Fortified by Spanish cuisine and coffee I ventured into the bowels of this futuristic behemoth, expectant of seeing some breathtaking sights. There are impressive artifacts and installations within the building, but if you are not convinced by modern and conceptual art, you’re probably best walking round the building assimilating the whole experience of a different and exciting display space rather than getting to grips with the art inside. On the ground floor you’ll find a mixed bag of art works. One of the first things on view is Jenny Holzer’s ‘Installation for Bilbao’, a construct of LED sign columns streaming such messages as “I SCAN YOU”. My impression was of a cross between Wall Street and the Matrix, although these columns are red not green like the ticker tape effect in the film. Standing inside Holzer’s installation is more effective: it’s like taking a neon bath; you’re bathed in the warm glow of the descending columns. Next to this are rooms containing art by the likes of Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel. Schnabel likes to think of himself as an exponent of the neo-baroque, although there was little of that on display here, just his crockery paintings. I wonder how many plates have been smashed in the service of fuelling Schnabel’s aesthetic fantasies. As for Koons, he’s another artist suffering from the symptoms of neo-baroque folie de grandeur. On the same floor you are invited to make a fantastic voyage into the swirling sculpture of Richard Serra’s ‘The Matter of Time’ which is impressive, even more so from above. Walking through canyons of steel snaking through a room the size of an aircraft hanger is bound to bring on intimations of mortality. The monolithic is usually associated with the divine, not the manageable and small-scale piece of art residing in a corner of the gallery. Does Richard Serra worship the god of small things? I think not.
On the second floor, you are treated to a minimalist room, mainly Donald Judd- give me Brancusi any time- and a large overview of American painting from the days of elegance to our age of anxiety. I started with John Singleton Copley’s portraits –not his best- and then worked through the great sublime vistas of Albert Bierstadt towards excellent examples of New York abstract expressionism. It’s a long time since I saw Pollock’s ‘The Moon Woman’ in the Peggy Guggenheim collection Venice, so it was pleasing to see it here, along with Rothko, and various others. Their art still holds up well against the empty gestures of Franz Kline and the inchoate meanderings of Willem de Kooning, also in evidence here. The whole museum currently doubles as this gargantuan ‘Art and the USA’ show, thus another room on the same floor has Pop Art, represented here by a sampling of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist. I have to confess that I quite prefer Rosenquist over Warhol: I like the immediacy of such paintings as ‘Swimmer in the Econo-Mist’ which seems to be swept up in a vortex of scattered objects and vivid colour. I don’t dislike Warhol, but what was on display here didn’t really fill me with admiration: prints of electric chairs, flowers and celebrities whose iconography deluded faddish art historians claim is the history painting of the 20th century.
Upstairs was the least captivating of all: an exhibition of insipid photographs showing homunculi in various poses- not easily engaged with at all. I also found a video of a Basque artist looping his utterance of some Spanish word with ideological overtones quite banal. His shrieks ululated throughout the museum making one feel an acute sense of disquiet and mild resentment at being distracted from the art that merited one’s attention. I would rather put up with Matthew Barney’s impenetrable video cycle on the 2nd floor than this piece of irritating agit-prop at the top of the building.
There was a lot of good art on display in the Guggenheim Bilbao, though some of it left me cold. Still, individual taste aside, the problem that Guggenheim Bilbao face is how do they compete with the building itself; how can the permanent collection surpass the architectural vision of Frank Gehry that created the so-called “Bilbao effect.”. This specific concern appears in the preface to the BG’s guidebook where the phrase “no museum is defined by its architecture” is written Yet, I wouldn’t mind betting that for most visitors, both actual and virtual, it is precisely the structure that is identified with the museum and not the exhibits within it, with the notable exception of Bourgeoise’s spider sculpture.