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Off the wall

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Peggy and Kiesler: The Collector and the Visionary At the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice, until August 2004

If Frederick Kiesler wasn't dead, he'd be in heaven. Floors that curve seamlessly into walls and then ceilings; Möbius strip-continuites; blobs: almost four decades since his death in 1965, what Kiesler envisaged (without benefit of computer) is now ubiquitous.

Belatedly, his moment has arrived.

Born in Vienna in 1890, Kiesler - architect, sculptor, theatre designer - was always ahead of the game, or at least playing a different one. An early project, when he was briefly a member of De Stijl, was at the 1925 Paris Exhibition - his City in Space, with its matrix of suspended panels and beams; a late one, his Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, built to house the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1959 - described by his former colleague Milton Gendel as 'a perfect antithesis of box space'.

But what came to define Kiesler's work was a focus on 'endless' interior space, free of conventional divisions and continuously curved, which he explored in countless drawings and models.

Inevitably, much remained on paper, but one important design that did reach fruition, and survived from 1942-47, was for Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery in New York. It forms the subject of this absorbing exhibition, first seen at Frankfurt's Museum für Moderne Kunst, but now in its natural habitat at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

Adventurous patron of both the European and American avant-garde, Guggenheim asked Kiesler to convert two tailor's shops on the top floor of a building on West 57th St, both for temporary shows and more permanent displays. For Kiesler, then teaching at Columbia University, it was the chance to create new relationships between artworks and their viewers while radically redefining the traditional gallery.

'Today, the framed painting on the wall has become a decorative cipher without life and meaning. Its frame is a plastic barrier across which man looks from the world he inhabits to the alien world in which the work of art has its being. That barrier must be dissolved, ' wrote Kiesler. So, through a range of devices in all four distinct areas of Art of This Century - Abstract Gallery, Surrealist Gallery, Kinetic Gallery and Daylight Gallery - Kiesler tried to make art meet the spectator with an immediacy and intensity that he thought long lost.

In the Abstract Gallery the paintings were no longer in frames or on the wall but hung on 'triangular suspension columns' - taut cables stretching from ceiling to floor. On the walls of the Surrealist Gallery, Kiesler attached curved wooden panels from which works protruded on arm-like fixtures, while lights went on and off in swift succession to the sound of an approaching train. The adjacent Kinetic Gallery displayed quantities of Klee and Duchamp by means of optical machines that the visitor had to operate.

Meanwhile, the Daylight Gallery, where temporary shows were held, served also as a 'painting library', with works stacked one against another on special furniture for easy consultation.

In 'Peggy and Kiesler', there are no physical recreations of these Art of This Century spaces, but casino. container's exhibition design does acknowledge Kiesler in being highly interactive. It consists of groups of screens which slide on a grooved shelf that runs around the gallery, each group devoted to a particular topic - mechanics of perception, hanging devices, lighting, etc - and including Kiesler's sketches, correspondence, photographs and more. The diligent Guggenheim staff keep regrouping them neatly after people have 'interacted' with them, but the show looks best when they are in disarray and you see multiple images, some half-concealed, stretching almost seamlessly around you.

The shelf terminates beside a plan chest whose drawers contain newspapers and magazines with contemporary reactions to Kiesler's Art of This Century designs. On the whole, these were positive - even the comparisons to Coney Island were appreciative.

The on-off lights (which must have been maddening) were censured: 'It might be all right if you timed your entrance and went around like a puppet. But who wants to be a puppet?' wrote one critic. Another complained that 'the framework of the installation keeps intruding on one's consciousness'; which was more or less the verdict of Wright's Fallingwater client Edgar Kaufmann Jr, who concluded: 'Display rather than art is on view.'

Certainly, Art of This Century might seem the progenitor of many subsequent shows that seem over-designed; yet, in a more refined form, Kieslerian devices can make the encounter with the artwork more vivid. At Scarpa's Castelvecchio, for instance, paintings are displayed on easels or suspended away from the walls to considerable effect.

But the current show does not explore such connections - the influence, for good or ill, of Kiesler's approach - though the Guggenheim is planning a publication that will partly address this. Nor does it make any retrospective assessment of worth (the fine line between the 'visionary' and the dotty), or situate Kiesler's Art of This Century designs in the context of his whole career.

There's no sense of where this sprang from or led - it is presented as a self-contained project.

Yet, within those limitations, 'Peggy and Kiesler' is rewarding, with some fascinating material on show. It is clear that Kiesler's ideas still ramify and make themselves felt;

his place in history has not been defined. A critical response to exhibitions like 'Peggy and Kiesler'will help to do just that - though a proper retrospective would be better still.

While the Guggenheim's global ambitions (Jean Nouvel in Rio, Zaha Hadid in Taiwan) have been getting headlines, its Venetian outpost has continued quietly to consolidate its presence at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the incomplete 18th-century palace on the Grand Canal that for 30 years was Peggy Guggenheim's home. The latest addition (still within the palace's onceintended footprint) comprises new entrance and visitor facilities in a converted building at the south-east corner of the site, and an adjacent courtyard for sculpture, rationalising access for the annual 300,000 visitors.

The Guggenheim's 'in-house'architects, Clemente di Thiene and Giacomo di Thiene, oversaw the conversion but the furnishings were designed and made by Progetto Lissone (Giampietro Mazzola and Carlo Sangalli). I can't think of an exact equivalent of Progetto Lissone.Named after a town near Milan that has a long history of furniture production (including many modern prototypes), this consortium was founded in 1997 with both public and private funds. It represents both the municipality of Lissone and 170 local partners from the field of interior design, whether making or selling it, or otherwise professionally involved - its president is Sergio Allievi.

Other towns in Italy are known for furniture; the aim is to make Lissone the premier one - an international centre and first stop for new design.To raise its profile, Progetto Lissone has engaged in a number of cultural collaborations (directed by Patrizia de Micheli): in Lissone itself, the construction of a new contemporary art centre and a new library, and the restoration of a late 1930s building by Terragni; elsewhere, such projects as this Guggenheim expansion. It's a most worthwhile initiative.

As a result of the new entrance facilities, the Guggenheim has reconfigured its interior to include additional space for temporary exhibitions, so another show will soon be running alongside 'Peggy and Kiesler' (see opposite). Philip Rylands, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, is keen that expansion does not compromise the character of the place: 'It's important it should still feel intimate - it was a private house and we want it to seem like that.' It still does at present, and the footprint is essentially filled, though Rylands has plans for a further sculpture court.The intended site is currently enclosed and one hopes it will remain so after its conversion - a kind of giardino segreto in a long Italian tradition.

Visit the websites:

www. progettolissone. it and www. guggenheim-venice. it

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