9 , 2002: Guggenheim
Bilbao and the Getty: Experiencing Art from the Outside
By Christopher Connell '71
It was happenstance that took us to the Getty Center in Los Angeles
and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao eight days apart in late August.
The California trip was planned. We were scouting colleges with
our youngest. The appendectomy that our eldest underwent in Barcelona,
where he works as a translator, was not. So we moved up plans to
visit him in Spain. Matt recovered quickly enough to serve as both
translator and navigator on our 350-mile journey over excellent
highways to the coastal town.
The Getty and the Guggenheim both opened in late 1997. Frank Gehry's
titanium-clad masterpiece a fantastic ocean-liner of a building,
moored on the Nervion River in a Basque seaport made the
bigger splash. Bilbao, a gritty metropolis with half a million inhabitants,
suddenly found itself the epicenter of the art tourism world, the
recipient of the luckiest bit of fortune since Ringo Starr became
the replacement drummer in an unknown Liverpool band.
Richard Meier's gleaming latticework of buildings with
his signature white walls and travertine marble stones perched atop
the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains hardly went unnoticed.
Meier is the high priest of modernism. He was the youngest architect
ever to win the Pritzker Prize (he was 49 when chosen in 1984, five
years before Gehry received that laurel at 60).
I must confess this actually was my second visit to the Getty.
I spent 60 minutes there two autumns ago interviewing former Getty
chief executive Harold Williams for an education project. Time was
short that day; I did not enter a single gallery or even wander
down the garden path. The dramatic setting recalled the futuristic
lab in Woody Allen's 1973 spoof, Sleeper, (in reality, the I.M.
Pei-designed home of the National Center for Atmospheric Research
in Boulder, Colorado). The Getty tram was not even running that
The stars were in the right alignment for my second visit. A brilliant
blue sky, breezes, and the trams ferrying manageable crowds up the
sinuous hillside, with the traffic whizzing below on the San Diego
Freeway and UCLA's leafy Westwood campus in the distance. The Getty
charges no admission, but requires reservations weekdays to park
in the underground garage or in overflow lots off Sepulveda Boulevard.
That serves to regulate the crowds.
Some Angelinos pack lunches and ride the tram up simply to picnic
in this beautiful setting. The Getty boasts a restaurant and two
cafes. Diners can eat in the open air beneath the shelter of an
overhang that looks like a giant piano (Advice for the hungry: Try
the chicken sandwich with fig dressing). A path winds down to the
Getty's garden maze.
The buildings and galleries are all connected. Paintings are exhibited
on the upper floors in sky-lit galleries. Beyond the southernmost
gallery is a walk down to a cactus garden that commands a spectacular
view of the City of Angels. The Getty has both paid staff and, fittingly
for a great museum, volunteers to help visitors. It is a friendly,
comfortable place, with benches in the galleries and soft chairs
in the passageways so comfortable that two obviously jet-lagged
Japanese tourists who sat down near us nodded off in no time at
You can learn about the Getty's permanent collection and exhibitions
at the Getty Web site. There
are old Master's, Impressionist paintings, illustrated manuscripts,
sculptures that span the centuries, and rooms devoted to the decorative
arts. I pass no judgment on these collections except to note that
visitors to both the Getty and the Guggenheim are drawn more by
the buildings than the treasures they house.
The Getty Center the walls that blend aluminum, glass and
travertine; the plazas; the exquisite gardens and landscaping, even
the smooth, conductorless trams worked for me in a way that
no museum before ever had. For one delightful afternoon, architecture
spoke to me.
Now perhaps under the misapprehension that Frank Owen Gehry was,
like my family, part of the Irish diaspora actually he was
born in Toronto to Polish immigrants named Goldberg and adopted
the name Gehry as a young man in Los Angeles I felt drawn
to Bilbao from the moment I heard of plans for this titanium ship
of dreams. Regis, the Jesuit high school I attended in New York
was just five blocks from the Guggenheim mother ship, but that Frank
Lloyd Wright creation in the round held no similar fascination for
Our prospects for seeing this new Guggenheim brightened considerably
when Matthew moved to Barcelona in April 2001. Eventually we would
visit him and that would be the chance.
This was Matthew's second pilgrimage to Bilbao, and he knew precisely
the streets to march us down so that we would turn a corner and
voila! there would be the glimmering Guggenheim, all
shiny silver curves and angles, with a verdant hillside as a backdrop.
What I took to be a three-story topiary bear in front perhaps
a leftover mascot from the Barcelona Olympics? was actually
pop artist Jeff Koons's beloved Puppy sculpture 43 feet of
fresh flowers packed densely onto an invisible steel skeleton. It
was previously perched in Germany and Sydney, Australia; Koons created
a sibling for New York's Rockefeller Center two years ago.
On a somber note, Basque terrorists separatists is the
politically correct term killed a policeman who stopped them
from bringing machine guns and grenades concealed in flower pots
into the museum before the ceremonial opening in October 1997. There
were demonstrations in Bilbao and Donasti (San Sebastian) during
our visit to protest a judge's ruling banning the political arm
of ETA, the terrorist group that has killed hundreds in its three-decade
crusade to separate from Spain. Indeed, earlier on the day of our
visit, police said they intercepted a van with 30 kilograms of dynamite.
Still, security around the Guggenheim was either incredibly inconspicuous
or not particularly heavy. Unlike the White House and much of the
rest of official Washington, it is not barricaded. It does sit beside
a large, unsightly, empty industrial pit that seems to have been
left for the next phase of Bilbao's redevelopment. It is as if the
Fairy Godmother gave Cinderella one glass slipper, not two. A busy
avenue runs before the Guggenheim, and a bridge that bifurcates
the tail end of the museum carries traffic to an unseen tunnel that
actually runs through that pristine hillside in thedistance.
Terrorism is the last thing on your mind when you fall under the
spell of the Guggenheim. There were children running up and down
the steps as we hurried to the entrance. When we emerged, we glimpsed
a bride in her strapless gown holding the hand of a handsome groom
by Koons's mammoth Puppy. I assumed they were actors posing for
a commercial. But no, they were the genuine article, trailed by
their wedding photographers, one shooting video, the other stills.
I have no pictures to share from inside the Guggenheim. The perky
security staff all young and good-looking carefully
wrapped each tourist's camera in a plastic bag with holes so you
could still carry the verboten device round your neck. There was
a Kandinsky exhibit, and stunning photographs from four continents
by the German film director Wim Wender ("Paris, Texas"
and "Buena Vista Social Club") fodder for a chapter
in my future bestseller, Life Isn't Fair. A large, wonderful gallery
held a selection of paintings by modern German artists. An exhibit
of Paris art from 1900 to 1968, including several Giacometti sculptures,
was in its final days. And there was a room with modern art, including
a contraption that made a racket and rattled around every so often.
There was no place to sit amid any of these Guggenheim galleries.
Rather a harsher crowd control measure, I thought, than parking
Here. too, the big show is outside. There is a spacious promenade
along the river, and stairs up the intersecting bridge. Gilding
their lily, the Guggenheim folks spew mists from fountains in the
back of the museum. Gehry's creation is dramatic enough without
that visual effect. Is the titanium rusting, as you may have heard?
Perhaps a little here or there, but not enough that the man on the
white horse would notice, to borrow one of my Irish mother's phrases.
We actually were quicker to notice the dust bunnies on the sweeping
white walls inside the Guggenheim. That cannot be blamed on the
architect. A good whiskbroom with an extension handle would solve
One hundred and forty pictures later, I left the Guggenheim a
happy man, thrilled with what Frank Gehry conjured up for us. I
loved this building from almost every angle; each change of cloud
and sunlight created new incarnations. Gehry is no Ringo Starr,
but Fortune clearly has smiled on him as well. Gehry is knocking
himself off in projects across America, from the rock 'n' roll museum
in Seattle to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in his hometown of Los
Angeles to a new wing of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.
That's all right. For me, there will always be Bilbao. Play it again,
Christopher Connell '71 is a writer in Falls Church, Virginia,
who specializes in health, education and the arts. His e-mail is