Stephanie Barron, LACMA’s senior curator, worked with the Pompidou curators and with Gehry Partners to adapt the French show to the expansive Resnick Gallery. The team spaced out the exhibits to give them room to breathe, and added ten current projects as a coda to the retrospective. The exhibits are arranged chronologically and by theme on a pinwheel plan with six display areas leading off, but these divisions are hard to make out, and it’s tempting to stray. The horizontal sprawl of the exhibition could be seen as a metaphor for the city. Sketches and models of different sizes are supplemented by still images on video screens, plus showings of Sketches of Frank Gehry, a documentary by his good friend Sydney Pollock, and a video interview with Pompidou curator Frédéric Migayrou.
This retrospective contrasts sharply with the very experiential 1987 Walker Art Institute traveling exhibition and its walk-through mock-ups. And it’s a different beast from the Guggenheim exhibition of 2001, designed by Gehry to evoke the messy process of creation, with disorderly piles of material samples, sketches, and study models that evoked his studio. The extraordinary variety and fertility of the work is played up by the orderly arrangement, concise labels, and 60 clearly articulated projects. There are moments of serendipity, such as the model of the Abu Dhabi museum dwarfed by Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” in the park beyond the gallery. One artwork overwhelms another; the real world intrudes on a simulation of reality.
Like Picasso, Gehry is constantly reinventing himself and reinterpreting familiar themes and motifs. In 1978, he shocked his neighbors by deconstructing a Dutch cottage, wrapping it in plywood, galvanized metal, and chain link. In the new house he is building for his wife and himself, pitched roofs float free in another tongue-in-cheek variation on the conventional family house.
Those of us who have had the good fortune to explore Gehry’s work around the world, from MIT’s Stata Center to the Museum of Biodiversity in Panama, Berlin’s DZ Bank, and the Fishdance Restaurant in Kobe will recognize the linking threads, reoccurring ideas, and the uniqueness of each project. Walls billow like sails, roofs tilt, and structures writhe with an inner energy. The materials range from brick and stone to titanium and glass, each revealing a previously unsuspected expressive potential. These are handmade buildings, and the sketches and models are the clay from which they are formed. The software comes into play after the building has taken shape. “The technology provides a way for me to get closer to the craft,” reads a wall quote from Gehry. “The computer is not dehumanizing; it’s an interpreter.”
Above all, the exhibition demonstrates that an artist lives within the architect, guiding his hands, inspiring every move, even as he shapes buildings to context and purpose, staying (hopefully) on schedule and on budget. No wonder Gehry provokes vitriol from puritans, philistines, and lesser professionals—as did Borromini, Palladio, and Wright before him. Art critic Robert Hughes wrote of the Gilded Age architect Stanford White, “If the Renaissance valued sprezzatura, the knack of making hard things look easy and natural, White had more of it than any American then or since. He was the kind of gorgeous millipede whose dance is hated and resented by every toad on the forest floor.” The same could be said of Frank Gehry.