Eyes Wide Open: A Collection in the Making

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection, David Anfam (et al)
(535pp, 44.9, T F. Editores)

In his introduction to Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection, the curator Francisco Calvo Serrailler applauds how this institution has helped create the new phenomenon of visual arts tourism. Explaining how the Guggenheim Bilbao has become a template for what an art gallery can do for attracting visitors to a post-industrial city, he draws attention 'to its most physically evident and therefore most spectacular feature: the surprisingly original building designed for it by the American architect Frank O. Gehry, which certainly modified all the traditional rules for art museums'.

Serrailler is right to acknowledge the exuberance of Gehry's groundbreaking building. On a visit several years ago I remember being highly impressed by the sight of it radiantly standing out from its urban surroundings, like a vast, deconstructed spaceship arrived from another universe. With its sweeping contours and interlocking titanium panels, it certainly pulls off that fanciful trick of being an innovatively designed architectural landmark that also provides an engaging backdrop and enclosure for the showing of modern and contemporary art.

I also took away from my visit to the museum something amplified here in Serrailler's remarks: the thought that acclaim for the Guggenheim Bilbao has not simply rested upon the flamboyance of this building, for its success has actually depended upon the strength of its permanent collection. Featuring the work of sixty- two different artists, what follows in this book are all the acquisitions made since the birth of the museum in 1997. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection
then is an entrancing survey of visual art from the mid-twentieth century to the present day, a lavish coffee-table book of rich insights that is also just about heavy, thick and sturdy enough to prop up any timeworn armchair in a state of collapse.

According to taste some artists, of course, will be of more interest than others, but what becomes plainly evident that although the collection in Bilbao is autonomous, like the parent Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the sister Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, it is especially concerned with stating the American contribution to art history in the modern period. Key players of Abstract Expressionism and its aftermath are here:  Rothko, de Kooning, Motherwell, Still, Twombly and Rauschenberg.  Likewise there is plenty of Pop with prime examples from Dine, Rosenquist and Warhol.  Important canvasses by Schnabel, Basquiat, Clemente, Cucchi, Keifer, Richter and Polke illustrate 'the new spirit', a resurgence of painting in the early 1980's on both sides of the Atlantic.

However what I begin to absorb from this book is not only about the considerable status of the collection in terms of both quantity and quality as some kind of American-flavoured prestige brand. There is a history of late twentieth century Spanish art sketched out in this book that reveals so much about the dialogue between artists whose work is part of an international scene. In an artistic climate that continues to be choc-a-bloc with relativism, the prominence of work by Tapies, Saura, Barcelo, Munoz and the Basque sculptors Chillida and Oteiza suggests an inversion of the usual American over European hierarchy. One of the many pleasures of this book is the way that several of the essays pay great attention to the methods of European artists such as Klein, Clemente and Tapies whose work has been in constant conversation with their American contemporaries. Building on this question, Nicholas Cullinan's illuminating essay on Cy Twombly provides a fittingly Euro-American back-story on how the Commodus series painted in Rome in 1963 met with such a muted response when first shown at the Castelli Gallery in New York and yet nearly half a century later (owned by Guggenheim Bilbao) is now seen as pivotal in Twombly's artistic development.

If Guggenheim Bilbao has successfully promoted and preserved a vital European (and Spanish) cultural heritage, a clearly focused identity is also evident in the way that specifically acquired works like Twombly's Commodus
paintings are then given a privileged presence in the collection. Towards similar ends, Guggenheim Bilbao has commissioned certain artists to engage with the unprecedented scale and playful arrangement of the galleries within the museum. Works by Holzer, Clemente, Sol LeWitt and Long were therefore made with Gehry's dynamic spaces in mind.  However, on my own visit to Bilbao, the work that really took my breath away was Richard Serra's The Matter of Time that fills a 130 metre long gallery, the largest in the museum. This monumental site-specific work completed in 2005 consists of seven intimidating heavy masses of weathered steel. As wonderful as the nine colour reproductions are at indicating the lay-out, including one photograph taken from a viewing balcony above the work, nothing can prepare you for the exhilaration of walking in amongst these vast and heavy, rusting metal sheets. There is a contradiction between the precision of their placement and an overwhelming sense of precariousness in their leaning.

Obviously the purpose of the book is to show that the reputation of Guggenheim Bilbao rests upon a stunning collection that is housed in what is unmistakeably a Gehry building. Through reproductions, the book offers an overview of all the 102 artworks contained within its holding, while the series of essays reveals the connections between their respective contexts, offering informed critical analysis of each individual artist involved. I take away from this book the idea that the secret of a successful art museum has to be about a steadfast confidence in its own collection.  Unfortunately not all institutions are blessed with such a pedigree as the previous Guggenheims or come affixed with the artworks that will generate the same excitement.

I could not help think of the challenge facing two new regional museums in the north of England both of which are contained in 'landmark' buildings by international architects in post-industrial locations not unlike Bilbao: Mima which opened in Middlesbrough in 2007, and the Hepworth, Wakefield in 2011. Having wallowed in the joys and treats of Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection, my admiration goes out further to Mima in how their curators have shown that a modern museum can create such a strong regional and national identity within the community. As well as commissioning new work, they have used their innovative exhibition programme to draw upon the collection acquired by their forerunners Middlesbrough Art Gallery and Cleveland Craft Centre, by constantly re-inventing and finding exciting ways in which these works are shown. Similarly, Wakefield's municipal resource of artworks will be the vital backbone to the development and survival of the Hepworth. 

These museums have to display and build upon their strengths. We need them as our educational guides: to lead us towards exploring the treasures contained inside such rich and beguiling collections. Bringing hope to the future, there could be few things potentially more rewarding and revealing in our time.

      Peter Gillies 2011