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Saturday, December 30, 2006

day zero: Casa de Guggenheim

Although I'm now in London and did see the spectacular Velázquez exhibit today, I still owe my readers an account of the massive Spanish painting at the Guggenheim in New York.

The Guggenheim has been a troubled institution under Thomas Krens's leadership. The most common criticism is that he and the board of directors are more concerned with growing a global brand than they are with presenting great art intelligently, a critique that I share. They have even reportedly sold off some of their world-renowned collection of Kandinsky.

No institution should ever squander its strengths, no matter how unusual they may seem. The more unusual, the better. Northwestern University has one of the largest transportation libraries in the world(http://www.library.northwestern.edu/transportation/about.html). A transportation library may be a strange thing, but all transportation scholars (or however they style themselves—experts, perhaps) worldwide know they can turn to Northwestern for their specialized research needs. Whatever one feels about Kandinsky—and who doesn't feel when they look at Kandinsky?—it's a shame to see the Guggenheim abandon its commitment to the greatest depth of its own collection.

Over the last several years, the Guggenheim has staged several national-themed shows: Brazil, the Aztecs, Russia. The motivation behind these shows seems to be to build relationships with institutions in those countries, as if perhaps to establish art-colonial beachheads for future expansion. The Brazil and Aztec shows were disasters of monotony and under-curation. (I could not bring myself to see the Russian show: I expected another in their series of disappointments.) But I couldn't miss what looked like, and is, a major exhibition of several centuries of Spanish painting.

Reader, this may be the smartest hang of Spanish painting that we will ever see. It covers the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries thematically. Thematic hangs can be the worst museum experiences, able to diminish great paintings by thoughtlessly clustering unlike paintings as if there were obvious and meaningful relationships among them when in fact there are not. One of the last displays of the MoMA's collection before it closed for renovation was called People, Places, Things. That's all it was: works grouped by whether they depicted people, places, or things. What facile rubbish it was! That's not what I call meaningful connections. Tate Modern was suffering from the same narrative-averse fad when I was last here in 2004. (See my entry of December 1, 2006 for a related complaint of unearned connections in recent hip hop sampling.)

The Guggenheim's Spanish painting exhibit shows the imaginative and instructive connections that thematic hangs can achieve at their best. The paintings are grouped by theme or genre. Let's take bodegones for example. Bodegón is the Spanish term for still life, but it's not just a difference of terminology. As the exhibit and catalogue explain, French, English, and Spanish have their own names for the genre: nature morte, still life, and bodegón, respectively. Each term emphasizes, in turn, death, life, and the pantry (bodega).

Grouping Spanish paintings together by genre across the centuries achieves a number of effects. For one thing, it allows us to see iconic modernists like Picasso and Dali as Spanish painters again, not just as modernists. But in the bigger picture, it throws into high relief the genre and national continuities among particularly Spanish still lifes. The bodegón is not just a still life but a distinctly Spanish form of what we call the still life. One can see in these paintings not just the borrowing and stretching of genre rules but also the national specificity of how that genre was distinctly adopted by painters of one specific country and what difference that makes.

This is no small thing. The spaghetti western is definitely part of a recognizable genre but equally Italian and, as such, can be read in its relation to at least two traditions at once. I am reminded of the same effect by my own research on Scots vernacular pastoral elegy. Much of what is interesting and original about art is how each artist interprets, upholds, and violates the traditions that he or she chooses to work in. When an exhibit enables us to see art being made along multiple sets of legible parameters at once, our viewing is immeasurably enriched and our minds imaginatively provoked.

I will have more to say about the Guggenheim's exhibit when I revisit it after the conclusion of my European tour. After this entry I will focus only on what I see and do here. Tune in tomorrow, Reader, for my report on today's encounter with Velázquez. It may make you want to get yourself over here while the exhibit is still on.


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