A Day at the Guggenheim Museum – Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao opened in 1997 to instant acclaim, cementing Frank Gehry’s reputation as a groundbreaking architect. As a museum it rekindles the debate which role a museum should have. As a public building it serves diverse social functions, it is a symbol and a place of encounter. At its basic the Guggenheim is an invitation to come and appreciate modern art. We visited the museum on July 2010. I wrote this article on May 2011.
What manner of building shall we build?
Wallace Stevens, Architecture
I have visited museums since I was a child. The famed Prado became my second home as a young adult, for my office was nearby. I delighted in masterpieces during lunch breaks and I also attended Sunday lectures. I treasure the memories of that time: Velázquez’s Meninas, Van der Weyden’s Deposition, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, Antonello da Messina’s Christ at the Column… The Old Masters became my friends.
Travelling across Europe I have visited both the grand museums and the lesser known, these just as rewarding. When I moved to Hong Kong, fifteen years ago, my passion for art was channeled into a completely new discovery: oriental art. I went to California once, only to look at their outstanding Asian art collections. And to test or punish my enthusiasm I ended up locked in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Yes, the caretakers closed the gates leaving six people behind, the plot for a play that I would like to write. Museums have been essential in nurturing my love of art.
I love architecture too. I have gone out of my way to contemplate historical, vernacular and modern architecture, even when the building is under construction, as I did in Luxembourg to see I.M. Pei’s work. To ensure I did not miss the Museum of Traditional Architecture in Beijing, on the grounds of the Temple of Agriculture, I arrived one hour before the opening, waited at the doors alone, and alone I enjoyed it that morning.
The Guggenheim Museum−Bilbao has been open for a long time to universal acclaim, its architectural features becoming almost legendary. However, for me, it could only bring contradictory feelings. At the heart of the Basque country, our family directly afflicted by the terror unleashed on its behalf, we all had tacitly objected to step there. Only in July last year we considered the circumstances had changed and we prepared for a large family gathering in nearby San Sebastian. My anxiety mounted; finally I could go to the Guggenheim. This would also be an opportunity to meet an old friend from his time in Hong Kong. Although I was afraid our friendship had cooled, my fear was soon dispelled. Germán replied in the typical vein of a natural from Bilbao: “When are you coming to the capital of the world?”
Although we arrived in Bilbao at night, I sensed the city’s transformation. The first lights of the day revealed a new urban space, enlivened, bright, open; nothing to do with the gloomy and gritty town I saw 23 years ago. I would meet my friend first thing in the morning. Instantly I understood our friendship was intact. We carried it forward, unfolding joyful recollections of our time together and our friends now dispersed. Germán is a man of noble demeanor and semblance. Well articulated, even baroque when he talks, and always cheerful. He is a successful executive at an important industrial group rooted in the land and committed to preserve its social fabric and mores, a business model sadly disappearing everywhere else. As an educated Spaniard, Germán has a competent knowledge of art, but does not pretend to be an expert. He would be my best companion during the visit− the way he responded to the art and architecture, not lecturing but sympathetic− until, in a way, his presence receded.
Our families joined us later: Germán’s wife Isabel and little son Diego – the angel of the Guggenheim – ; my wife Isabelle and son Francisco. Our friends would lead the way, skirting the charming park of Doña Casilda. The family atmosphere made us feel part of the town, instilling a sentiment of belonging to see our museum. Unexpectedly, the first glimpse of the Guggenheim presented like an apparition, framed by the two sides of a narrow provincial street, calle de Iparraguirre; capricious shapes and superposed metallic cubes, gleaming; a green mountain as a backdrop. It was a magical vision, a vision of the otherworld transported into an old city. Soon the museum emerged in full view, capturing the soft sunlight of the Bay of Biscay, like a smile. “This is Frank Gehry…” I mused. The morning that had began overcast now showed a light blue sky; the air was pure and serene. The museum is set in very scenic, elegant surroundings, flanked by the estuary, at the foot of mount Artxanda. Some criticize Gehry’s buildings for not matching the site and climate. I cannot conceive this museum anywhere else. It is unique to the place and, truly beyond the ordinary, it would make me feel unique.
We descended the steps towards the main entrance and ritually touched the closer titanium panels. The intriguing moment of crossing the threshold is lacking solemnity; it turns into a modest, contrived foyer, no vault or stained glass, as you expected in a cathedral, nor the grandeur. Did I come into the sacristy? But soon we caught the luminous interiors and… I stood at the atrium in ecstasy.
I often wonder what secrets architecture conceals. As with every construction, most of our building’s virtues are not apparent to the naked eye or the neophyte. Germán would help us to see more: “Look at the quality of glass, to avoid heat and light radiation; or how these glass panes link the stone volumes with other clad in titanium drapery. The glass is mounted into complex metal structures using the latest technology.”
Part of the miracle of light flooding the interiors was made evident at the atrium. But throughout the building Gehry seems to share his secret, an architecture more simplified and essential than it looks. I started to appreciate other intangible values, the democratic virtues of the building and as a museum. Not for the connoisseur or the scholar but for the people, matching the Guggenheim collection philosophy, simply providing an encounter with art, for many the first.
Thus, we are also welcomed by the murmur of crisscrossing conversations; entire families, the old, the young, frequent and mostly first time visitors from all over the world, some in wheelchairs more accessible here than in other public spaces. The atmosphere is lively and relaxed; the visitors’ expressions reflect curiosity and awe. My eyes are swirling through corridors, stairs, elevators coming up and down, broken spaces and the absence of every trace of symmetry. My wife says this design makes her dizzy, but I enjoy discovering how it all develops in unexpected ways.
After the installations around the atrium we entered the first exhibition room, and I felt uncertain. Surprised in disbelief at something I’d prefer not to say: the white walls were poorly plastered, showing signs of decay, and the concrete floors had a dirty effect. But the main reason of my confusion was that I did not recognise a painting at first sight: Besides an unmistakable red-yellow Rothko there was a canvas entirely painted in black save a small white patch. I hesitated: “Rothko?”
My wife retorted confidently: “It is not Rothko”. She is not an art devotee and never boasts publicly any inclination as I do, but her understanding is always sharper than mine. She had only seen an exhibition about Rothko once and she was to surprise me again. I walked closer and I read the caption aloud, emphasizing the words: “’Iberia’, 1958, by Robert Motherwell”. “Motherwell!” A new world opened for me since then. The black painting, this black colour… I felt profoundly moved by its pure abstraction, also disturbed. I spent some minutes in delectation. You can realize thick repeated brushes if you approach it. The small irregular dashes of white at the lower left corner are insignificant in proportion with the large somber black.
In our wanderings we pretend to be exhaustive. I had only one day and I wanted to discover the building and what it houses. We are amused at an anthological on latest celebrity Anish Kapoor; another on Le Douanier Rousseau, a foreigner in the history of art and lost in the Guggenheim; and disparate and disconnected modern and contemporary art works. There are some deplorable presentations, like that of my beloved Chillida squeezed in a secondary room. I shall vindicate him another day… by taking the sculpture away.
We now come across one of the museum’s hallmarks, Richard Serra’s labyrinth, and like the Motherwell, a permanent fixture. Serra’s The Matter of Time is a sculptural installation, a sequence of structures of steel sheets of big proportions: Torqued ellipses and spirals, snake shaped aisles and blind spots, concave and convex panels, some wrought in parallel allowing a person to walk through. Francisco is the first to interpret the work correctly and runs to the installation. He disappears amid the structure and appears again somewhere else. He forces me to follow him and soon we are playing hide and seek. I enjoy it as much as him.
I am sure Serra expected us to do this, but I am also touched by the rusty texture and the irregular ochre tonalities of the steel panels, full of character, these are not accidental features. No photography can explain this work, it defies perspective. And although the scale model also housed here improved my understanding of the work and its proportions, nothing substitutes the experience.
After the exercise we are ready for lunch and the museum offers fine modern cuisine. The Basque Country has a long tradition of culinary excellence. My wife, a true gourmet, sincerely nodded at and still remembers it.
Afterward we came upon the third and last major encounter. We broke in laughter and shock. Weird assemblages of dustless, metallic scrap, some parts in vivid primary colours. The panels announce the exhibition in prominent fonts. Robert Rauschenberg: Gluts. “What it means ‘Gluts’?” Germán knows: “A glut is a surplus of supply”. Indeed, the explanatory panels make reference to the recession of Texas economy during the 80s due to an excess of supply in the oil market. The landscape turned into a “wasteland of dereliction strewn with failed gas stations, abandoned cars, and rusting oil barrels.” Rauschenberg collected and turned the parts into whimsical assemblages, wrought like sculptures, some hanging on the walls, some freestanding.
My son Francisco, only 12 at that time, remarks nonchalantly: “I did a work about Rauschenberg last year at school.” I am new to this artist. For me these strange provocations are like aphorisms, probably intended to mean many things. The titles also attest to the inexhaustible imagination of the artist: Silver Crawler Summer Glut, Wedding Summer Glut… One of my favourites is Appalachian Double Latch Spring Glut. It is among the simplest, an assemblage of corrugated metal background in light silver colour and a window frame derelict but in vivid red, next to it a distorted piece of metal in contrasting blue. Another, Primary Mobiloid Glut, presents the rear wheel of a bicycle, the chain broken and the inner tube flat on the floor, a ladder attached to the handle, and a yellow piece of metal stands like a flag’s mast.
The visit was coming to an end, in the bookshop, but cut short abruptly by Francisco’s resignation. He couldn’t stand the museum anymore. We headed to the adjacent open space and he would not follow us. I truly understood. But that stubborn reaction meant I could not promenade around and at a distance to enjoy the museum exterior from different perspectives. During the stalemate we could relax over a cup of coffee next to a children playground. Proud of his alma mater Germán insisted in taking photos in front of the University of Deusto, the Jesuits’ stronghold just opposite. A sober neoclassic building as a background would be the printed souvenir of my visit to the Guggenheim.
Recollecting the memories of that day, I look back with appreciation at its many fruits. That was my first conscious encounter with Gehry, Motherwell, Rauschenberg and Serra. It led me to learn and read more about them. But why I responded to them? What they have in common? All are Americans –Gehry by adoption. I associate them with the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, they all share the same ingenuity and innocence, and represent a golden age carried on into the 21st century, for Gehry and Serra are alive and well. They embody the attributes of great masters -promethean, challengers- and the traits of true art, with the power to modify and enlarge life; all of them show sincerity in what they do and all have followed a path of struggle to be themselves.
I have learned about Gehry through a documentary made by Sidney Pollack, his close friend; somewhat rudimentary, with the easy casualness to allow Gehry talk and explain freely. I was touched by the great master’s sense of awkwardness in his personal life. I was surprised Gehry worked as a truck driver and lived in a working class neighbourhood. The scribble drawings and the playful way of building scale models acquire preeminence in Gehry’s work, and so the acknowledgment of team members and colleagues.
I am just starting to appreciate Rauschenberg. I took the catalogue of Gluts with me and I have placed on my shelves showing the cover, Primary Mobiloid Glut. I admire Rauschenberg’s fiery independence, his confidence in turning the art world upside down, painting, graphic, collage, sculptures… It may have something to do with his ancestry, partly German, partly Cherokee Indian.
Richard Serra was born to a Spanish father in San Francisco, the city that another Serra, Fr. Junípero, founded centuries ago. Apparently, he spent his childhood in isolation, but from his small world he later came to radicalise and extend the very definition of sculpture. Like the ancients, he understands the relation between work, viewer and site. Serra’s work has met controversy too. One sculpture was removed from a New York space, fueling the debate on the role of public art.
Above all, is with Motherwell with whom I find more affinity. Not only his knowledge of Spain, to whom he dedicated so much of his work, or his friendship with Spanish-speaking poets. He was an intellectual, but one who preferred the word “poetry” to “aesthetic”. I have discovered a jewel of a book, The Writings of Robert Motherwell, a collection of his essays edited by Stephanie Terenzio. Only in rare occasions an artist is able to articulate his thoughts about art and his own work; his insights are an invaluable testimony for art lovers.
In the preface of an exhibition catalogue, under the title “Black or White”, Motherwell starts with a sentence from Don Quixote: “Are we to mark this day with a white or black stone?” He explains his personal discovery of the expressive power of black and white pigments when they are used as colours rather than tonal gradations. These colours parallel a lifelong preoccupation with certain themes, most notably works he was to entitle Spanish Elegy. I am amazed at how much he knew about pigments, how they are made, and the effect of colours. He ends “if the amounts of black or white are right, they will have condensed into quality, into feeling.”
The Guggenheim, as a museum, is not complete. There is no coherent collection. But as a welcoming place of encounter there I met many friends, Germán and his family, and the New Masters, descendants from the Old Masters in an unbroken line. Early morning and we are leaving. On the road out from Bilbao we can afford the last iconic view of Gehry’s Guggenheim. It has the outline of his scribbles, a scribble turned building; etched in my mind, it will travel with me until I come back. There is no denying that the Guggenheim Museum has brought civic pride, a prospect for peace and hope, the white dash in Motherwell’s painting.