The Rotonda at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

"Is It Safe?"

Nam June Paik Installation 2000

Nam June Paik's Installation

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 the exhibition.

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.

Arata Isozaki's Installation

Arata Isozaki's Installation

This rotunda installation is not as effective as Arata Isozaki’s sculptural pylons attached to the ramps for the great China show at the museum, shown above, nor Frank Gehry’s 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. Isozaki’s pylons were intriguing because they were angular, indeed contrapuntal, and had straight lines and thus were in principle antithetical to Wright’s vision, yet their scale and positioning were very sensitively handled to create considerable visual interest and counterpoint to Wright’s curves while also adding a definitely Oriental flavor to the space that was most appropriate for that exhibition.

Frank Gehry's Installation

Frank Gehry's Installation

Gehry’s flashy application of chrome-like material, on the other hand, did not violate the rotunda’s 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.

Paik’s 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 Wright’s 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 space’s 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 Wright’s 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 Guggenheim’s 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 Wright’s. Indeed, Thomas Krens, the museum’s director, may well be the most enlightened museum director on the scene now (although, to be fair, Philippe de Montebello’s record at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been quietly very impressive and delightfully erudite.)

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 city’s 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. Guggenheim’s 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 city’s 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 Paik’s 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!

Robert Wilson skims for Armani exhibition

Robert Wilson put scrims behind all the ramps in rotunda for the Armani Exhibition in October, 2000

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).


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