October 16, 2018

A Gehry biography with in-depth detail, but lacking in passion

I generally approach a new biography by attempting to shut out competing noise.  I focus on the biographer and his subject; in this case, Paul Goldberger’s masterful but frustrating new work, “Building Art: The Life and Work Of Frank Gehry” (Knopf).  But this time I didn’t start with the book.  I began by watching Sydney Pollack’s documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry.”  I confess I knew little about Gehry before approaching this project other than the fact that he was an 86-year-old world-renowned architect who had created some of the most striking structures of our time.  Among them the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and the skyscraper on Spruce Street in Manhattan, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton in  Paris, and so many others.  But Gehry disappointed me.  I wasn’t sure what it was.  He seemed distracted and self-centered and disinclined to engage with the filmmaker in any form of psychological discourse that might help us understand him better.  Pollack, genial as ever and a friend of Gehry, seemed amused by the architect’s distractedness; but I wasn’t and hoped that Paul Goldberger’s biography would fill in some of the blanks. 

The future Frank Gehry was born Frank Goldberg in Toronto.  Growing up, he had a turbulent relationship with his father, who was a violent man troubled by his repeated failures in business.  Gehry’s mother instilled in him a love of art and music.  His parent’s marriage was combustible, and Gehry’s best memories are quieter moments with his maternal grandmother, who would bring him wood carvings and play with him on the floor.  His father’s poor health prompted the family to move to California when Gehry was 18.  It was an instant love affair: Gehry saw California as his own promised land.   He studied architecture at the University of Southern California and opened his practice in 1962. 

Gehry’s personal life was often a messy affair.  Goldberger outlines for us his failed first marriage and his almost nonexistent relationship with the two daughters it produced.  Gehry married again later on; to a much younger woman who seemed to be able to telepathically sense his needs.  This union, still ongoing, has produced two sons, one of whom now works with his father.  Throughout his adult life, Gehry was in therapy with an unconventional therapist named Milton Wexler, who played a pivotal role in his development.  He encouraged Gehry to end his first marriage, and prompted him to go through with a second one years later, even though Gehry was resistant.  He worked with Gehry on dealing with clients and friends and relatives.  Gehry could often be shy and awkward while giving presentations to important clients, and Wexler worked with him on smoothing out some of his rough edges.    He also encouraged him to channel his persistent angst into his fabulous creations.  Wexler got him to participate in group therapy sessions, where Gehry admits he spent the first few years completely silent until others in the group finally confronted him on his ongoing passivity and judgmental demeanor.  But one senses that work and his creative life were always his main sustenance.  Gehry left a trail of broken friendships behind him seemingly oblivious to what he had done.  Goldberger presents this less attractive side of Gehry to us clearly and factually, but seems a bit starry-eyed about Frank and cuts him too much slack.  Gehry’s failings are often whitewashed away with explanations that are less than convincing. 

Goldberger had unprecedented access to Gehry for this biography.  He met with him for countless hours at Gehry’s home, and at his office, and even on Gehry’s beloved boat.   He tells us that Gehry often experienced periods of doubt and seems to still crave acceptance and fear rejection and wants and needs to feel loved.   But even Goldberger seems to sense that he didn’t get where he wanted to with Gehry.  He writes “Our conversations always had substance to them, although I am struck, looking back at the transcripts, by how rarely I succeeded in my intentions of having our interviews proceed in orderly fashion throughout his life.  Frank Gehry lives in the present, and talks most comfortably about what he is doing now-or, more to the point, what he hope to be doing next week, next month, and next year.  Looking back is not his favorite thing to do.” 

Goldberger spends many of the best chapters of his book outlining for us the challenges Gehry faced as he approached each of his projects.  He explains to us how Gehry’s work was greatly enhanced by the new computer software that allowed Gehry to take his scribbled pen and ink sketches which he drew on small sheets of paper and turn them into viable models.   The book is sprinkled with replicas of these drawings and the reader marvels at the raw and imaginative talent that drove Gehry throughout his career.  Before the software was available, Gehry would work by assembling simple wood blocks that represented the layout of his project’s components and then play incessantly with the forms that he would eventually place upon the existing structures.  It was often an excruciating and exhilarating process of adding things and taking them away until Gehry saw something that looked right to him.  But he admitted that even after his buildings went up, he would look at them disappointedly, seeing only the changes he would still like to make, and feel frustrated that he could no longer do so.

Gehry saw himself as a modernist but grew tired of the constraints of modernism.  He experimented with new materials like corrugated metal, chain links, titanium plates, and other industrial materials.  His buildings often have the feeling of the fluidity of movement moving through them.  Goldberger believes his work combines “modernist lightness and solid monumental weight without having these two things feel contradictory.”

In 1998, writing for the Los Angeles Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote about Gehry, claiming that his “architecture is often a painful psychological struggle, a balance between the competing impulses of freedom and anger that define his life.  It is, ultimately, about control…One of the surprises of Gehry’s work is his violence.  Each of his famously euphoric and sensual designs-for the Guggenheim, for the Disney Hall-emerges not only from a sense of joyful chaos but also from a mind seemingly tearing apart both a fragile inner world and our shared culture history, and then carefully piecing them back together his way.”  Ourousssoff’s critique sheds some light on what is missing from Goldberger’s analysis.  Ouroussoff seems able to simultaneously analyze Gehry’s architectural work while integrating this analysis within a larger portrait of who Gehry is as a person and the competing forces that drove him.   Goldberger never gets this close and relies too heavily on generalities.   He never connects the dots.  One senses Gehry intimidates him. 

Even the late Herbert Muschamp, the former architecture critic of The New York Times, tapped into something about Gehry that Goldberger misses.  Muschamp was so overwhelmed after seeing the Guggenheim in Bilbao that he described it euphorically as “the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe…What twins the actress and the building in my memory is that both of them stand for an American style of freedom.  That style is voluptuous, emotional, intuitive, and exhibitionist.  It is mobile, fluid, material, mercurial, fearless, radiant and as fragile as a newborn child.  It can’t resist doing a dance with all of the voice that say ‘No.’  It wants to take up a lot of space.  And when the impulse strikes, it likes to let it fly up in the air.”  Muschamp, like Ouroussoff, wrote about Gehry’s work in a way that allows us to view the complexity of his architecture and how it intersects with the complexity of the man.  We find ourselves wishing author Goldberger had allowed himself the same freedom to do so.

Elaine Margolin is a regular contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.