"The Art of the Motorcyle," June 26-Sept. 20, 1998, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128.
The uptown Guggenheim's big-bang motorcycle show -- the most publicly successful offering in the museum's history, we are told -- raises two hot issues. Three if you count motorcyles, which I don't. Motorcycles do only a little for me, and that little is kind of icky. Like guns, motorcycles are innately insane devices -- anxiety generators, disasters in waiting, just asking for grief -- and objects of unwholesome worship. Oozing displaced Eros, they are fetish machines and religious substitutes, traducing the spirit while mortifying the flesh.
But hey, to each his or her bag. Earth in the 21st century bodes to be a bag planet, subdivided by enthusiasms. To know you, I need some sense of what you're into. Museums can help here.
The show's first -- or, in the order of my emotion, second -- bit of breaking news is a new response of the museum to industrial culture, frankly acknowledging vernacular passion. At last a museum relates esthetic distinctions to juicy psychology instead of arid discourse. We have wanted this development for a long time without realizing it. Now comes the but-of-course! moment.
Bauhaus-y and MOMA-esque models of progressive Good Design have been dead on their feet for decades. But museums keep approaching manufactured goods as if in search of, say, the platonic pencil sharpener. Meanwhile, dark and brilliant, actual affairs between humans and things fill every real-world road and room. Artists get to address this universal saturnalia. Pop Art was about it. But most design departments still hang back, clueless.
The motorcycle show advises us to forget "form follows function." In fact, forget form, which is merely function on a mental plane when it comes to things that people truly like. How such things are used, in fantasy no less than physical activity, makes their meaning. For moto-nuts, a bike's color is at one with its horsepower. You get this or you don't. (With motorcycles, I get that I don't get it.) Glamour isn't the main thing in popularly potent design. It is the only thing.
So Frank LLoyd Wright's seashell has been given over, body and soul, to abject mechanical idolatry, and the effect feels sublimely appropriate. The queued up, first-time museum goers who bring their families, tattoos, and tattooed families into the holy space aren't interlopers. They are authentic American esthetes who put their lives where their love is. They exude a raw imaginative ardor that our art institutions languish for lack of.
They do so amid an installation by Frank Gehry that, more than worth the price of admission, is a must-see for everybody within the reach of my voice. You needn't pay the price or view the show, even. Just mosey into the ground floor of the atrium, past the ticket lines, and gaze up and around at one of the most amazing decor coups of all time. You'll plotz. Guaranteed.
Now for this occasion's Topic A, pertaining tohat New York City languishes for lack of: a building or, better, buildings by Gehry. What are we waiting for? The world's most innovative living architect is not a young man. He won't be around for ever. Poky little Bilbao, Spain, boasts a major masterpiece by him. Minneapolis, for chrissakes, has a minor one. Do none of our rich and powerful citizens, of the sort who move and shake in real estate, want to be immortalized? (Such becoming modesty! What touching loyalty to the second-rate!) It's enough to make you scream.
It is also stone typical of this over-rated town, whose architectural norm -- unrivaled scale aside -- is river-to-river mediocrity, if we're honest about it. Let's see. Manhattan hosts a grand total of one Wright and one Mies. It bristles with no end of depressing stuff by Philip Johnson, the paradigmatic New York job getter: snappy attitude, soggy follow-through. There might as well be a city ordinance prohibiting architects from insulting our skyline with anything impertinently excellent.
Think about it at the Guggenheim. Picture an entire, original building on one of our streets by the guy who can transform and transcend -- and thereby profoundly revivify -- Frank Lloyd Wright with some nonchalantly deployed sheets of polished metal. Why can't we have that building? Are we so unworthy? Is New York a tank town?
Let then eat week-old bagels, is that it?
By a simple means, Gehry has reached down the Guggenheim's throat and, grasping the tail, turned it outside-in. Dematerializing the spiral ramp with mirror facing, he defines the great atrium space for the first time ever. What was a dizzying void becomes a transparent solid. You register precisely how it is shaped and proportioned and exactly how big it is: smaller than you thought, tidier, more compact. And just incredibly good.
When have you ever really looked at the Guggenheim's skylight? Thanks to Gehry, that immense disk of milky glass and nested mullions descends to the eye like a flying saucer about to land. Or is it a kind of eye itself -- the unblinking orb of a secular Christ Pantocrator? I never before thought of Byzantine influences on Wright. I do now.
Meanwhile, throngs of motorcyle lovers flow upramp clockwise, as seen between the metal ribbons, and counterclockwise, as reflected. The effect is an ecstatic double helix. The loosely mounted sheets sometimes quiver a bit. As usual, Gehry shuns fussy detail. You see how the installing was done -- a piece of cake technically -- and that it is temporary. This design is out to welcome and exhilarate, not to overawe. It's on our side.
As for the motorcyles, upright on pedestals including some exuberant Gehrian wave forms, they sing zestily, as even someone who doesn't dance to their song can perceive. Starting with piquant antiques, you breeze up the ramp past evolutionary hunks of tacitly vrooming steel. The higher you go, the more densely bikes are arrayed, becoming a heaven mainly for cognoscenti. "They sort of bunch up at the top like bugs in a swiming-pool filter," a friend of mine remarked aptly.
But by then, you are snugly right under the grand umbrella of Wright's skylight. Look down. My chronic acrophobia took a day off, for once, partly on account of the balustrade-heightening metal and partly because the view was so beguilingly strange. Piled-up, bounced-around, swimmy light suggested a colossal aquarium in which motorcylces were like coral formations and people like exotic fauna. What with biker contingents, I didn't have to squint to conjure the exotic part. Joy was general.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this column first appeared.