x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Artwork in progress

A new exhibition at the Emirates Palace showcases paintings from the Guggenheim New York and offers a glimpse of the vision for Abu Dhabi.

Valerie Hillings, curator of the exhibition The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum, at Gallery One in the Emirates Palace.
Valerie Hillings, curator of the exhibition The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum, at Gallery One in the Emirates Palace.

As engineers determine how to amass the chaotic cluster of shapes that will make Frank Gehry's vision for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi a reality, curators are embarking on a no less daunting journey - how to fill it. Designed to reflect the large scale at which many contemporary artists work, the Guggenheim's 42,000 square metres of variously proportioned galleries will spread out and up, Tetris-like, from a central space. Such is the scale of the undertaking that what will line its walls seems outlandish even to contemplate at this stage. And yet the artistic vision on which the museum is founded, and from which evolved its precursor, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, is being encapsulated in an exhibition that opens today at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi.

More than 50 paintings by many of the most important artists of the 20th century have been transported here from the New York museum's collection for The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum, the first exhibition to be organised under the auspices of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. A joint venture between the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation and the Tourism Development and Investment Company, it features works by Paul Cézanne, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell.

Its themes are twofold: firstly to chart the journey of Solomon R Guggenheim's collection from the 1920s, when the American businessman began actively to acquire modern art, to the creation in 1959 of the museum's eponymous New York home, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; and secondly to tell the story of abstract painting in western art from its roots at the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century.

How does one, when faced with the abundant archives of the Guggenheim Foundation, choose the best 50 works to relay those narratives? "I've come to understand what stories live inside the Guggenheim collection, what kinds of works looks great together and, considering the scale of the space, what would make sense," says Dr Valerie Hillings, the associate curator of collection and exhibitions for the Abu Dhabi project at the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, who is curating the exhibition

Abstraction was an obvious starting point. "The history of the Guggenheim was about its commitment to abstraction in the early years. Then I thought about how much an abstract visual language is something I associate with the Middle East - granted, a lot of it has to do with decoration instead of having an actual painting - but I had in mind illuminated manuscripts and I thought it would be something that would communicate not only about the history of the Guggenheim, but also about something that's familiar but at the same time different."

The exhibition is spread over five galleries, all with pale wood floors and stark, off-white walls ("This was as close as we could get to what we call 'Guggenheim white'," Hillings says). All are linear except one, which is circular "as an evocation of the Guggenheim in New York". As the father of modern art, Cezanne's Bend in the Road Through the Forest (1873-75) occupies a wall of its own in gallery one. "We put it by itself because we see it as a metaphor for the beginning," says Hillings. From Impressionism, it moves to cubism, with works by Georges Braque and Fernand Léger, and on to abstract, often oscillating between the figurative and pure abstract. Three works by Robert Delaunay encapsulate the message of the show, says Hillings. "It's that moment where artists thought: 'How are we going to show this building?' But then, 'we don't care if we show this building'." Delaunay's Saint-Séverin No 3 (1909-10) reveals soaring cathedral arches layered on top of one another, and in Eiffel Tower With Trees (1910) the then relatively new monument appears through a mass of abstract shapes. On an adjacent wall, his Circular Forms completes the transition. "I wanted you to go through this figurative moment," says Hillings, "and then turn and you're in the middle of abstraction."

As promised, many of the works also act as succinct landmarks in the collection's history: two by Georges Seurat in gallery one were among the first that Guggenheim acquired; a pair of Kandinskys painted during the Bauhaus period represent the time when Guggenheim visited the artist's studio in Dessau and started buying from him. "It's the moment of origin of this collection," says Hillings. Works by Rudolf Bauer and Hilla von Rebay act as a tribute to the latter artist, the woman who largely built the collection as well as commissioned Lloyd Wright as the museum's architect. Von Rebay was, though, forced out after Guggenheim's death in 1949 and watched the museum's opening day from across the street. "We have rehabilitated her in every way possible," says Hillings. "For us, she remains central to the story."

And then there is the round gallery, which has been carpeted and painted in an ethereal blue/grey and filled with purely abstract works by Bauer, Kandinsky and Rebay, as well as a suite of four paintings by the Canadian-born painter Rolph Scarlett. A photograph of a similarly rotund gallery in the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (the original Guggenheim museum before it moved to the Frank Lloyd Wright building), which was also carpeted and its walls lined with pleated velour - "we thought of doing it [in Abu Dhabi] but then we wanted it to be cleaner," says Hillings - again evokes the institution's rich history.

A further gallery explores the advancement of abstraction among European painters, including Pierre Alechinsky, Jean Dubuffet, Georges Mathieu and Pierre Soulages, before concluding, in the fifth space, with the work of their American counterparts. Here, Untitled (Green Silver) (c 1949) by Jackson Pollock dominates one wall, before segueing into works by Adolph Gottlieb, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell.

It is, seen in its entirety, a fluid, statuesque and dizzying glance at a pioneering moment in both artistic and museum history. How, though, does it relate to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi? "Admittedly, the show reads as a show about New York," says Hillings, "but in our minds it's about the museum in the 20th century." A final gallery, dedicated to the Abu Dhabi branch, which features the most up-to-date information on Frank Gehry's design, links the past and the future. "When the Guggenheim was being built in New York, the city was not the centre of the art world, but really secondary to Paris. What's interesting now is that we're in this new world where there isn't one centre of art, but I see it very much as cultural objects moving across border and time." It was important to tell the story of the Guggenheim, says Hillings, -because it provides people with a starting point. "Many people will know the name and the building in New York, but they might not be so familiar with where we came from. We wanted to express this idea of going from where you've been to where you'll be. And this great potential is embodied in this institution." Building the collection for the -Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will, of course, be a vastly different experience from that of Guggenheim himself, since it will proceed from the creation of the museum rather than the other way around. This, says Hillings, is an infinitely preferable process. "When an individual starts collecting, they're driven by personal interest. In this case, Guggenheim's collection was influenced by one personal adviser and he was very narrowly focused. In fact, that was a big criticism of his collection in the beginning. The way an institution today can build is much broader. It's not about looking inwards to yourself, but looking outwards. It is in a way this 20th century versus 21st century viewpoint." Having the museum as a backdrop can also help sharpen the focus, she says. "As a curator, you're always being forced into a space you don't know and having to figure it out. By knowing what this backdrop's -going to be - and it's coming into -focus more and more every day - you can really begin to think about it." They are not yet ready to reveal what that acquisition process for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be (different procedures govern the -institutions in New York and Bilbao), but Hillings is particularly excited about an entire floor being dedicated to permanent collections. "That's something we don't have in New York, or even in Bilbao. It's an opportunity for the local community and visitors to have this really continuous identity and to be connected to it, to understand that it belongs and is unique to here. It's going to be a very important feature." With Middle Eastern art essential to both the permanent collection and the programming, such an iconic institution will doubtless help the local scene flourish. "When the Guggenheim opened in 1959 was when the New York school was at its height, and there was a synergy to that. It's no coincidence that -institutions and cultural life are intertwined." The exhibition will be accompanied by a platform of public programmes, the first of which, a discussion about patronage and the museum in the modern era, moderated by Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation and -Museum, will take place on Friday. Lectures, film screenings, workshops and tours will continue through January. Hillings will be conducting a talk, along with her Guggenheim Museum colleague Susan Davidson about the art of curating on January 10. A close relationship with the audience is, says Hillings, integral to building awareness ahead of the museum's projected completion in 2013. "One of the focuses for TDIC and their partners is to develop different programmes to meet the needs of a local, expat and tourist audience. I think Abu Dhabi is conscious that it's not just about putting art on the wall. There are so many other opportunities to make links and build bridges between cultures. If ever there was a project to bridge cultures, it's this institution." ?The Guggenheim: The Making of a Museum opens at Gallery One, -Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, today. It runs until February 4 next year. For more information about the public programmes surrounding the exhibition, go to www.artsabudhabi.ae.