New York

Frank Gehry

Whitney Museum / Leo Castelli Gallery

This summer people could see work from Frank Gehry’s diverse and prolific architectural career in two major New York museums. Squeezed into a limiting and dubious classification at MoMA, Gehry’s work was better seen in the Whitney retrospective (which originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis); it provided an open landscape for examining the work of this protean innovator of architectural form—and thinking. Gehry’s restless manipulation of space, his delight in banal materials, his strong sense of collage and improvisational receptivity are, of course, remarkable and often remarked on. But this innovator is also a classicist who is inspired by humanistic ideals, by the dialogue between enduring and transient form, and by the challenging qualities of architecture as the most ubiquitous and, at times, quixotic cultural record. There is a complex harmony in Gehry’s tough juxtapositions, a skewed sense of balance and order in his rumpled, additive constructions.

Gehry has designed several types of buildings, but his work remains best-represented by his small urban and suburban houses. These often modest structures convey a sophisticated but optimistic attitude toward the disruptive and ambiguous forces of modernity. The Benson House, 1981, in Calabasas, California is a low-budget project sited on a dramatic slope. Its bipartite scheme consists of two vertical boxes joined by a vertebrae-like wooden walkway. The taller box contains bedrooms; the smaller one accommodates the other individual and communal living spaces. The entire project is clad in the muted colors and tactile surfaces of asphalt shingles. While there is a strong regional quality to the project, its directness is both evocative and ecumenical—it constitutes an exploration of the house form, of the processes and patterns of domesticity that have changed so dramatically in the 20th century. The Benson House also appears to be a transitional project between Gehry’s accretive approach to collage, and his lingering interest in sculptural form and architectural space as assemblage. His Wayzata Guest House, 1983–86, in Wayzata, Minnesota is an unconventional celebration of form; it further divides the house into discrete, contrasting, and remotely related parts. Its indebtedness to the Benson House is quite clear.

In addition to the expected models and drawings, the exhibition installation had Gehry’s touch as well. There were four large sculptural forms that provided sequestered spaces for viewing particular work. These shapes/spaces included a gracefully arcing lead fish, a plywood ziggurat constructed on an oblique angle, a simple enclosure of copper and lead, and a cardboard room used to display the architect’s corrugated cardboard furniture, such as the series “Easy Edges,” 1969–present, and “Experimental Edges,” 1979–86. Gehry’s chairs and tables provided a tactile immediacy in the exhibition, in contrast to the more abstract, reflective qualities of the drawings and models.

Concurrent with the Whitney retrospective, the Leo Castelli Gallery showed a very full range of Gehry’s corrugated cardboard furniture from the early ’70s to the present. This more intimate setting provided a focused opportunity to examine the variety, both tough and whimsical, of creative options offered by this ingenious wedding of banal material and high design. The furnishings were first inspired by the cardboard contour site models that architects commonly use, but the simple process of layering has become increasingly varied and dynamic. There is a sculptural enthusiasm here that is also evident in the architect’s most recent buildings.

Gehry frequently begins with the ordinary but finds the unexpected within it, manipulating materials to create arrangements that acquire multiple meanings. He seems more interested in the agitated assembly of forms than in their intrinsic impurity, using collage as a process of negotiation between the first impression and the more painstaking revelation. His designs have the capacity to transform the syntax of architecture radically, in part by raising questions about form in a voice filled with unmistakable passion and wit.

Patricia C. Phillips