two pavilions
are not disgraceful. Rem Koolhaas, who designed them, has brought some
architecture into the picture. More, in fact, than was strictly necessary.
no design could redeem the vanity behind this venture. Far from "bringing
art to the masses," the Guggenheim has brought corporate branding to an
anticipated public that has thus far failed to show up. But the enterprise
has delivered a crisis for the museum itself. The Guggenheim's efforts
to remake itself in the image of a multinational corporation with outposts
for culture consumers in Spain, Germany, Austria, Japan, Brazil and elsewhere
around the world have reached the point of philosophical collapse.
pavilions form a bifurcated parabuilding within the Venetian's nightmarish
trompe-l'oeil. The Hermitage/Guggenheim, jointly sponsored with the Russian
state museum in St. Petersburg, draws its opening show from the collections
of both institutions. "The Art of the Motorcycle," originally presented
in New York, inaugurates the Guggenheim/Las Vegas.
A vast circular
gaming floor separates the two parts. But we are tempted to see this wheel
of light and noise as integral to the museum's undertaking, both as a
contrast to the art and as an extension of it. Art is a crap shoot, you
may imagine: artists risk their lives on the pursuit of visions, without
knowing how their fellow creatures or posterity will judge the results.
branch is a brown rectangular box fashioned from oxidized Cor-ten steel.
Three fat, free-standing partitions, also of Cor-Ten, divide the space
into four galleries. Mounted on pivots, the partitions can be swiveled
to create different gallery configurations. Cor-ten, a material widely
used by architects in the 60's and by Richard Serra in large-scale sculptures,
has been rendered nearly unrecognizable here. Its surface has been waxed,
and this treatment eliminates the rough, plummy bloom that the material
presents in its raw state. The impression is of leather, or an expensive
grade of simulated hide. Each partition, composed of several panels, thus
brings to mind a wall of Samsonite Rothkos.
themselves are problematic. Steel contracts and expands according to temperature.
The panels require expansion joints, or seams. These create rectilinear
patterns of shadow, an awkward background for displaying paintings. Deeper
shadows gather at the bases and tops of the partitions, which stop short
of floor and ceiling. Above, light emanates without confidence from a
folded baffle of pale maple wood. The twilight effect is aggravated by
a long strip of glass, set into the pavilion's outer wall, and a vertical
window in one corner. The natural light admitted by these apertures is
distracting, like glare penetrating a darkened room from a partly cracked-open
of paintings now on view is small but magnificent, focusing on post-Impressionism
at the masterpiece level. The paintings are protected by glass. It's a
fine glass, imperceptible from most angles, benignly unreflective, but
in combination with the shadowy room, it creates an added challenge to
viewing. Here is work by artists who were throwing light and color on
squares of canvas as no other artists had ever thrown them before, presented
inside a container that sucks the light right out of the room.
Vegas, the second pavilion, is bigger, better and brighter. A well-proportioned
version of the space-frame sheds that proliferated in the 1970's, the
structure is heavy on hardware but airy with light and space. The roof
is supported with large metal trusses, and a wide escalator descends to
the lower level; but these machine maneuvers are offset by panels of translucent
and transparent glass that help break up the large-span space and give
it a shimmery depth.
of the Pompidou Center in Paris, Koolhaas's design descends from Cedric
Price's Fun Palace, an unbuilt but highly influential project of 1962.
A sort of pinball learning center, with mechanized, movable floors and
walls, the Fun Palace was a pivot between the grim modernist megastructure
and the comic strip fantasies of the British group Archigram. Price was
less concerned with form the building was just a kit of prefab industrial
parts than with the mix of uses. Juxtaposition, density, and flexibility
were values it promoted.
design would lend itself beautifully to a more varied program. As it stands,
the space relies for animation on an installation design by Edwin Chan,
from the office of Frank Gehry. Made of sheets of stainless steel that
have been sculptured into towering whorls, waves and curving walls, the
setting goes far toward capturing the spirit of the Global Guggenheim.
Motorcycles, paintings, sculptures, altar pieces, designer gowns, performance
events, architectural models whirling, circling in space, as if they
were streams of digital code, 0's and 1's, just waiting to be downloaded
into a walk-in terminal equipped with bathrooms and a bookshop, and then
back up there again, whirling and swirling, dipping and diving.
art doesn't really work that way. Neither does looking at art. Movement
can be a great subject for art, as the Futurists and others since them
have shown. And it's been a central subject for architecture all along:
we experience buildings by proceeding through them and by walking or riding
past them, sometimes even on motorcycles.
are social spaces. They contain material objects. To travel, the objects
must be insured, packed, shipped, unpacked and properly lighted. All this
is very cumbersome. People don't travel through the cyber-ether, either.
They get brutalized by cash-short airlines and worse. None of these things
are abstractions. But the Las Vegas Guggenheims leave you with the nagging
feeling that you're a statistic on someone else's itinerary. They would
have sent you via e-mail if that were possible.
the Guggenheim and Koolhaas should have made an ideal match. The two have
been key players in the cultural politics of the post-cold war era. Koolhaas
has emerged as a first-rate satirist of free enterprise run amok. He aestheticizes
our ambivalence to the mixed blessings of life after "the end of history."
He has been criticized for wanting it both ways to be part of the global
monoculture while remaining independent from its culturally leveling effects.
But this is precisely why so much is riding on him now. In this country,
none of us have a choice but to have it both ways. Everyone is in everyone
else's pockets. It has become ethically impossible to create architecture
in this country without taking the reality of economic anarchy into artistic
Koolhaas to think that he wants to transform society. But some of us think
that the creative path of art offers a means of transforming the self,
in socially constructive ways, and that those who follow this path thus
provide useful and inspiring models for living. Our period happens to
be rich in such examples. Koolhaas and many other architects of his generation
have been furnishing our global cities with essays in what the sociologist
Ulrich Beck has called "reflexive modernism" work that addresses the
shortcomings of modernity as they reveal themselves over time.
But a reflexive
modernist can't do much to redeem an institution that declines to be reflexive
about itself. That is the problem that has overtaken the Guggenheim in
recent years. A decade ago, Thomas Krens foresaw that museums could be
instrumental in shaping the cultural contours of globalization. What he
eventually called the "Global Guggenheim" seemed a worthwhile experiment
in channeling the flow of international capital toward new visions of
shows from the last decade "The Great Utopia" and "The Italian Metamorphosis,"
for example were broad, probing surveys that equaled in intellectual
scope the director's transnational goals. Increasingly, however, the museum's
programs have become pale adjuncts to those goals.
are almost invariably linked to ulterior motives: a donation, a future
museum site, the director's personal history, or some primitive desire
for notoriety. The temporary installations in Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda,
culminating in Jean Nouvel's obnoxious all-black void, have become indistinguishable
from changing disco dιcor. The "Virtual Guggenheim," a cyber-museum announced
with great fanfare, has turned out to be little more than a sophomoric
screen saver. Whatever you thought of the motorcycle show when it was
first displayed in New York, seeing it again in Las Vegas is like reliving
not alone in the post-cold war boat, and I prefer his ostentation to the
demure connoisseurial posturings of his colleagues at other museums. But
flamboyance is no substitute for self-reflection, and without that quality
Krens has come to resemble a modern version of Wagner's Bavarian patron,
mad King Ludwig, putting up palace after palace until his wits gave out.
been a great architectural patron. But the Global Guggenheim has created
an atmosphere in which art and architecture have become secondary to institutional
promotion. The art of the deal is what the museum is practicing now, and
one does not care to see the ideas of artists presented in such surroundings
or to feel that the public's attendance serves mainly as a form of credit
for leveraging the next deal. We end up feeling used, and to no purpose
of overarching cultural value.
could not have foreseen the economic and tourist slump that followed last
year's terrorist attacks. But it should see the slump as a blessing. The
global merry-go-round has stopped spinning. The moment is here to reflect
on the possibility that the Guggenheim brand is no longer an asset, but
has become a cultural liability in the eyes of many who once thought of
themselves as fans.