Guggenheim or Getty?

“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a phrase seen on many a T-shirt as describing Williams, Wesleyan and Amherst, took on a different meaning this weekend as the title of a talk by E.J. Johnson ’59, professor of art history. The lecture offered an interesting and entertaining analysis of the aesthetic and architectural peculiarities of two of the world’s most impressive museums, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

Johnson, who received his Ph.D. from the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, has spent 36 years teaching art history at Williams in addition to his four years here as an undergraduate student. He has also taught at University of Tennessee, Cooper Union, and Rhodes College. An erudite art historian whose main interest lies in architecture, he is also an engaging lecturer.

Instead of offering a strictly professional opinion about the two museums, Johnson chose to focus on the feelings and moods both buildings inspire in ordinary museum-goers.

To make the listeners experience these same reactions, Johnson illustrated his lecture with slides showing what viewers see as they first approach the museum entrance and then their journey through the museum’s galleries. He also included overall floor plans, making the lecture somewhat of a virtual tour of the Getty and the Guggenheim.

The part of the lecture devoted to the Getty museum began with an analysis of its location outside the city of Los Angeles, a location that Johnson claimed hinders its accessibility. Situated on a hill overlooking the city, the Getty museum has numerous balconies and terraces offering superb views. In fact, Johnson humorously suggested that the visitors seemed to enjoy marveling at these views more than they actually enjoyed looking at the museum collections.

He then discussed how architect Richard Meier’s choice of the color white for all museum galleries created some obstacles in presenting the collections in the most eloquent way.

The sharp contrast between the white geometric shapes of which the museum buildings are composed and the actual content of their galleries was sometimes shocking, just as the gleaming white ceilings contrasted with the dark walls chosen to provide a better background for some paintings.

For example, he described how walking into the gallery of decorative arts could feel like “Neil Armstrong walking on the moon and then suddenly walking into Versailles.” Johnson also pointed out that Meier has hardly changed his style as an architect in the last two decades, still as he continues to rely on geometrical designs and the color white.

The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, in contrast, marked a distinct departure in style for both its architect, Frank Gehry, and for architecture as a whole. Unlike the Getty, which is situated outside the city, the Guggenheim embraces its urban environment, seeking to add appeal to the industrial section of Bilbao. Johnson described the building, which is built next to a river, as having the shape of a group of abstract fish or snakes. As such, he said, it appears to be in constant motion, fulfilling the architect’s desire for his buildings to have “the immediacy of a sketch,” and resembling a three-dimensional rendering of a cubist painting.

The building’s scaffold is covered with titanium scales that change their color form silver to gold, following alterations of the weather. Johnson pointed out that carrying out the architect’s plan was a very challenging task that required 37,000 faxes between the Basque architect in Bilbao and Frank Gehry in California.

The interior of the building also creates a sense of motion and a constant influx of light. The penetration of light and the vertical integration of spaces, as well as the playful arches in the galleries, generate a sense of a building that is dancing. Johnson pointed out that he noticed people beginning to smile as they entered the building and heard children squealing with joy in one of the galleries exhibiting a modern sculptural piece. “It is rare that children squeal with delight in the presence of modern sculpture,” he pointed out.

He also noted that the sense of movement and energy of the Guggenheim can perhaps be attributed to architect Gehry’s love of the sport of hockey. Johnson also suggested that Gehry has tremendously developed his style as an architect, emphasizing his point by showing slides of buildings the architect designed in the past.