Curator, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Since its opening in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has proven to be a dynamic player both in the global art scene and within the constellation of Guggenheim Foundation institutions. Alongside its program of temporary exhibitions, the Museum is committed to showcasing the various collections in the Foundation's network, including major holdings from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, as well as developing a focused collection of its own.
Figure 1: .Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Bibao. Image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
Initially oriented towards the major artistic movements of the second half of the 20th century in Europe and the United States, the Guggenheim Bilbao Collection has fulfilled a double commitment in its two decades of ongoing existence. It complements and enriches the already significant holdings of the Guggenheim network, focusing on relevant manifestations of late modernism through the canonic disciplines of painting and sculpture, and evolving toward key examples of contemporary practice in a variety of media. In the meantime, it aims to highlight the specific identity of the Museum as the flagship of the Basque Country’s economic, social, and cultural regeneration, in response to multiple challenges of the global age.
Following the initiative of the Museum’s institutional founders—a consortium formed by the Basque Government, the Province of Biscaye, and the City Council of Bilbao, along with the Guggenheim Foundation—a first set of major acquisitions was announced on the eve of the Museum’s opening. Strategically planned to grow alongside the Museum’s programs since its inception, the Guggenheim Bilbao Collection currently includes more than 130 works, many of them commissioned specifically for the unique spaces of Frank O. Gehry’s emblematic building. The singularity of the latter’s galleries and outdoor spaces, welcoming both massive-scale installations and the classical formats of modern Western art—i.e. painting on canvas, and sculpture, on a pedestal or free-standing—has allowed the Collection to equally expand in terms of autonomous artworks and site-specific installations. It is important to note, however, that the building itself has been, since the beginning, not only the container or backdrop of all Collection artworks, but also the measuring unit for the Collection’s original aspirations and, ultimately, for its most defining pieces.
Figure 2: Frank O. Gehry: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, interior view, 1997; photo © Zarateman / Wikipedia / CC0
Frank O. Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao building might itself be considered the first and most important piece in the Museum’s Collection—a statement that interestingly raises the question of the materiality of an institution and that can be applied to others, including of course Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum building (1959) in New York City. (See Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) As a poster hanging on the wall of long-time Guggenheim Foundation Director, Thomas Krens, stated, “the Guggenheim is not a place.”
Undertaken in the early 1990s, the construction of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was funded by the aforementioned Basque institutions as part of their efforts to restructure Bilbao’s (and the Basque region’s) economy in response to new global challenges. Along with Norman Foster’s subway system design (1995) and Santiago Calatrava’s new airport terminal (2000), Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao building (1997) was to become the compass for an economy oriented toward tertiary services, tourism, marketing and information technologies, in which Basque cultural specificities would gain new visibility. Inaugurated to international acclaim, Gehry’s building was somewhat hailed as a promising gateway into the 21st century (Figure 2). This aura was favored not only by its expressive, playful shapes, but also by the very process of its design. Facing major technical challenges for the engineering of the building’s structure and “skin”, Gehry made critical choices that have since been told and retold in the scholarly histories of recent architectural practice. Most notably, the unprecedented incorporation of computer programmers to his studio’s core staff gave the building an appearance and structural complexity hardly ever attained before, whilst it positioned Gehry as the first architect of the digital age.
Figure 3: Guggenheim Bilbao facade. Image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
However, the characteristics of Gehry’s Bilbao design have afforded his edifice a reputation that is as great as it is ambiguous, for its salient traits can be deemed in many cases more sculptural than architectural. Part fish, part ship, part flower–a glorified shipyard and a wrecked cathedral—Gehry’s building was conceived as a formal prism for the city’s complex industrial past, a monument of sorts to the glory and decline of Bilbao as one of the world’s leading providers of steel (Figure 3). Its realization as an architectural feat owes as much to the architect’s formal virtuosity as it does to a post-industrial context which granted maximum pertinence to an emerging, seemingly chaotic mass of sublimated metal, folding and unfolding along the river bank. Highly figurative parts, such as the building’s “tail” overhanging the water, coexist with pure undulating forms devoid of any known architectural function—they don’t contain anything and don’t provide shelter—ultimately presenting the building as an undeniable aesthetic object.
Figure 4: Joseph Beuys: Lightning with Stag in Its Glare (Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch), bronze iron and aluminum, edition 0/4, 1958-85 (Bilbao Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
Just like any young collection, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao sought out key historical and cultural references as landmarks. Movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Arte Povera, and Neo-Expressionism are found in the Collection, in proportions that emphasize their coexistence in past decades and their importance in the configuration of the current contemporary scene. Under the common denominators of excellence and rarity, a group of major historical works has progressively grown to represent the complex, paradoxical forces and interests at work in the so-called post-modern era. This core group in the Collection, focusing on American and European art, highlights the work of artists born before 1930 and includes such prominent examples as Untitled (1952–53) by Mark Rothko; Large Blue Anthropometry [ANT 105] [La grande Anthropométrie bleue (ANT 105)], (ca. 1960) by Yves Klein; Villa Borghese (1960) by Willem de Kooning; One Hundred and Fifty Multicolored Marilyns (1979) by Andy Warhol; the installation Lightning with Stag in Its Glare (Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch) (1958–85) by Joseph Beuys (Figure 4); and Barge (1962–63) by Robert Rauschenberg, among others (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Robert Rauschenberg: Barge, oil and silkscreen ink on canvas, 208 x 980.5 x 5.2 cm, 1962-3 (Bilbao, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
Taking these works and their makers as references for historical orientation, the Collection unfolds chronologically and tactically, representing younger generations of artists and giving special attention to those practicing today—a term that can aptly encompass the Museum’s two decades of existence. Remarkable works by Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Anish Kapoor, Louise Bourgeois, Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, Juan Muñoz, among others, thus found their natural space in the Collection, as it expanded into specific sections that address the international as well as the Basque and Spanish contemporary scenes.
The Museum’s original interest in defining contemporary art, alongside a desire to emphasize its spatial singularity, have favored a site-specific approach alongside the acquisition of autonomous works. Active members of the neo-avant garde of the 1960s and 70s, such as Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, and Yoko Ono, were invited to produce distinct pieces for the Museum site, along with younger figures such as Francesco Clemente, Jenny Holzer, and Jeff Koons.
Figure 6: Jenny Holzer: Installation for Bilbao, electronic LED sign, 9 columns, site-specific dimensions, 1997 (Bilbao, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
A notable example amongst the Museum’s first commissions is Holzer’s Installation for Bilbao (1997), presented at the Guggenheim Bilbao’s inaugural exhibition The Guggenheim Museums and the Art of This Century (Figure 6). Holzer’s device is a set of nine vertical L.E.D. signboards, each more than 40 feet tall, stretching from floor to ceiling in one of the first floor galleries. Tacitly referencing the struggle against AIDS in the 1990s, Holzer’s powerful, intimate, yet abstract text matches the characteristics of this space—simultaneously wide open and secretive—behind the Museum’s atrium. Red and blue diodes dynamically reproduce the artist’s script in English, Spanish, and Basque, evoking an endless whisper. Emotions of loss, desire, and consumption alternate as part of a lover’s unrelenting monologue or prayer. While the integration of Installation for Bilbao with the Museum’s architecture has proven its relevance, remaining on view for twenty years, this is not an exclusive feature of this work but rather a characteristic of many of the Museum’s holdings.
Figure 7: Richard Serra: The Matter of Time, eight sculptures, weathering steel, variable dimensions, 1994-2005 (Bilbao, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
This tension between sculpture and architecture seems especially pertinent in view of Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (1994-2005), perhaps the most spectacular and certainly the largest permanent work at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Serra’s multi-part installation consists of eight colossal steel sculptures, displayed throughout the Museum’s 130-meter long “Fish" gallery. While the centerpiece of the installation, Snake (1994-97), was commissioned for the Museum’s inaugural exhibition, the other components—two Torqued Ellipses, three Torqued Spirals, Blind Spot Reversed, and Between the Torus and the Sphere—were monumentally delivered as a second commission, and presented as a cohesive group in 2005 (Figure 7). Critic Fabien Faure has rightly pointed out that The Matter of Time “does not consist of tons of steel so much as of time and space connected and disconnected, almost dragged through a material elevated to its point of equilibrium.” Visitors are invited to navigate Serra’s vibrating masses of space with no other purpose than their activation: an overwhelming experience of weight, texture, sound, and fluctuating volume that at the same time competes with and fosters that of its container. The fact that the same engineering software, CATIA, was instrumental for the design of Gehry’s building and Serra’s Torqued Ellipses reflects the quasi-architectural stature of these works and their implicit dialogues with their settings.
Figure 8: Daniel Buren: Arcos Rojos / Arku gorriak, compact laminate sheets, aluminum, galvanized steel, PVC film, clear plexiglass, LEDs, and metal halide projectors, modified structure: 57.5 x 27.85, 2.17 m (Bilbao, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
In 2007, ten years after the Museum’s opening, a new set of commissions was presented to the public. Daniel Buren’s Arcos rojos / Arku gorriak [Red Arcs] responded to an invitational call for artists to intervene in the structure of the La Salve bridge, whose speedway platform intersects with the Museum’s main nave from above (Figure 8). Confronting the bridge’s original aesthetic—a brutally bare, nondescript armature of steel and concrete—Buren’s work devised to cover its central load-bearing “H” structure with a red shell, out of which three partial circles were cut out, one on top of the other, projecting upward toward the sky and downward as a reflection on the water. The edges of this hybrid sculpture are covered with black and white stripes, and host a lighting device that produces different moving patterns at night.
Also in 2007, a select group of young Basque artists responded to the Museum’s commissioning initiative with works that reacted to the physical and symbolic context of the institution. Performance artist Itziar Okariz recorded Irrintzi (a characteristic scream from the Basque country) in different areas of the Museum, including Serra’s volumes. A precarious monument by sculptor Asier Mendizabal (titled Nom de guerre) engaged the Museum’s security, maintenance, and installation teams to build a temporary chimney, in order for a can of fuel to burn ceaselessly in the middle of a gallery during the exhibition period.
Figures 9,10: (left) Jeff Koons: Puppy, Stainless steel, soil, and flowering plants, 1240 x 1240 x 820 cm, 1992, (Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao Collection integrates a multiplicity of time-based works that go well beyond the realm of video or installation art, usually the two media associated—as typically as vaguely—with this category. By contrast, a defining feature of several emblematic works in the Guggenheim Bilbao Collection is the incorporation of natural processes, biological and otherwise, as well as media that engages viewers in a common temporality with the surrounding landscape. Jeff Koons’s massive pet sculpture, Puppy (1992), toured public spaces in the world and accumulated a prodigious exhibition history before settling at the Guggenheim Bilbao entrance, where it now greets pedestrians with its provocative, fully-assumed, superficial optimism and a coat of almost forty-thousand seasonal flowers (Figures 9,10).
Figure 11: Yoko Ono: Wish Tree for Bilbao, handwritten framed text, olive tree, soil, wooden pot, lectern, labels, and pens, 1996 (Bilbao, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, gift of the artist); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree for Bilbao (1996/2014) located on one of the Museum’s balconies, also incorporates cyclical blooming and growth (Figure 11). Visitors are invited to whisper or write down—depending on the season—their wishes for peace. In the latter case, the pieces of paper are hung on the tree, and are finally sent to the artist and integrated in an environmental light installation titled Imagine Peace Project in Viðey Island, Reykjavík, Iceland.
The northern façade of the Museum is separated from the Nervión estuary by an artificial pond and a concrete footbridge. This area, populated by several large-scale sculptures, is also the stage for a dialogue of contrasting elements. Yves Klein’s Fire Fountain (1961/1997) is the posthumous realization of a design formulated by the artist to replace “the elegant jets of water [of Versailles] by brilliant jets of fire” (Figure 12). The work consists of a row of five gas burners, erupting with meter-high flames every hour in the evening.
Figure 12: Yves Klein: Fire Fountain, 1961, fabricated in 1997 (Bilbao, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
Acting in the same enclave with greater regularity, Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture #08025 (F.O.G.) (1998) was gifted to the Museum by the late Robert Rauschenberg, on the occasion of his Bilbao retrospective in 1998, and has coexisted with Klein’s fire ever since.
Figure 13: Louise Bourgeois: Maman, bronze marble and stainless steel, 927 x 891 x 1023 cm (Bilbao, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, Cast 2001, Edition 2/6 + A.P.); image © FMGB Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa, photo by Erika Barahona Ede
Having “discovered” fog as a medium in the late 1960s, Nakaya has used pulverized water (i.e., not steam) in multiple contexts and played with the multiple attributes of this highly responsive, uncontrollable material. Massive and capricious, the volumes of F.O.G. (which are also the initials of the Museum’s architect, and a marker of the work’s site-specificity) stagger toward the building’s titanium façade, or envelop visitors walking through the footbridge. The fog can envelop Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree & The Eye (2009), or drift toward Louise Bourgeois’s Maman (1999), thus exemplifying the fertile and chaotic interplay of forces, meanings, and sensory experiences that is characteristic of the Museum’s collection and its site (Figure 13).
Explore the Collection through the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao website and associated partners.
The Guggeheim Bilbao Collection online:
Google Arts & Culture: Guggenheim Bilbao:
Views of museum architecture, images of collections, and stories about artworks.
The Guggenheim Bilbao on iTunes U:
Courses for elementary and high school students featuring artworks in the Permanent Collection: Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, Jeff Koons’s Puppy, Jenny Holzer’s Installation for Bilbao, and others.