IF BERLIN HAS A MUSEUM ISLAND, THE GUGGENHEIM HAS SOMETHING like a museum island chain. If you listen to art critics and art historians, they'll tell you that Thomas Krens, the director of the Guggenheim, is brilliant but evil, a man who "doesn't give a damn about art." The Guggenheim's current plans include a huge new headquarters in downtown Manhattan, to be built on piers jutting into the East River.
The tremendous success of Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim has emboldened the Guggenheim to consider an even more breathtaking expansion: two new museums ("two branches of one museum," a Guggenheim official corrected me) in Brazil, and a show called "Brazil: Body and Soul" in New York this fall that will then travel to Bilbao.
Edward Sullivan, an NYU professor who is heading the show's curatorial team, describes "Body and Soul" as a "logistical nightmare" out of a Werner Herzog movie. A huge Baroque altarpiece, restored by Guggenheim conservators, will fill the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda on Fifth Avenue at 89th Street. With its twin focus on Baroque religious intensity and 20th-century Brazilian art, which relies heavily on multisensory stimuli, the "Body and Soul" show aims to be, in Sullivan's words, a "stimulator of experience."
In fact, the idea of a Guggenheim branch or branches in Brazil grew out of preparations for "Body and Soul." When several Brazilian cities—including Rio, Recife, and Salvador in the northeast—expressed a strong interest in a Bilbao of their own, Krens, Frank Gehry, and others made a widely publicized exploratory trip there. "The cultural story here is unbelievably rich," Krens told reporters at a news conference. "It is time to have a cultural trade that runs north and south, not just east and west." And Gehry, smitten with Rio and the dilapidated waterfront plaza projected as a museum site, said that he would recommend "getting into the gritty" of the city. The results of a feasibility study are expected soon. Presumably, the study will clarify some of the financial and conceptual challenges of this two-in-one museum. But one suspects, too, that Krens and Gehry are waiting to see how "Body and Soul" is received to gauge whether the public shares their obvious enthusiasm for Afro-Brazilian exoticism.