It may be too soon to speak of a pattern to be discerned in the exhibition program now in place at what I suppose we should call the uptown Manhattan branch of the worldwide Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, for even as I write, some new corporate sponsor or foreign cultural ministry may be in the process of commandeering all of the museum’s available exhibition for some oversize future project. Judging by recent events, however, what seems to be emerging in the latest phase of Thomas Krens’ directorial tenure is a program that reserves the principal ramp space at the uptown Guggenheim for media-oriented shows that enjoy big-ticket sponsorship while allotting the more modest spaces in the so-called “tower” galleries to smaller exhibitions of more serious artistic interest.
Thus, just as we were earlier treated to small but well-chosen exhibitions of the early work of Robert Delaunay and then the 1950’s abstract paintings of Helen Frankenthaler in the tower galleries, while the ramp spaces were filled with a miscellaneous anthology of Chinese antiquities selected by some committee of cultural bureaucrats in the People’s Republic, we are currently offered a show of paintings by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi in the tower while the lion’s share of space in the Guggenheim has been turned into a showroom promotion for the motorcycle industry.
About the motorcycles I am obliged to say that I haven’t seen them and have no wish to see them. I’ve seen quite enough of motorcycles in my lifetime, and I’ve never considered them objects of romance, never mind works of art. On the morning that I went to see the Hammershøi exhibition, however, the process of providing the motorcycles with a suitably glitzy environment was already in progress as workmen were going about the unlovely task of defacing the Frank Lloyd Wright ramp with chromium plates designed by Frank Gehry. As between the noisy, nasty nuisance of motorcycles on the road and the noxious design ideas of Frank Gehry, it would be hard to say which I find more unappealing. Suffice it to say that on this occasion both are likely to get the audience they deserve.
The exhibition called Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916): Danish Painter of Solitude and Light , however, turned out to be a nice surprise. While not in any sense a great painter-the current attempt to suggest comparisons with Vermeer and Georges de la Tour is sheer hype-Hammershøi is nonetheless a figure of uncommon interest, an artist so individual and obsessive in his attachment to a narrow tradition that he succeeds in endowing it with the look of something urgent and original. That he is virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic is scarcely surprising. He is hardly better known in Europe outside professional art circles in Scandinavia.
The exhibition of some 60 paintings that has now come to the Guggenheim was jointly organized by the Ordrupgaard in Copenhagen and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and we undoubtedly owe its presence in New York to Prof. Robert Rosenblum, who has written extensively on Northern European art in the 19th century and who now serves as curator of 20th-century art at the Guggenheim. Professor Rosenblum has also written one of the essays for the catalogue of the show.
What visitors to the Hammershøi exhibition who have never had a firsthand experience of the fugitive winter light of a Copenhagen winter will make of this work, I can scarcely imagine. For myself, though nearly 40 years have passed since I spent the Christmas and New Year’s holidays with friends in Copenhagen and its environs, this exhibition of Hammershøi’s pictures has triggered many memories of that dour winter climate, in which the very color of life seemed to be reduced to a permanent and unforgiving monochrome gray and the tiniest glints of sunlight had the character of a hallucination.
It is not the least of Hammershøi’s pictorial accomplishments that he was somehow able to find in his scrutiny of this monochrome light a sufficient range of nuances for his artistic purposes. The pictorial tradition to which Hammershøi attached his talent was that of the 17th-century Dutch interior. There was obviously something about the structure of that enclosed world of the 17th-century Dutch interior that answered to his own sense of isolation, and from it he borrowed both a Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro and a Vermeer-like geometricized mise en scène . But these he felt compelled to adapt to a palette that looks as if it were devoid of all color. Compared to Hammershøi’s interiors, those of the Dutch masters are a riot of vivid color, for we seem to see his as if through a scrim that has filtered out all possibility of chromatic contrast.
Yet the more we look at Hammershøi’s interiors, the more we come to appreciate the artist’s uncanny gift for finding an entire repertory of subdued “colors” in the variety of grays, blacks, near-blacks and tinted off-whites that constitute his basic palette. These afforded him all the subtleties he needed to elevate his pictures of the elegant, uncluttered rooms in which he lived with his wife Ida for a quarter of a century in childless solitude to a remarkable level of poetic delicacy. Where there is a figure to be seen in these interiors, it is Ida dressed in black with her back turned to the viewer. Otherwise these interiors are rendered as a kind of architectural still life. Light and solitude are indeed the prevailing motifs.
Hammershøi also produced some remarkable landscapes and portraits, but it is by those haunting interiors that he is likely to be remembered now-if, that is, he is to be remembered at all after the pleasures of this exhibition have passed into history. The fate of a reputation like that of Hammershøi, who isolated himself from the spirit of his own age and left no artistic heirs to advance his interests, is always a chancy proposition-and all the more so when, as in this case, the pictures are rarely to be seen beyond their native ground. At the Guggenheim they remain on view through Sept. 7.