Like Jay Gatsby or Charles Foster Kane, Thomas Krens, who is completing his 20-year-long reign as the head of the Guggenheim Foundation and its assorted satellites, was a fictional figure addicted to grand gestures which kept him at arm’s length from the public he served. More than anyone else, Krens manufactured the global art world whose bounty continues to enrich the art plutocracy today.
This small elite vied to touch the hem of his golden garment, as Krens the transformative figure granted his blessing while picking their pockets of money and prestige. Many of the high-end conventions that appear so normal in today’s art world were inventions of Thomas Krens: the fashion connection epitomized by his controversial exhibition of Armani as high art; the fetishization of so-called starchitects begun with Frank Gehry’s phantasmagoria, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao; the power of machine dreams, realized in Kren’s motorcycle caravans from New York to Las Vegas and back.
Thomas Krens normalized the competition among the art-world rich for status and prestige by creating every kind of board and support system to which they could lend their assets. By spending this coin freely, he kept the pressure on his supporters until, like Peter Lewis and Ronald Perelman, they cracked under the weight of his demands. Krens’ solution was to aim higher to the palaces of the Arab Emirates, a prescient move, because this capital now directs the major international banks that have suffered in the mortgage crisis.
Curatorially, the land of Krens evoked the carnival and the circus. Whether showing Spanish painting gems, Aztec war toys, garments or bikes, Krens’ vision included the kitchen sink, the golden bidet and everything in between. This curatorial domination shaped the art fairs, the auction houses and the megagalleries by turning everything into an art that was at once contemporary and exchangeable in ever increasing increments of value.
The Guggenheim, under Krens, produced retrospectives of prime artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Rauschenberg, but these, as good as they were, are but a footnote to his legacy. As he passes into myth, a protean figure of controversy, who was the antithesis of intimacy, the art world today can say, for better or worse, "This was our God."
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).