As at London’s Tate modern where you descend a wide ramp to enter and then look up at the art galleries, you enter the Bilbao Guggenheim down a wide arced staircase with shallow risers and look up into the atrium. That’s the access from Calle Iparraguire. The museum looks gorgeous from the middle distance, as most beauty does, better than from close in. From the river side it’s like an unkempt titanium lid formed to contain anarchy. This cover sits on two stories of a conventional building, where Guggenheim probably has its business offices. To enter from the street you pass the topiary puppy, Jeff Koons’ edgy eternal kitschy-cute. I think it could have been an act of self-parodic genius to commission Claes Oldenburg to build a hulking can opener to loom as an arc over the entrance.
It’s just four months after my quad bypass and I’m traveling for the novel I’m writing, Antonello’s Lion. My ambition is to see all of the works I can by Antonello da Messina. They are widely dispersed—Roma, Palermo, Siracusa, Pavia, Torino, Genova, Venezia, Paris, London, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, Madrid. I am taking on the obsession with the works of Antonello of one of my characters. I can argue that Antonello is the greatest artist of the Italian Quattrocento. Outside the entrance to the museum in Genova I am approached by an African hooker. She asks me in English what I am looking for. I explain that I need to see a portrait in the museum by Antonello. “I will show you something very nice,” says she. Her smile is charming and coy. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I just had open heart surgery. I can’t.” She looks down to the pavement, appearing almost shy. “I will be very gentle.” On the way back to my hotel I snarl at a beautiful grey-eyed gypsy woman with a baby on her hip, hand out for coins, breasts offered like a tray of hors d’oeuvres out of the folds of her tattered smock. She looks confused and frightened by my reaction, my anger out of proportion. She peers into my eyes as if to look for the source of this snarl. Surgery I guess can leave you angry. Despite anesthesia that is supposed to block the experience, somehow your body knows that someone has cleaved your breastbone and snatched your heart, and resentment of that violence lingers in the psyche.
Antonello is my single-minded quest, but on the way by train from Paris to Madrid I decide to divert to Bilbao to check out Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. It has recently opened, to much fanfare, as perhaps the greatest building of the twentieth century. It does have that sheen of greatness, a powerful contemporary building. The visual impact of the titanium cladding degrades as you get closer, as when you approach someone with too much make-up and botox. The detail becomes smudges and dents. Some find that interesting. I find it less interesting than the detail up close of the 19th and early 20th century buildings on the local streets. The same quality pertains in the radical, angular, titanium clad new art museum in Denver designed by Daniel Libeskind. It immediately ages, has some leakage early on. I hope someone gets me up so I can see what this titanium looks like after fifty years.
Most revolting to me on my first and only visit is the amount of space given to the story of Giorgio Armani designs. The guy’s a haberdasher, an Italian tailor. I’ve long been comfortable in the watershed that Andy Warhol created when he punked over the gap between fine art and popular culture. Warhol is a great artist, his life tragic even prophetic at the end. I’ve liked Jeff Koons work that descends from the Andy lineage. Even Damien Hirsch owes something to Andy. All this work has a reorienting weirdness, a sense of parody and satire, some social torque worthy of art. To make art is to respond to a high calling, to stick your neck out, commercial considerations put aside. Some artists, like the three above, are happily smart and lucky as businessmen as well, though they create the art through risk, not market analysis. No doubt Armani is a talented and enormously successful fashion designer, and probably a big donation of pesetas leveraged him into a position to sucker the opening of the museum into a boutiquish Armani showroom. I find it nauseating. Maybe my attitude is what they call “elitist” these days, but how much more elitist is Armani haberdashery? I wouldn’t mind owning an Armani suit, though I can’t afford one and don’t know when I’d wear it. I’d have to be doing business, certainly not making art. He’s obviously a great Italian tailor and clothing designer, a brand name, but I would never mistake what he does for art. Having his boutique splayed across the museum feels like a hostile takeover.
The scale of the soaring atrium diminishes the scale of Serra’s curved core-ten walls installed there. Serra’s work derives much of its power from scale that seems diminished by the vast amorphousness of the space. There was great sturm und drang in the early 80’s over the installation of his Tilted Arc in Federal Plaza in Manhattan, and a wide spray of arguments about “site specificity”, connected obliquely to removing the load of sculpture from the pedestal, and coincidentally letting painting escape the frame. Richard threatened to remove his name from the piece if they tried to install it somewhere else. The urgency of the site specific arguments has been blunted by the development of so many sites, even museum sites, designed specifically to accommodate works that are site specific. Storm King sculpture park is one, and DIA Beacon is another, and Bilbao another as a permanent site for Richard’s site specific work. Donald Judd’s goofy art outpost in Marfa, Texas, a remote air force base he bought to exhibit his friends’ works in site specific glee, has provided the art market an outback arm for wealthy collectors and curators. You turn a corner in a dusty West Texas town, and suddenly it’s the art world. They can gather at a newly refurbished hotel without interference from riff-raff off the streets. It makes me perversely prefer site antagonistic works at random locations, that clash with the sites of their installations, that conflict with their situations. Richard’s powerful, stately Promenade at the Grand Palais in Paris is a site-specific work that derives emotional tension from the fact that it is antagonistic to the space, architecture, and materials of the site. This parade of monoliths would be powerful installed in the Gobi Desert, or on West Broadway, or on the flooding shallows near Dacca in Bangla Desh. The specific site is so often most specific in the mind.
I like to watch a Henry Moore recline on a pedestal, or a Noguchi block a skyscraper entrance, or the Louise Bourgeois giant spider spook a pedestrian intersection. I’d never heard of the great sculpture park that Pepsico has installed at its corporate headquarters in Purchase, New York until Yuriy Tarnawsky, who lives in White Plains, took me there. It is one of the great collections of modern sculpture anywhere in the world. There installed across many acres of well kept lawn and flower garden are monumental pieces by Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson, Alberto Giacometti, Tony Smith, George Segal, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Klee, Arnoldo Pomodoro, Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, and many others. Some of them sit comfortably on pedestals, some directly on the ground. We wandered happily in the drizzle from Dubuffet to Oldenburg. In this generalized expanse each sculpture creates its own aura, its own specific presence.
My reaction to DIA Beacon surprised me when I visited a second time. The first time it struck me as one of the most beautiful museums, full of profound expanses of art. I was grateful for its space that accommodates comfortably the work of artists of the last third of the Twentieth Century. Many of them I’d met, had conversations with them, watched their work develop. Sol Lewitt has plenty of wall space. Michael Heizer has loads of room, and Fred Sandback has rooms for his taut strings to intersect the volumes, and Dan Flavin, Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, so many of them are expansive here. Warhol has almost too much room, for the kind of intimacy I like to feel with his work. Seeing this the first time was thrilling, making me feel as expansive as the work. The second time a kind of melancholy threatened me. It felt to me like a lock down of post world war two post industrial American imperialist expansiveness. This art was so American in its assumption of endless horizons, spaciousness, expansion beyond any vanishing point. It paralleled American imperialist ambitions. The artists sense of entitlement to unlimited space, physical space to grow and spread their creations seemed suddenly stuck in its own period, like Russian ikons, or Byzantine mosaics, or Fayum coffin portraits. Those times were over. I still love many of the works, but the conditions that allowed the mindset have vanished. Perhaps it is the situation now of the planet—endless Iraq and Afghan wars, ruined oceans, desertification, oil spills, helpless politics, poisoned land and water, the whole litany—that makes these works seem like a part of a brief past, post World War II triumphalism and the subsequent imperialism that need never be repeated. This museum has become an archive rather than a home of living art. The change in my perception of the museum was powerful, daunting, but undeniable.
So I leave the Bilbao Guggenheim, and visit the impressive collection at Bilbao’s own Museum of Fine Arts, and the Basque Museum. I take the train then for Madrid and head for the Prado. Its Velasquezes, Goyas, Murillos, its Hieronymous Bosch, its Breughels. What a line-up. This is one of the most intense collections of masterpieces in the world. I head downstairs to look at the small painting by Antonello da Messina I have crossed the U.S. and all of Europe to see. A grieving angel lowers Christ from the cross, the grief on its face is the paradigm for all grief. It is worth the trip. That tiny work opens all the emotional potential of grief, spreads a total moral panoply, extends the enormous reach in time and space of great art.
Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.