When I was in New York earlier in the year, I visited Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, the Guggenheim Museum. You know the one....
Just look at it compared to the building beside it. It's like a 1950's spaceship. It must have been totally mind-blowing when it was first built. It still is!
Inside, it has a huge atrium with an ascending spiral walkway which leads your eye up to the glass roof. All white, it's an almost religious space with no intrusion from the outside world apart from pure light; like an art cathedral, or an art casino (if you've ever been to the gambling houses of Vegas, where there's no clocks or windows and time stands still).
The walkway has a very low barrier at the edge (suprisingly, vertiginously low), and it's all sloping floors and curving walls. The art is displayed up this ramp against the curved walls and in shallow bays. Which isn't great.
It's a bizarrely dizzying and pretty overwhelming effect - you feel as if you're about to tip over the edge. You don't really feel safe stepping back to look at things. In fact, the architecture is so very dominant that it pretty much overwhelms the experience of being there, and also overwhelms the art itself. The building isn't a subservient shell for the art, it's the dominant art-piece which is being decorated by the contents. Tail wagging the dog. It's like being in a giant Frank ego.
There's surprisingly little art for the size of the building, as there's only the stairwell and then a couple of side rooms. However, one piece which really jumped out at me was Robert Rauschenberg's Untitled (Red Painting). It's a big painting, and just throbbed away like a heartbeat on the white curved wall.
Robert Rauschenberg, Untitled (Red Painting) 1953
(Oil, fabric and newspaper on canvas with wood)
Obviously, it's a little difficult for this little image to convey the impact of the piece, which is why you really always need to see art in the flesh, so to speak.
It's got a lot of surface texture going on with layers and layers of collaged materials of different textures and thicknesses, such as newspaper and fabric, and layers of differently applied types of paint and varnishes. Two pieces of wood lie at the top and bottom of the paint surface. These echo the more subtle brown shades in the painting, and are organic beginning and end-points for the piece, which have been machine-cut to fit. So they are organic and natural, but tailored by machine.
Although it is one colour - red - there are lots of subtle colours - oranges and vermillions and ochres, and shadows cast by the layers, and then really deep parts where you can physically look right into the dark heart of the picture, and then bright reflected light on the varnished surface.
The paint, which could be oil or household, is in parts dribbled or splattered or brushed, so there are different forms of action used to apply the parts, some carefully, some energetically, some thoughtfully, some accidentally. Instead of mark-making with a brush or charcoal, it is huge gestural mark-making with scraps of two dimensional materials which are then wrinkled and layered to make animated three-dimensional form, in a method of art-making that is right in the point between a sculpture and a painting.
When he was a child, because they were poor, Rauschenberg's mother resourcefully made clothes from scraps of materials in order to make do and mend, even, apparently, making a skirt for herself out of a suit which her brother had died in. Nothing was wasted. The house was always full of these scraps of material being transformed and pieced together into a new shape and a new life, although Rauschenberg longed for something new and shop-bought.
His art, then, consists of taking the found and treasuring it, transforming it into something new that is labelled as and revered as 'art'. He would also later make a series of work called the 'Glut' series, a comment on the throw-away consumerism of middle-class America. He travelled round the roads of the US, stopping to pick up car wreckage and other discarded objects, and taking them back to the studio to make into assemblages.
Untitled (Red Painting) is both beautiful and raw, formed and unformed, organic and man-made. It's very, very exciting and full of a powerful energy. I couldn't take my eyes off it.
I came across quite a bit of Rauschenberg's work in New York. Here's 'Bed'. Long before Tracey Emin was making art of hers in 1998, Rauschenberg was picking up his bed in 1955 and turning it into art, much to the disgust of his father.
Robert Rauschenberg, Bed 1955
(Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt and sheet on wooden supports)
Interestingly, Emin said "It's art if I say it's art", and Rauschenberg declared pretty much exactly the same thing of his work. Invited to create and display a portrait of gallery owner Iris Clert, Rauschenberg's submission consisted of a telegram sent to the gallery declaring "This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so."
As I said, Rauschenberg's ordinary, hard-working thrifty parents were baffled by their son's work, which quite frankly, wasn't work by any definition they had ever come across. You wonder where Rauschenberg got the thrawn, independent spark to recreate himself in such a completely new way as an artist, totally outwith anything in his surrounding working-class experience.
I particularly like the story about his mother who, when faced with her house being in the path of Hurricane Andrew, boarded up her windows by bringing down some of her famous son's work from the attic (worth about a million dollars each), and nailing it over the windows. She took care to assure Rauschenberg that he wasn't to worry, she had been very careful to nail them painted surface inwards, so as not to advertise to the neighbours the sort of embarassing nonsense that her son got up to.
What Rauschenberg's work does, which is so very exciting and joyful, is to say 'anything is art'. anything is art and an expression of yourself if you say it is. So we have this...
Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon (1959) Mixed
Robert Rauschenberg, Monogram (1955) Mixed
Yes, that's a stuffed goat and a tyre on a piece of canvas. It's texture and collage gone mad, pushed to extremes. Ok, so maybe some of you are going along with Rauschenberg's dad on this one - call that art? But think of this.
Think of what you did at work today, or yesterday, or will do tomorrow. Routine stuff, probably. Very likely sitting at an office desk, with very little visible product at the end of the day. Now imagine the working life of Rauschenberg. Popping off to the local flea market or dump. Grabbing a stuffed goat. Picking up a car tyre. Painting the tyre and rolling it along a giant length of paper to make a print. Mucking about with arranging things on a canvas. Really looking at objects, their shapes and textures. How they interact with other objects that they would never normally be seen with. Doing all those sort of creative things that you used to do with left-over toilet rolls and cereal boxes when you were small, gluing and painting and arranging. It was fun. This is fun. This is art!
Because, once you have that mind-set that anything can be art and everything has potential, it's actually very liberating and very exciting.
Look around you. Try it!
PS One last word on Frank Lloyd Wright's style-over-function Guggenheim museum. Frank wasn't great at signage - probably because signs would spoil the aesthetic of the concept. Although it wasn't a problem for Charles Rennie Mackintosh in his iconic masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art - he just invented his own font, et voila, signs a go-go.
Anyway, it's really, really hard to find your way to, say, the Guggenheim gift shop - which you can see over one of the balconies, but can't actually find a way to - or locate the secret tea-room. Very very hard, especially in such an organic, asymmetric building. When you do find the cafe, up a little stairway, it, too, is a tiny, curvy nest of a place, where the chosen few can perch on seats and nibble on a sandwich. They obviously aren't expecting a lot of people to be able to find it.
Oh, and the toilets. There is a single unisex toilet roughly on each level of the walkway, which is fine, but it doesn't have an 'engaged' sign on the outside, just a knob. So as soon as you go in, people are banging on the door, because there's no way of telling if there's anyone inside. It's pretty annoying, and all because it just hasn't been thought through that little bit further (the way Mackintosh did).
So the Guggenheim may look like an utterly astonishing iconic architectural masterpiece, but for a visitor actually using an art gallery, it has to also be about the useability, accessability and functionality of the basics of an art gallery; the art, the cafe, the gift shop and the toilets. So a whole load of curvy walls and bendy floors doesn't cut it on the practicality front.