Richard James Havis
What's going on around the globe
New York's Guggenheim museum has been controversial ever since it opened in 1959. Its central structure - designed by Frank Lloyd Wright - is one long spiral leading from the floor to a domed ceiling. Paintings are hung on the sides of the spiral, so visitors see the artworks as they walk up the gentle slope.
Critics say this 'wedding cake' design diverts attention from the art works. But recently the museum's directors cocked the ultimate snook at detractors by removing practically all the paintings for a site-specific installation by Daniel Buren that focused the attention of visitors on the elegant building itself.
Buren takes his inspiration from a single, rather bizarre, source: beach deckchairs. The artist, whose works have been described as 'anti-paintings', pastes candy-striped deckchair fabrics onto walls in galleries and anywhere else he's allowed to put them. Once he even stuck them on the sides of Chicago's mass transit trains.
Buren exhibited at the Guggenheim once before, in 1971, when he hung a huge black-and-white deckchair fabric as part of the Painting-Sculpture exhibition. It was a vast work, reaching from the floor to the top of the dome, and was taken down after just one day because the other artists complained it obscured their works.
His recent installation, which ended last week, was titled Eye of the Storm, a reference to the controversy Lloyd Wright's design caused when the Guggenheim was built. The new installation caused something of a storm itself, with critics claiming it was conceited for an art gallery to trumpet its architecture over the works of artists.
Buren used his installations to frame and reveal Wright's genius: the gentle curves of the exhibition spaces, the lilt of the winding ramp, the triumphant arc of the dome and so on.
All of the artworks were removed from the walls so as not to deflect attention from the shape of the gallery. The Guggenheim, for so long forced to play second fiddle to the works of Picasso, Kandinsky and other great artists, was finally allowed to take centre stage as a masterpiece in its own right.
It wasn't all deckchairs. The first thing visitors saw was a giant mirror, which reached all the way from floor to ceiling. Although many visitors seemed to be using this to fix their hair and check their clothing, the idea was that it enabled the gallery to be seen from a new perspective. (It also helped in locating lost friends, which is always a problem on the winding ramp.)
Buren also stuck some orange stripes around the ramp, to lead the eye around its gentle curves, and put a pastel-coloured stained-glass window in the dome to hint at church architecture. It was a fitting tribute to the founding idea behind the Guggenheim - that it would be a temple to abstract art.