3 December 2015

A Visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao

A post here in May described A Visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. This is a companion piece following a visit during the summer of 2015 to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, also designed by Frank Gehry. 

After the collapse of its industrial base in the 1980s, Bilbao was in desperate need of transformation. In 1991 the local administration and the Guggenheim Foundation reached an agreement to construct a contemporary art gallery on a derelict site next to the estuary and near the city centre. The Foundation had previously commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright for its museum in New York which had opened in 1959. Construction of Gehry’s design for Bilbao, which has become almost as well-known as Wright’s, began in 1993 and the museum opened in 1997. The structure is of steel, the surface being clad in titanium where not glazed and with limestone exposed on the exterior and the interior. The complex curving shapes were designed using computer applications originally developed for aerospace by Dassault in France in the 1970s. The exterior presents different forms at different viewpoints and references Bilbao’s maritime history of ships and fishing.

The interior is as just complex, as these views of the atrium reveal:

The Guggenheim Bilbao's permanent collection includes some major site-specific pieces on display externally including Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye (2009, below left) and Louise Bourgeois’ Maman (1999, below right):

and two works by Jeff Koons, Tulips (1995-2004, below top) and Puppy (1992, below lower):

Inside, in the ArcelorMittal gallery, are the seven massive pieces which constitute Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (2005, below). Made of weathering steel and fabricated locally, they embody Bilbao’s industrial heritage.

At the time of this visit, most of the gallery space was given over to two exhibitions: Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (previously at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time. People seem either to like Koon’s work or dislike it, not many are indifferent. Michel Houellebecq (quoted in a post here earlier this year) described Koons in unflattering terms as seen through the eyes of another imaginary artist. Julian Barnes at the Edinburgh book festival in August
… offered a text written by American artist Jeff Koons to accompany his work Puppy, a vast sculpture formed from flowering plants belonging to the Guggenheim Bilbao in northern Spain. Reading aloud from Koons’ text, he told the Edinburgh audience that Puppy “helps you have a dialogue about the organic and the inorganic. It’s really about the issue of the baroque, where everything is negotiated. The different aspects of the eternal through biology. Whether you want to serve or be served, love or be loved, all these types of polarities come into play because Puppy sets them up.” Barnes added: “To use the technical term of art criticism, it’s bollocks. I know it’s like shooting fish in a barrel but sometimes fish need to be shot.”
In October Barnes told a Cheltenham Literature Festival audience (including me) that Koons produced “machine-tooled whimsicality”. Jeff Koons: A Retrospective provided plenty of opportunity to make one’s own mind up and included examples of his work from The New Series in the early 1980s (vacuum cleaners in vitrines) to the recent Antiquity series.  I couldn’t help being impressed by the skill of Koons’ technicians in fabricating objects like Lobster (2003, below left), with the appearance of a PVC inflatable but made from “Polychromed aluminum”, and Large Vase of Flowers (1994, below right) made in polychromed wood.

Having seen this show, it may be a while before I feel the need to seek out any more Koons. I was more taken with Basquiat whose work I was seeing for the first time – if BBC Your Paintings is right, he is not represented in any UK public collection. Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in New York in 1960 and died of a heroin overdose in 1988, a year after Andy Warhol who had been his collaborator in the 1980s. Two works which epitomise Basquiat's style and preoccupations are Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981, below left) and Dark Race Horse—Jesse Owens (1983, below right):

Typical of Basquiat’s work with Warhol are Win $ 1,000,000 (below top) and Ailing Ali in Fight of Life (below lower), both 1984:

Man from Naples (1982, below), from Guggenheim Bilbao’s own collection, is a good example of Basquiat’s street graffiti work:

While the Guggenheim Bilbao is probably an even more impressive building than Gehry’s later Fondation Louis Vuitton, I thought it was less visitor-friendly.  The gallery space is less appropriate for exhibitions, particularly retrospectives. The Warhol show was spread over two floors while Basquiat required walking back through galleries 306 and 305 after reaching 307 and then down a corridor to 303 and 302 – not so good, at least on an initial visit. Also, to enter the Museum, visitors descend a flight of steps from street level to the level of the atrium floor level. Leaving is via another flight of steps down to river level. A third set of steps, the length of the other two combined, then has to be climbed to get back to street level. If you want to get back in to the Museum – allowed during the day of visiting – you then redescend the first flight … None of this should deter anyone from visiting in 2016 when Guggenheim Bilbao will be offering shows of works by Warhol and Bourgeois and Windows on the City: The School of Paris, 1900-1945.

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