The New York Times
April 14, 2002

When Art Puts Down a Bet in a House of Games


LAS VEGAS -- 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.

Probably 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.

The two 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.

The Hermitage 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.

The panels 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 door.

The group 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.

Guggenheim/Las 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.

Like that 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.

Koolhaas's 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.

Except that 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.

But museums 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.

In theory, 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 account.

It misreads 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 cosmopolitan life.

Some Guggenheim 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.

Exhibitions 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 a hangover.

Krens is 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.

Krens has 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.

The Guggenheim 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.  

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