"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dale Chihuly, Glass Blowing, And Real Art

Dale Chihuly is a glass-blower; but whether he is an artist or not is another question.

Most people consider him a craftsman, and a fanciful one at that, one whose design is imaginative and whose technique in blowing, shaping, and configuring his works of glass is masterful.

Others consider him a kitsch craft show headliner along with artisan soaps, hand-wrought wood, Navajo jewelry, and pottery.

Some consider him an artist, for what is art after all? Must it always say something or mean something?  Why can’t art be simply be defined as what observers find beautiful? These critics point to contemporary artists who, although trying for depth and resolution, and up with only vain and totally irrelevant works.  Chihuly at least is self-evident.  His colored glass whorls, spindles, and hollows are at least interesting to look at.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres certainly had something important to say in his recent work, Untitled, but to most visitors to his exhibit, it was no more than a pile of jelly beans dumped in a corner.

Anya Zholud is a minimalist, and once again all but the most committed academic has to wonder at the point of this installation:

The installation is “evocative of a Zen posture”, one critic noted. “A spiritual severity which reduces life to its essentials”.  The wire framing was significant, another noted, because it symbolized the emptiness and perverse loneliness of the human condition.  A third recognized its irony.  “How perfect”, he said, “that patio furniture has been placed on a parquet floor, both symbols of bourgeois taste”.

Most visitors who were asked to write comments in a guest book were far less charitable. “Nonsense….needs upholstery….do those picture frames do anything, like light up?” 

New York art critic Jerry Saltz writing in New York (6.7.09) described Charles Ray’s work (above, Ink Line):

The three Charles Ray installations at Matthew Marks right now, all brilliant examples of post-minimalist/conceptual sculpture, each created in the late eighties and new to New York, rattled my perceptions, jangled my faculties, and made me go “Wow!” They exemplify a drug-addled view of the world. Ray’s sculptures, part of a long tradition of minimal installations, are also forerunners to much of the theatrical Festivalism of recent times.

Once again, gallery visitors other than those from the New York art scene, saw nothing of the sort, a total waste of gallery space.  One guerilla art Marxist had his lieutenants casually obstruct the view of the gallery notes which praised the work for its hallucinogenic view of ‘both the inner and outer world reality’.  He asked people who had seen the notes what they thought, and not surprisingly they echoed the sentiments of the gallery. Those who had not been able to read the notes said, also predictably, “A wire….maybe a guy wire …I don’t know, a high-wire maybe, like circus, but upside down”.

“You see”, said the Marxist. “Decadent bourgeois vanity”.

There is a good reason why visitors flock to see the Mona Lisa. It’s to see ‘a masterpiece’ and to figure out her enigmatic smile for themselves. Was she pregnant suggested a reviewer in the Ames (Iowa) Tribune? Did she just get laid? In any event most of the visitors to the National Gallery of Art drift in off the Mall to get out of the summer heat and to take full advantage of their Washington tour.  They don’t know shit from Shinola about art – whether Anya Zholud or Leonardo – and will always flock to the Dale Chihuly exhibit.

For me Chihuly will always be a craftsman and never an artist.  Art has always been about more than what you see.  It may be about urban loneliness (Hopper), romantic rural simplicity (Homer), Freudian complexity (Bacon), or the horrors of war (Picasso).

                    Francis Bacon, ‘Pope Innocent X’

Anselm Kiefer, a German contemporary artist describes a dark, frightening, tormented post-Apocalyptic vision of the world.  His paintings are riveting, unforgettable, and unsettling.  It should be noted that Kiefer is painting at the same time as the minimalists Zholud, Gonzalez-Torres, and Charles Ray. While many viewers may be perplexed by Kiefer’s paintings, few walk away unmoved.  These immense, wall-sized works are dominating and overwhelming.

Oscar Wilde offered perhaps the most concise and most accurate of definitions of art:

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy suggests that it is impossible to come up with one definition, and there are inherent contradictions in the major three:

The standard candidates [for the definition of art] are representational properties, expressive properties, and formal properties. So there are representational or mimetic definitions, expressive definitions, and formalist definitions, which hold that artworks are characterized by their possession of, respectively, representational, expressive, and formal properties. It is not difficult to find fault with these simple definitions. For example, possessing representational, expressive, and formal properties cannot be sufficient conditions, since, obviously, instructional manuals are representations, but not typically artworks, human faces and gestures have expressive properties without being works of art, and both natural objects and artifacts produced for the homeliest utilitarian purposes have formal properties but are not artworks.

Post-modernist Deconstructionists reject all the above.  A work of art has no unified artistic integrity as Formalists say.  Its meaning cannot be found in the complex network of relations between its parts (allusions, images, rhythms) and judged in one singular way.  Art per se does not exist.  There is nothing especially creative or ennobling about artistic enterprise because it will always be an aggregation of the many social, economic, and cultural forces that have determined its execution.  The only way to ‘interpret’ a work of art, then, is to deconstruct it into these elements and learn from them.  Post-modernists have debunked the Canon, saying that any text is the equal of any other because they all are predictable in their secular, non-inventive, deterministic origins; and their view of ‘great’ art is similar. 

Formalism and the Canon have been under siege since the 80s when Deconstructionism emerged out of academe and influenced contemporary art.  Art is nothing and everything said Derrida and his colleagues; and minimalists, loosely interpreting the Post-Modernist canon, took this theory to heart.  Yet both Formalism and Deconstructionist minimalism do co-exist.

Needless to say neither Formalists nor Deconstructionists have any use for Dale Chihuly and his craft show colleagues.  Even the Deconstructionists begrudgingly give credit to the likes of Anselm Kiefer, Picasso, or Francis Bacon; for they more than other artists give us more to deconstruct.  Chihuly, however, gives us nothing.

There is no doubt that whether one dismisses all art as ‘text’ or celebrates its individualism, genius and creativity, one is in the intellectual One Percent.  Most people either like what they see or they don’t; and popular art will always be representational, simple, graphic or unusual.  Visitors will gawk at an installation if it is made up of refuse, office waste, and basement trash; or if it is twenty feet tall, sexually explicit, or gaudy.  The artist may have deeper, more significant intentions, but his audience has been weaned on Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Times Square.

Regardless of all the academic debate over the metaphysical nature of art, or its three major definitional categories, art is really only divided into two camps – the intellectual and the popular.  Those in the former value art as a rigorous and rewarding exercise which elucidates and reveals meaning.  For the latter it is fun, an amusement, a quick and easy gratification, and a pastime.  The twain shall never meet.  This is nothing new.  While the Romans are known for Pliny, Cato the Elder, Cicero, Epictetus, Lucretius; architecture, friezes, frescoes, and sculpture; they were also famous for gladiators, circuses, and spectacle.

America is a pluralistic democracy, a big cultural tent under which can easily reside Faulkner, Joyce, and Nora Roberts; Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon, and Dale Chihuly; Tennessee Williams, O’Neill, and Two and a Half Men.  We shouldn’t judge, but we do.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Historic Preservation–Should Brutalist Buildings Be Saved?

It is very hard to love a Brutalist building. The only relevant question is “What on earth were they thinking?”

Brutalism has its roots in state-led reconstruction after World War II, a context that in “The Morality of Concrete” Jack Self describes as directly responsible for its form: “Brutalism’s modular spaces manifested a social desire for a standardized society—cultural cohesion, shared values, and a fair quality of life for all. The Brutalist citizen, therefore, has to be understood as an abstract egalitarian ideal, not as an individual lost in a microscopic concrete cave of some gargantuan building” (Arch Daily)

Paul Rudolph, the architect who designed the Yale Art and Architecture Building also designed the New Haven Temple Street Garage, a Brutalist structure which the city so embraced that it recently renovated it.

Rudolph defended the structure, and said:

The parking garage is a peculiar twentieth-century phenomenon. The one in New Haven comes from the design of throughways. Most parking garages are merely skeletal structures which didn't get any walls. They are just office building structures with the glass left out. I wanted to make a building which said it dealt with cars and movement. I wanted there to be no doubt that this is a parking garage."

Our sensibilities have changed since the early Sixties, and the Herzog & de Meuron garage in Miami Beach is what we currently consider a work of outstanding architectural innovation. It is open, accessible,and reflective of the urban environment in which it has been constructed – a welcome change from the brooding, almost frightening concrete bunker in New Haven.

Rudolph’s statement “I wanted there to be no doubt that this is a parking garage” said it all.  The universality of the building, the very democratic nature of a public facility where Mercedes are parked next to beaters, is the point.  Form and function should be unified. There is a nobility to urban grids, traffic, and cars – a Whitman-esque paean to the American working man.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
     singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
     at noon intermission or at sundown…(I Hear America Singing, 1867)
From the perspective of fifty years, it is hard to accept the words and spirit of Rudolph but there is no doubt of his seriousness or philosophical commitment.  Architecture was not meant to be pretty, but functional and brutally real. 
Hundreds of these monumental buildings were built in the Sixties and early Seventies, and it is difficult to see any redeeming value.  Perhaps the architects of the Boston City Hall or the FBI Building in downtown Washington shared Rudolph’s aesthetic; but more than likely they were building structures to last. 
 

Louis Kahn designed within the Brutalist period and in some respects his buildings were much like those above. Yet Kahn had a different vision entirely, and saw his buildings as monuments, no different than those of Persepolis, Athens, Egypt or Rome.

Earlier works of Kahn had a traditional international style of architecture. However somewhere in the middle of his career, Kahn turned his back on this traditional approach and pursued innovation by redefining the use of structure, light, form and space. “Louis Kahn described his quest for meaningful form as a search for "beginnings," a spiritual resource from which modern man could draw inspiration”. It is widely believed that Louis Kahn, who was then a Resident Architect at the American Academy in Rome, was extremely impressed by the astonishing architectural feats of Greeks, Egyptians and the Romans and this triggered the change in his approach of designing the buildings (www.ukessays.com)

The powerful and evocative forms of ancient brick and stone ruins in Italy, Greece, and Egypt where Louis I. Kahn traveled in 1950-1951 while serving as Resident Architect at the American Academy in Rome were an inspiration in his search for what is timeless and essential. The effects of this European odyssey, the honest display of structure, a desire to create a sense of place, and a vocabulary of abstract forms rooted in Platonic geometry resonate in his later masterpieces of brick and concrete, his preferred materials. Kahn reintroduced geometric, axial plans, centralized spaces, and a sense of solid mural strength, reflective of his beaux-arts training and eschewed by modern architects. (www.architectarchitect.com)

                                                                                   Bangladesh Parliament Dhaka

There is a growing movement in the United States to tear down Brutalist buildings, for they seem grossly outdated, intrusive, and downright ugly.  They are bunkers and fortresses that are unwelcoming, intimidating, and hostile.  Advances made in building materials, let alone the emergence of an organic, environmental philosophy which celebrates the environment, sunlight, gardens, and natural shade.  In many ways we returned to Modernism whose buildings celebrated the glass-wall and the penetrability of the natural world.

                                                                          Phillip Johnson ‘Glass House’

We survived the short period of kitsch Post-Modernism and its big box buildings with fanciful turrets, columns, and arches which had nothing to do with the organic whole of the building.  The purpose was to build the least expensive building possible, with a little glitzy tip of the hat to ‘art’.  At least Brutalism had a serious philosophical purpose.

So what to do with Brutalist buildings?  The natural reaction is to tear them down, get rid of what most people consider ugly monstrosities, a blight on the modern urban landscape.  There is nothing in these brooding, impenetrable buildings to suggest ethnic diversity or a world of speed-of-light communication and commerce.  Others say hold your horses.  America has destroyed one architectural tradition after another in the name of the current and the modern.  Regardless of 21st century sensibilities, shouldn’t we preserve what were once considered to be important architectural and philosophical statements?

Nowhere is dilemma more obvious than in the former Soviet Union.  Soviet architecture was brutal down to the pilings.

Should these buildings built in the Brutal style for the same philosophical purpose as those of Paul Rudolph – the celebration of the working man - and the permanent, indestructible Communist state be torn down?  Or are they an integral part of Russia’s neo-imperialist past and deserve to be saved as historical monuments? Should they be saved as reminders of the inhumanity of a Soviet period that should come never again; or torn down exactly because they are reminders of a brutal past better forgotten?

The question of architectural preservation is a complex one. On the one hand, if municipalities were to preserve all old buildings, cities would never modernize; and on the other if no architectural record were kept, the city would lose much of its texture, variety, and diversity.

Preservation is often considered an elite enterprise.  Only the more sophisticated members of society appreciate Modernism, Post-Modernism, Brutalism, Socialist Realism, and Fascist Heroism.  What most people care about is safe, affordable housing.  Buildings that don’t leak, are easy to keep up, and will last a long time.  Commercial strips that are attractive, safe, and accessible. Public buildings that are functional and cost the taxpayer little to build and maintain.

The argument, however, is moot. Given the new conservatism and fiscal constraint, few municipalities are likely to spend money on high-profile architects.  Corporations are coming under increasing pressure to limit exorbitant CEO salaries and institutional excesses.  The few innovative and creative buildings being built are museums.  Since less and less attention is being paid to new creative architecture, then the tendency is to tear down the old.  In other words, if the respect for architecture as an art form is diminished if not degraded, then cities will neither build nor preserve unique buildings.

Residential architecture in major metropolitan cities, especially New York, is often stunning because of the innovative way high-tech materials and techniques are applied.  Buildings can have a 19th century footprint, but can soar in all directions to meet set back, light, air, and other requirements and maximize space and revenue.

Historic preservation makes sense only if a building is still considered attractive and appealing enough to visit.  The old Georgian houses of Georgetown in DC are a draw for tourists and Washington residents alike.  No one goes to visit the FBI building except to watch G-men shoot their guns and talk tough.  The area around the building is dead, largely because of its looming, shadowy presence.  Old downtowns of small towns and cities throughout the US are still revenue-producers; so as long as tourists and snowbirds want to visit Beaufort, SC because of its charming streets and antebellum houses, then there is a reason to preserving the buildings and the neighborhood.

In other words preservation for preservation’s sake makes little sense.  The historic buildings of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Fells Point in Baltimore, the Wyndham Historic District in Philadelphia, the Charleston Harbor, the Savannah squares – all are economically viable and they should be preserved because of their economic worth.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 is less concerned with preserving architectural legacy than in American historical legacy.  Buildings and districts which have relevance to the Civil War, Civil Rights, the founding of the Republic, etc. are considered of high priority.  However the four criteria of inclusion are notoriously vague:

  1. To retain diverse elements of past
  2. T perpetuate the distinctive identities of places
  3. To involve amateurs in landscape care
  4. To practice a conservation approach to environmental change

In Northwest Washington, DC, a Sears Roebuck store stood on the corner of Albemarle St. and Wisconsin Avenue since the 50s when it was built.  DC in consultation with the federal agency responsible for overseeing application of the Act, decided that it should be preserved – not in its entirety, but with enough of the original building to serve as a historical marker.  If you look closely, you can see some characteristic shapes and markings from a portion of the lower wall saved under the Act.  The rest of the site is now high-end residential with some retail.  Why did they bother?  The old Chinese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue near Calvert Street has been completely torn down except for one piece of the façade.  Right now during construction it looks like a building that barely survived Hiroshima.  Again, why bother?

The best solution might be to select a few outstanding examples of an architectural period, such as Brutalism and note it for permanent preservation a bit like a seed bank.  Future generations who place more of a value on architecture than we do may want to see the original buildings in situ rather than online.  Otherwise take a bulldozer to the hundreds of Brutalist monstrosities, kitschy Post-modern boxes-with-a twist, and even energy-sucking, repetitive Modernist glass-wall skyscrapers.

The federal government, state authorities, or municipalities should have a clear purpose for preservation.  Why are we saving a building or a district?  Is it to attract tourists and revenue?  To maintain a link with a city’s past? Because we feel that there really is such a thing as an American patrimony, even though we tend to be forward-looking and care little for what we see in the rear view mirror?  Whatever the reason, be clear about it, put it to a vote, and then and only then take action.