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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Guggenheim Bilbao

The Guggenhem Bilbao
Abstract architecture housing
abstract art,
Some time ago I wrote about the Japanese entry into the museum of contemporary art space race. It's not really a race but there is an element of friendly competition in being the proud owner of such a facility. MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, puts the US in first place in terms of voluminous empty space in which such art can be exhibited. The Japanese definitely have the edge in terms of relaxing ambiance and refined sensibilities while in Europe, London has its entry in the form of the Tate Modern, spaciously housed in the old Bankside Power Station. And in the somewhat unlikely city of Bilbao, situated in the Basque province of Spain, the Spanish, in cahoots with the Guggenheim Museum in New York, have what has to be the most visually spectacular entry in this contest. If MASS MoCA looks like something out of the 19th century, while the Tate bears the distinctive markings of the 20th, and the Hiroshima entry looks like something from our 21st century, then the Guggenheim Bilbao would seemingly take its style from the 22nd...or maybe even the 23rd century.

Photo by Didier Descouens

Puppy, 1992, Jeff Koons, found a permanent home in Bilbao in 1997.

The sensual, yet cubist curves of Frank O. Gehry's spectacular architecture make even Frank Lloyd Wright's New York Guggenheim with its daring funnel shape and circular slopes seem downright stodgy by comparison. Inaugurated in 1997 and for a time, home to Jeff Koon's Puppy in its second incarnation, the Guggenheim Bilbao owes much of its existence to some of the same figures responsible for the initial effort in giving birth to MASS MoCA. They were lured to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as a result of their efforts in North Adams, and in Bilbao, found both more money and far fewer bureaucratic obstacles than they'd encountered in the U.S. The Guggenheim Bilbao is, in fact, basically a gussied up MASS MoCA. Unlike the U.S. and England, who found it desirable to recycle existing structures to the demands of Postmodern art, the Spanish, like the Japanese, started from scratch with a new, specially designed facility for such purposes. And in doing so, the Iberian monument to contemporary art reaps the museum architectural award for daring excellence.

Interior of the Guggenheim Bilbao featuring Richard Serraren Denboraren's
Matter of Time, 1994-2005
Bilbao Guggenheim's soaring atrium leaves little doubt that you are entering a work of art.

Though not quite as large as MASS MoCA, Bilbao's 240,000 square feet makes it a respectable second in the space race. Composed of nineteen galleries of every conceivable size and shape, the museum is nothing if not versatile. It's largest hall is some 100 feet wide and almost 400 feet long, a pillarless space larger than a football field including the end zones. Architecturally, one might best describe the complex of galleries, and auxiliary facilities as "sculptural" bearing some resemblance to a flower (abstractly speaking). Huge glass walls, curved walkways, glass elevators, a breathtaking atrium housed in a soaring tower stagger the senses. Stone and titanium compete where glass leaves off to form the gleaming skin of this inspiring work of art designed to house works of art. And unfortunately, like its wrightian older brother in New York, this Guggenheim must also endure the justifiable criticism that it competes unfairly with the very art it's designed to showcase. That's a burden none of the other MoCAs have to bear. But then again, maybe that's not the fault of the museum itself but a weakness of the Postmodern art it contains.

Glass, titanium, stone, just add water and the museum comes to life, from virtually any angle, especially at night and during exceptional weather conditions.

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