I admit it: I am an unabashed lover of (almost) every building Frank Gehry has ever designed. My admiration is less intense, but still strong, for much of his other design work as well: his furniture, his jewelry, even his kettles.
But regarding his fish lamps, which are currently the subject of a small exhibition on view through October 31 at New York’s Jewish Museum? For me, they’re a failure, eliciting none of the intellectual rush or emotional flush that his best work, with its poetic forms and funky material, delivers time and again.
Detail view of an object on view at "Fish Forms: Lamps by Frank Gehry"
These fish pieces are far too literal, too generic representations of our scaled friends—with none of the sculptural mystery/mastery of his abstract architectural work. I guess the lamps might look great next to an aquarium.
A lamp by Frank Gehry
(The bases for the lamps are slightly more successful, with one distantly evocative of the tumbled/jumbled forms of Bilbao.)
Still, the exhibition is worth a visit—because of the focused, and not-too-far-fetched, argument put forth by its curator, Ruth Beesch, of the influential/inspirational role the piscine physique has played in Gehry’s career.
At first, I was resistant to the thesis put forth in the first sentence of the exhibition’s wall text: “Fish forms have been an indelible and vibrant element in Frank Gehry’s architecture since the 1980s.”
Sure, I was familiar with Gehry’s quote, a rejoinder to those looking to Classical forms in the 1980s: “If you really want to go back into the past, why not do fish?” But I had always been pretty sure that Gehry was just poking fun at Philip Johnson, et al. And “indelible”? That’s a strong word and surely a stretch…
And yes, I agreed, of course, with the part of the second sentence in the exhibition statement that said Gehry wants to “create motion in architecture”—but do fish truly “embody his desire” to achieve this? And do fish really “represent a perfection that he could never realize in his buildings”?
When the argument started brushing up against the realm of pop psychology—relating how Gehry as a child would play with the carp his mother would deposit in the family bathtub before making gefilte fish—my “curatorial overreach” alarms began ringing wildly.
But I was, ultimately, at least partially persuaded that fish have been a more significant force in Gehry’s creative life than I had previously given them credit. It wasn’t the lamps that sold me (I still maintain these are a dead-end digression for him). It was the slideshow that concludes the exhibition, which reminded me of some of Gehry’s architectural-sized fishing trips—like “Standing Glass Fish” at the Walker Art Center; and his ultimate whopper, the enormous Fishdance restaurant in Kobe Japan.
"Standing Glass Fish" at Walker Fishdance restaurant in Kobe, Japan
With these works backing the curator’s fish story, I was more willing to reconsider other Gehry projects: Hmmm, maybe the interior of the DZ Bank in Berlin really does look like the inside-out view from a fish’s belly. And OK, the Guggenheim Museum could be a fish swimming upstream….
Gehry's DZ Bank in Berlin--notice the "scaly" roof; photo by angel.pradel
Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; photo by brandon.meyer82
But I drew the line at the fish connection with the last building presented in the slideshow: Gehry’s IAC HQ in NYC. For this work, Gehry was clearly dreaming about sailing—but who knows, maybe the vision also had him dangling a rod off the pronounced prow of this gorgeous structure….
Gehry's IAC Building; photo by Nathan
Gehry's Guggenheim; photo by ulysses.apr