Like so many artists and designers, Frank Gehry stumbled upon his creative voice by accident. It was 1983, and Gehry had been asked by Formica to design a series of objects using one of its new plastics. He dropped one of the pieces, and it shattered, leaving fragments all over the floor. The pieces struck him as serpentine, and he began to cobble them into scale-like compositions. The rest, as they say, is history.
This month, two Gagosian galleries on different continents are celebrating Gehry’s scaley impetus in a joint exhibition called Frank Gehry: Fish Lamps. The sculptures are divided between the Gagosian’s Beverly Hills and Paris galleries. For the Los Angeles show, he has designed the installation itself.
So why do these lamps matter, beyond the obvious craftsmanship it took to construct them? In a way, the fish is what led Gehry to the massive success he enjoys today. In the early 1980s, he was a middle-aged architect experimenting with deconstructed forms in L.A. Fish gave him a kind of muse, a guiding form, that would quickly come to define his formal language. His fixation started young, he explains:
"In Toronto, when I was very young, my grandmother and I used to go to Kensington, a Jewish market, on Thursday morning. She would buy a carp for gefilte fish. She’d put it in the bathtub, fill the bathtub with water, and this big black carp—two or three feet long—would swim around in the bathtub and I would play with it. I would stand up there and watch it turn and twist . . . and then she’d kill it and make gefilte fish and that was always sad and awful and ugly."
But later in life, he came back to the creatures. "I was watching the beauty of carp swimming in a pool in Japan and thinking about how elegant and architectural they were," he has said. "It inspired a beginning of a study of these forms . . . That study took a few years. It then became a language that I guess became Bilbao and a few other projects."
At 83, Gehry is still building lamps in his studio. Many of them are on view at Gagosian, alongside the lamps that kickstarted his career in the 1980s. The new lamps are more jagged, less perfect, and somehow, a lot more exciting.
Check out Frank Gehry: Fish Lamps until February 14 in L.A. or until March 9 in Paris.