Art In China Since 1989: O Brave New World

Talk about “digging a hole to China.” This one’s right through the Guggenheim’s ground floor! Wang Gongxin, “Sky of Beijing,” 2017, Color video installation with sound.

“MIRANDA:
O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
PROSPERO:
‘Tis new to thee.”
(Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1)

The International world of Chinese Art is a dichotomy, it seems to me. On the one hand you have record prices being paid for Chinese Art all over the planet (particularly in the tightly controlled domestic Chinese market1), to the point that China is now the largest, or second largest, Art market in the world, depending on who you read (as of the latest figures, 12/31/2016). Meanwhile, a large part of the Western world is sitting back with absolutely no idea what is going on, who these Artists, not-named Ai Weiwei, are, and what all the fuss is about. Some of this market explosion may be due to a slumping Chinese stock market, some due to limited investment options in China, and some is good ol’ interest in Art. (Of course, prices being paid for any Art, or anything, are no indication of quality or “importance.” Regarding buying Art, my thoughts are here.)

Chen Zhen, “Precipitous Parturation,” 1999, Rubber bicycle inner tubes, fragments of bicycles, toy cars, aluminum, silicone and paint. Though living in Paris, Chen returned to his native Shanghai in 1999, one year before he passed away, where he saw signs that read “By the year 2000, 100 million people will have their own cars.” In response, he created this huge snaking dragon, largely from bike parts, especially the countless rubber bike tires that form it’s body. It’s pregnant belly is opening to reveal a load of toy cars. One older mode of transportation giving birth to the next.

That crack in the iceberg of the lack of broad Western exposure you heard on October 6th was not another artifact of global warming. It was the opening of the Guggenheim Museum’s monumental, and already historically important, show “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” the long-overdue comprehensive NYC Museum introduction to what’s been going on in the Art of China since that apocryphal year of 1989. It’s the biggest show of Contemporary Chinese Art yet in the U.S.A.

Detail of the “bursting belly” full of tiny toy cars. I can’t help but recall that both Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg featured bicycles in their works. They are the two Western Artists I was reminded of the most in this show- whether or not they were influences on the Artists.

“Apocryphal” may be putting it mildly to characterize 1989…Empires fell (the communist’s in Eastern Europe). New ones were born (the first commercial internet service & the first written proposal for the world wide web), and other empires trembled- 1989 was the year of a protest involving 1 million Chinese calling for “government reforms and accountability2” that lasted 6 weeks and 6 days centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, (which means “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” named after the Tiananmen to it’s north, separating the Square from the “Forbidden City”). The protests (Plural. They took place in many cities in China) culminated in the  “Tiananmen Square Massace” (or “June Fourth Incident,” locally), in which 10,000 people are said to have been killed, with many more injured.

“It crystallized the spirit of the revolt,” Stuart Franklin, says on the verso of this 2015 Print issued by Magnum of his 1989 Photo, “Protestor in Tiananmen Square,” which he signed on the front. “It was a movement for freedom of expression, for basic rights, and against the outrage of official corruption,” he added. From my collection.

The iconic “Tank Man” Photo was taken by Magnum’s Stuart Franklin on June 5th. A tragic end to the decade of the relaxed “Reform-era,” begun in 1978, 2 years after the death of Mao Zedong. Marked by the “lifting China’s long-closed borders on the world and allowing for socialism’s planned economy to adapt to limited free-market principles3,” it served to stimulate both experimental and avant-garde Artists as well as students to question the status quo and seek other possibilities. Smack dab in the middle of this period, Robert Rauschenberg arrived in China in 1982, his experience inspired him to return and mount the “ROCI CHINA” show (for Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative), in the country’s most prestigious venue, Beijing’s National Art Gallery, in 1985, which more than 300,000 people visited in the three weeks between November 15th and December 5th!

Robert Rauschenberg, Poster for “ROCI CHINA,” 1985, Offset lithograph, featuring Photos Rauschenberg took in China, as seen at “Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends,” at MoMA, 2017 (apologies for the glare). The show moved to Lhasa, Tibet after Beijing.

The exhibition “confounded and inspired viewers, whose exposure to Western Art had been limited to reproductions within catalogs, and whose understanding of art had largely been confined to academic Painting, Sculpture, and Printmaking4.” For me, at least, it’s hard to not see that there may be at least some influence of that show here. At the very least, Robert Rauschenberg (Duchamp, etc.) may have inspired Artists with a broader range of possibilities, as he has countless other Artists in the West. At the same time, however, many Chinese Artists were rejecting the “New Wave,” and all outside influences, focusing on finding their own answers and their own way forward. After June 4th in Tiananmen Square, radical economic reform came in, experimental Art was no longer “sanctioned,” all backed by strong suppression of any mention of what had happened on June 4th in the press, media, online, or in history books, that continues to this day, as do the international sanctions that the rest of the world responded with.

The scene outside the National Art Gallery during “China/Avant Garde,” with it’s famous “No U-Turn” Sign. From this moment on, there would be “no turning back.”

Four months before that horrible end, another event took place that has had lasting impact-inside and outside of China. The “China/Avant-Garde” Art Show opening on February 5th, 1989, which is seen to be the “official” start of Contemporary Chinese Art in some quarters, and marks the beginning of the period covered by this show. “China/Avant-Garde” was “official,” in more ways than one. First, it was officially sanctioned, as hard as it may be for most Westerners to believe, as the “China Modern Art Exhibition,” on one condition- that there would be no performance Art, and second, it was held in the National Art Gallery, Beijing, where Rauschenberg’s show had been 4 years before.

The “Official sanction” didn’t last long. Two hours after it opened, Artist Xiao Lu fired a gun at her own work, “Dialogue,” and the police shut the show down for breaking the ban on performance Art. It opened and closed a few times (once for a bomb scare, which might have been a “performance”), before running it’s scheduled allotted length of time. By then it had made history- Artistically, culturally, historically, and influentially. While many Artists wound up leaving the country after the climate changed, a good deal of that experimental creative spirit and energy remains. Regardless of where the Artists may be now, the range of creativity on view at the Guggenheim was unceasing, eye-opening, and a good deal of it was operating on multiple levels simultaneously.

Xiao Lu fires a pistol at her work “Dialogue,” Custom-made telephone booth, Photograph, red telephone, glass, mirror, on February 5, 1989, 2 hours after “China/Avant-Garde” opened causing the immediate shutting down of the show. Photo from xiaoluart.com

With so many Artist options and so much time to cover (27 years), any number of alternate shows could’ve been mounted, but I think that what made it into Frank Loyd Wright’s rotunda and the two adjoining galleries, was, on the whole, exceedingly well chosen, with the caveats that, yes, that with 71 Artists included there should’ve been more than nine female artists included- a little under 8%, and, it felt to me that there was a plethora of video and installation Art, at the expense of other mediums, like Painting and Photography.

Lead curator Alexandra Munroe sums up the “post-Reform” environment- “Historical turbulence has given rise to an intelligentsia with a profound sense of skepticism towards governing ideologies and a predisposition to pragmatism in the absence of enduring meaning.” This extended to Artists working post-1989. “They produced works that questioned systems of truth and ideological formations…Eschewing Western humanist avant-garde ideals…experimental Artists approached ‘contemporary art’ as a new ‘other’ space outside the Western and Chinese Art words5.”

Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 1995, 3 Gelatin silver prints and “Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo,” 1993, left, Paint on earthenware.

For me, a classic example of this is Ai Weiwei’s “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” 3 Gelatin silver prints, from 1995, is a prime example of letting go (sorry) of the past, it’s influence, and the “baggage” the past brings with it for Artists to “live up to,” or to continue what has been done before.

Many are undoubtedly familiar with those Ai Weiwei works. Not being able to include everything else on view in this piece, I’m going to focus on what stood out to me in Painting, Drawing & Photography, along with a few other works in other mediums I just have to include. The works are not listed in any particular order.

Huang Yong Ping, “The History of Chinese Painting And A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes,” 1987, reconstructed in 1993, Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp and glass. The original was a work displayed at “China/Avant-Garde,” in 1989.

Huang Yong Ping, “The History of Chinese Painting And A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes,” 1997, Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp and glass, begins this show with a strong statement that the past is over. History, as written in these two Chinese Art History Books, needed to be cleansed. The result is illegible, and so stands as a metaphor. Here is an Artist struggling with the question of how to become “modern” without becoming Western. Will studying Art History lead to something truly new, or will it just be recycling what’s been done? On one hand, the pulp though having been washed, is dirty. But, the slate has, also, been wiped clean since the books are now illegible. As Joe Strummer said, “The future is unwritten.” After this work, (which was shown in the 1989 “China/Avant-Garde” show), it was. As such it stands as an ideal starting point for this show. Let’s see what was “written” after.

Wang Xingwei, “New Beijing,” 2001, Oil on canvas. In this work Wang Zingwei reimagines a well known Associated Press news photo by Liu Heung Shing, “Beijing- Rushing students to hospital,” 1989, taken on June 4th during the Tiananmen Square tragedy, where heroic bicyclists were shown rushing off with some of the wounded/injured, or deceased. Everything is as it is in the Photo, except Wang Xingwei has substituted 2 Emperor Penguins- animals not native to China, and therefore devoid of the political import Painting 2 wounded (or dead?) students would have had, while those helping are pulling together in ways that Chairman Mao espoused.

Wang Guangyi, “Mao Zedong, Red Grid No. 2,” 1988, Oil on canvas. Daring, and shocking, even 12 years after the death of Mao, given the omnipresence and power of his image in China. Unlike Andy Warhol’s “Mao as celebrity” series on the early 1970’s, Wang Guangyi has placed the former Chairman in a grid. It almost looks like he’s behind bars. It looks like it was done by (or influenced by) Chuck Close. The grid being one way Artists, including Close, have traditionally transferred images from one medium to another, but here it feels like there’s a different kind of transferring going on. Wang Guangyi painted this in 1988, 12 years after the subject’s passing, when it’s “meaning” is something else, something less fearful, something almost as neutral as the color he’s painted in, where it looks more like an old black and white Photo, and as such, it’s an image now locked in the past.

Liu Zheng, “The Chinese,” 1994-2002, 120 Gelatin silver prints. Among the Photography on display, these examples from the series of 120 stood out. Having worked on the state-run “Worker’s Daily” newspaper, his images go beyond the social realism they favored into a realm that isn’t quite “Street Photography,” and is significantly different from Robert Frank or Diane Arbus’ work, though the title is reminiscent of Frank’s “The Americans,” 1958. The rawness of the image is matched by the Photographer’s approach, which varies in each memorable shot.

Zhang Xiaogang, “New Year’s Eve, 1990,” Oil on canvas with collage of cloth and playing cards. After being hospitalized due to a bout with alchoholism, Zhang emerged from a dark period in his life in 1985 and joined the New Wave movement. This work has a haunting isolation to it. All we can really see are the figure’s left hand and his head/face. It’s as if he’s disembodied. In front of him lie 2 playing cards an unlit candle and a knife. Has the candle gone out? Is the knife for protection or self harm? This work was Painted after Tiananmen Square and refers to the beginning of the New Year. A black cloth hangs over the subject’s head, like a black cloud, with a red lining, possibly referring to additional raining of blood. The eyes stare straight out from the canvas, but not at the viewer. His glance doesn’t seem to make it out of his eyes.

Zhao Bandi, “Young Zhang,” 1992, Oil on canvas. One of the more popular Paintings in the show, judging by how many selfies I’ve seen taken in front of it online. It’s effect goes beyond it’s unorthodox off center hanging. Zhao shows us a young worker, living in a cramped space with few belongings beyond his embroidered comforter and a TV. Rising from sleep, he puts on his glasses and grabs a cigarette and stretches as he begins his day in his life in post-Reform China, where the economy is now booming, though the fruits of that may be slow to reach all levels of the workers.  This work was painted with a model in the Artist’s small room, on his bed. The title “Young Zhang” could really be “Young Everyman,” with Zhang being one of the most popular surnames in China.

Lin Yilin, “Safely Maneuvering Across Linhe Road,” 1995, Still from Performance video, CITIC Plaza, June 3, 1995

Lin Yilin, “Safely Maneuvering Across Linhe Road,” 1995, Color video with sound 36 minutes 45 seconds. Living in Manhattan, where pedestrian safety is an ever-increasing concern, there was no way I could leave this work out.

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Here, the Artist constructs a wall of cinder blocks on a road, then moves it block by block, column by column, across all 4 lanes until he reaches the other side, safely.  At the show, all 36 minutes of it were looped. While I immediately related to the issue of trying to cross any street safely, Katherine Grube, who spoke with the Artist, said “Mr. Lin’s objective was to create a ‘movable wall,’ animated by his own efforts that would interrupt the steady flow of traffic…and call attention to the unnatural, inhuman pace of urbanization and the human dislocations necessary to, and inseparable from such monumental environmental change6.”

Ai Weiwei, “June, 1994,” Gelatin silver print

Ai Weiwei, “June, 1994,” Gelatin silver print- A while back in these pages I called Ai Weiwei the “Artist of the Decade,” even though there were three years left to run in it. I still feel good about my choice. He was named the #1 “Most Influential Photographer in the World,” among 50 selected in 2013, and by now he is, or will soon be, the most Photographed Artist in Art history. Still, it’s now obvious that he’s not the only important Chinese Artist of the past, let’s call it 3 decades. While his works, “Fairytale,” 2007, and “Citizen’s Investigation,” 2009-10, both “multi-media,” for lack of a better term, were also included, I picked this one because Ai Weiwei was in New York in June, 1989, when Tiananmen Square happened. He took this in Tiananmen Square on the 5th anniversary. It features his future wife, Lu Qing, center, while two soldiers walk casually behind her, another woman has her back to her right behind her, and, at the moment Ai shot this, a pensioner driving a powered cart, with his or her crutches visible, drives into the frame. Mao overlooks the whole scene. in the distance. What I haven’t seen mentioned, either on the wall card, or in the show’s catalog is that beginning the next year, 1995, Ai Weiwei began his famous “Study of Perspective” Photograph series, that lasted until 2003, where he flipped off important monuments around the world, including Tiananmen Square. Perhaps, learning from his experience with “June, 1994,” he opted to create a similar “affront” to “power” through means that required less “production,” and therefore, allowed him more control over the final result. Yes, it can be said he, therefore, stripped it down, even further than here, to it’s bare essentials.

Liu Dan’s “Splendour of Heaven and Earth,” 1994-95, Ink on paper. 196 by 75 inches. Photo- Liu Dan, Guggenheim Museum.

Liu Dan, “Splendour of Heaven and Earth,” 1994-95, Ink on paper. Besides Ai Weiwei, Liu Dan is the other Contemporary Chinese Artist that has captivated me since I discovered him at The Met’s “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” show in 2013. A close look at the incredible detail in his (often) huge works, reveals the man is a magician. I have since tracked down every book of his work I can find. Each of his larger works have the look and feel of being part of a giant scroll, with no “beginning” and no “end.” They seem to be influenced by ancient Chinese landscape Painting and the study of “Gongshi,” or “scholar’s rocks,” which have the abstract qualities of fantastic 20th Century sculpture. Still, I have absolutely no idea how he creates such incredible Paintings/Drawings, this one is almost 16 1/2 FEET long! Now living in the USA, he is gradually receiving the attention he richly deserves (witness “Ink Unbound: Paintings by Liu Dan,” where he reimagines classics of Western Art, which closes on January 29th at the Minneapolis Institute of Art). It might be too late for latecomers, though. His work already fetches large sums at auction, making it hard for it to find it’s way into public collections.

Liu Xiaodong, Two works from “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” 2004, Oil on canvas.

Lio Xiaodong, “Battlefield Realism: The Eighteen Arhats,” 2004, Oil on canvas, 18 panels. Liu Xiaodong created a series of 9 diptychs of portraits of soldiers stationed on islands that are contested by China and Taiwan, Painting one soldier in each army in a pair. After Painting each portrait, he asked the subject to Paint their name, age and birthplace on the work. The result makes it hard for outsiders to know which army each soldier represents, and brings home the fact that though the soldier on the left, above, is 20, they all look very young, and the series quickly becomes a powerful meditation on…well, that’s up to you. For me, the two sides look indistinguishable. I can’t tell which side is which. About all that’s obvious is that these are young people with their whole lives ahead of them…unless war cuts them short.

Gu Dexin, 2009-05-02, 2009, Mounted on the top of the surrounding walls, Paint on 72 wood panels, Yang Jiechang, Lifelines I, 1999, On center pillar (and below), Ink and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, as seen at the Guggenheim.

Gu Dexin, “2009-05-02,” 2009, Paint on wood, (Originally consisting of ) 74 panels, concrete and red lacquer, color video installation. Its’ fitting the show ends with Gu Dexin’s work, “2009-05-02,” At the Guggenheim, it consisted of a frieze surrounding the space who’s panels contain 11 sentences, unbroken, unpunctuated and repeated, which read, “We have killed people we have killed men we have killed women we have killed old people we have killed children we have eaten people we have eaten hearts we have eaten human brains we have beaten people we have beaten people blind we have beaten open people’s faces.” These sentences are said to evoke the revolutionary writer Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary,” from 1918. The work bears the same title as the show at which it debuted, as seen below, where it consisted of three components- a video of white clouds in a blue sky looped on video screens mounted over the gallery’s windows, above the 74 Painted panels. At the center of the gallery’s floor was a concrete plinth bearing a single sentence: “We Can Ascend To Heaven.” The show was up during the 20th Anniversary of the June 4th Incident in Tiananmen Square.

Gu Dexin, “2009-05-02,” installed at it’s premiere, Galleria Continua, Beijing, May, 2002, with the concrete plinth with red lacquer, below, and the video screens, above, from the show’s catalog.

During the run of the “2009-05-02” show, “Gu Dexin declared that ‘2009-05-02’ would be his last Artwork. He then proceeded to retreat entirely from Art and the Art world, which he understands as having become complicit in a political, cultural, and moral system which he refuses to accept. This refusal, more than any single object or image, may be his most enduring work of Art…He is, in singular ways, the conscience of his generation7.”

Yang Jiechang, “Lifelines 1,” 1999, Ink and acrylic on paper mounted on canvas. 236 x 91 inches.

At the Guggenheim, Gu Dexin’s “2009-05-02” panels were installed surrounding Yang Jiechang’s “Lifelines 1,” 1999, in the final gallery at the top of the 6th floor. Of “Lifelines 1,” which Yang Jiechang created for the 10th Anniversary of Tinananmen Square, Alexandra Munroe says, “”It recalls the pathways volunteers made in Tiananmen Square during the demonstrations to ferry hunger-striking students to the hospital8.”

I’ve never been to China so I have to see this show through Western eyes. Overall, I find Chinese Contemporary Art to be one of the most interesting and fresh realms of Contemporary Art anywhere9. I’m not sure exactly why, but it seemed to me that even the most “avant-garde” works were not as obtuse as much of what I see around NYC, and most of what I’ve seen in my lifetime. While I’m not big on Art that meeds to be “explained,” given the differences in language and culture, I took a different approach here in an effort to “meet the work halfway.” Almost every time I did, I found the work not only made sense, I became aware of different levels the Artist was working on. Of course, it should be said that though Shakespeare’s “Tis new to thee” applied to me, with the two noted exceptions, most of these Artists have been long established both in China and Internationally. As I said, however, it would have been possible to mount any number of alternate shows given the universe of Artists to choose from. As a result, the only possible way to look at this show is that it represents “the tip of the iceberg” of Contemporary Chinese Art.

Therefore, trying to sum up this show is as pointless as trying to  sum up China itself. The strength of the show lies in the diversity of its vision, that so many unique, strong voices are at work creating impressive, and interesting, work right now is what counts. At those times when I wonder where the next big breakthrough will come from I see I need to cast a much wider net. It’s out there. And it’s probably going on right now out of the gaze of most of us.

“It’s new to thee,” indeed.

If this work can come out of/be born of repression? There may be more hope for the world than I feared.

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” is my NoteWorthy show for December. 

My previous Posts on Ai Weiwei, covering his NYC shows in Brooklyn in 2014 and four Manhattan shows in 2016 may be found here.
My look at Cai Dongdong’s recent show at Klein Sun Gallery may be found here

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “Brave New World” by Iron Maiden, released in 2000 on the album of the same name, which was inspired by Aldous Huxley’s novel.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. diplomat.com “China’s Art Market Is Booming…”
  2. time.com Tiananmen Protester Wang Dan
  3. “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” Exhibition catalog, p. 23. The show’s exceptional catalog is one of the best I’ve seen, for any show, in many years. It’s much more than a guide to this show. It also includes extensive documentation on the history of Contemporary Art in China, including an in-depth look at all previous larger shows of Chinese Contemporary Art, internationally, biographies of Chinese Artists & Artist Groups, and a guide to reference texts on the subject by year, all of which will make it a standard reference on the subject in the USA for the foreseeable future.
  4. UCCA, “Rauschenberg in China,” 2016
  5. Exhibition Catalog P.25
  6. Exhibition catalog, P. 157
  7. Alexandra Munroe, Philip Tinari, Exhibition catalog for this show, P. 286.
  8. Exhibition catalog, P.35
  9. While keeping an eye on Africa.

Up All Night With Frank Lloyd Wright

“Architects may come
Architects may go
and never change your point of view.
When I run dry
I stop awhile
and think of you.”*

Once, back in the day, I came home from work on a Friday evening and put that Simon & Garfunkel song on. Then, I hit the repeat button. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” played all weekend, non-stop, until I had to go to work on Monday. Even while I slept.

Such was my life under the spell of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The mark of genius. Frank Lloyd Wright’s “symbol” (the red square) and his signature on the corner of one of his Drawings. “The color red is invincible. It is the color not only of blood-it is the color of creation. It is the only life-giving color in nature…1” Click any photo for full size.

I guess I hoped that playing this unique song from “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with it’s unusual marriage of Brazilian rhythm and a string quartet under the ethereal vocals, would lend a different perspective on Wright and his work.

In the years after my father passed, Wright, became an all encompassing figure to me, something I didn’t realize until a German Architect I was dating pointed it out to me. She might have been (W)right. Looking back, though, I think it was the discovery of, and the falling in to, the seemingly bottomless pit of creativity that was Frank Lloyd Wright, and the enigma and charisma of the man, his ideas and his accomplishments (including the countless buildings he designed that were never built, or that were built and since lost). This passion took many forms in my life at the time. Along the way, I learned that the man was a great Artist in other ways beyond Architecture- as a draughtsman and, in my opinion, as a writer. His writings often marry Art & Architecture and philosophy. He was, also, something of a “teacher,” or model, later in his life at his Taliesen Fellowship. His “teaching” seems to have greatly influenced some, and left others unhappy. Beyond all of this work, his personal life? Well…as I’ve said previously about others…is not for me to judge. My interest in is the Art, his creative ideas and the work.

Speaking of teaching & learning…Just outside MoMA’s show, in “The People’s Study,” the public was invited to create and experiment with a range of materials, including blocks, which Wright, himself, created with as a child. Along the windows, they were invited to design their own “Broadacre City,” Wright’s concept for urban/suburban development.

MoMA’s show, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is a major event, honoring two major events.  First, it opened on June 12th, four days after Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th Birthday. Second, it marks the joint acquisition by MoMA and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library of Columbia University of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Archives. It’s a fascinating show, though, of course, it’s a mere sliver of the massive Archive that will keep scholars busy for decades Some of the early fruits of their labors were on view, particularly in short videos on display in each gallery where curators spoke of some of the highlights they’ve found so far. Parts of Wright’s Archives have been known to me through earlier shows at MoMA and the Guggenheim, and through books, most notably “In His Renderings,” the final volume of  the landmark 12 volume box set published by A.D.A Edita Tokyo in 1984, right in the middle of my Wright obsession2. The 200 drawings “In His Renderings” included made the case for Wright’s drawings being works of Art in themselves, and a good many of them are in MoMA’s show, which totals about 450 items. Indeed, they are right at home on the walls of the great museum.

The show is made up of galleries devoted to individual projects and galleries devoted to aspects of his work. Of course, given his career lasted over 60 years, only selected Wright projects are here and they range from key buildings, like the “Imperial Hotel,” 1923, to some much less well known, like his design for the “Rosenwald School” “for Negro Children,” 1928, as it was labelled, as well as galleries devoted to Wright’s Ornamentation (an almost completely lost art in today’s Architecture), Urban projects, the role of landscaping in his projects, and built, and (mostly) unbuilt projects for NYC. There is also a gallery showing 2 rare videos of Frank Lloyd Wright- one an infamous interview with Mike Wallace in 1957, the other an appearance on the game show, “What’s My Line.” The long central, first gallery includes a range of Drawings, many masterpieces- both as Architecture and as Artworks, from a wide range of periods of Wright’s career, including the “Winslow House,” 1893, “Unity Temple,” 1908, “Fallingwater,”1935, and the “Marin County Civic Center,” which opened in 1962.

Frank Lloyd Wright seen at the end of the first gallery as he’s interviewed by Mike Wallace in 1957, at age 90. Still sharp as a tack.

When Wright burst on the scene, after leaving his employer & mentor, the great Louis Sullivan3, the “Father of the Skyscraper,” (who he held in such high esteem, he referred to him as “Lieber Meister,” German for “Dear Master”), and began his own practice, there was no such thing as a truly “American” style of Architecture.

Louis Sullivan’s “Bayard-Condict Building,” 1898, on Bleecker & Crosby Streets, his only NYC building, was one of the first steel skeleton skyscrapers in NYC. As the columns between the windows rise, they lead to the parapet decorated with angels.

Even half-hidden by scaffolding the genius of Louis Sullivan’s ornament is impossible to miss, here on the entrance.

While Henry Hobson Richardson and Sullivan (both a bit under appreciated today), had taken steps towards creating an American style, Wright completed it with the introduction of his Prairie Style in the first decade of the 20th Century, like the “Unity Temple,” 1908, in Oak Park, IL, below.

Rendering of “Unity Temple,” Oak Park, IL, 1908, which still stands, an example of his “Prairie Style,” with it’s low, land-hugging profile. Wright, who’s church was “Nature,” went on to design churches for many religions.

Off the central gallery, the first side gallery is devoted to Wright’s “Imperial Hotel,” Tokyo. Incredibly, it was dedicated on September 1, 1923, the very day of the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake that killed 100,000 people and leveled almost every other structure in Tokyo, except for Wright’s Masterpiece, which he had designed to withstand such an event. Instant world-wide fame followed. The genius in it’s floating concrete foundation below was also abundant in the superhuman amount of creativity above it.

“Imperial Hotel,” 1923, cross section.

Wright designed the furniture, the windows, the lamps, the dishes- all of it. He created a massive building that was one unified composition from top to bottom, down to the smallest detail. I couldn’t get over it. Yet, the “Imperial Hotel,” was far from the only building he did this for. No other Wright structure has captured my fascination, and awe, more than the “Imperial Hotel” (which is saying something), perhaps because, though it was gigantic, so little of it remains- even in photographs, film or books (An amazing online collection of photos and relics of the “Imperial Hotel” I’ve seen is to be found here.). What is left teases the viewer to imagine the rest. I’ve tried to imagine walking around in it…what that must have looked like and felt like. It withstood what Nature (Wright capitalized it, since he said it was his “religion,” my inspiration for capitalizing “Art,” “Music,” “Painting,”etc.) threw at it, and World War II, but it couldn’t withstand the rising value of Tokyo real estate leading to it’s tragic demolition in 1958 after standing for a mere 45 years! The facade was saved and reconstructed at Japan’s Meiji Mura Outdoor Architectural Museum, a few pieces of furniture are in The Met (which also has one of the Urns that was out in front of the entrance), and other items are in collections elsewhere.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s First Symphony. The “Imperial Hotel,” Tokyo. Imagine designing this, AND all the furniture, dishes, windows, lamps, and on an on. For my money, one of mankind’s supreme creative achievements. It’s so large it extends off the frame from across the street. Part of the entrance is barely visible to the right, center.

Fragments of the “Imperial Hotel.”  The two side chairs are on loan from The Met. The dishes are reproductions.

Wright’s other huge early masterpiece was Chicago’s “Midway Gardens,” 1914, an indoor/outdoor entertainment complex in the Hyde Park section. Again, Wright designed all of it, and once again, almost nothing remains. Either one of these two buildings would have been enough to secure his name, and his legend. “Midway Gardens” stood for FIFTEEN years. The loss of both is a cultural tragedy that will echo on through centuries to come.

Like a vision of the past through a misty glass. Rendering of “Midway Gardens,” 1913, Chicago. Another early lost masterpiece.

Represented in MoMA’s show by this “Block for Midway Gardens,” 1914. Remnants of it are extremely rare. Photos of, and more about “Midway Gardens” can be found here. (Scroll down.)

Gone forever was the chance for young Artists & Architects to experience and be directly influenced by them the way you only can from seeing Architecture, or Art, in person. Wright’s buildings require your presence in their space to fully appreciate them. He was fond of low corridors giving way to large open spaces, and this is just one of the experiences you can’t get from a book. Speaking of books, after one of my visits, I wandered into MoMA’s bookstore. A young couple next to me picked up a book on Wright and one said, “What did he build? Oh! He did the Guggenheim.” I thought everyone knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was. I don’t know if they went up to see the show or not, but I decided then and there to write this Post.

After these early masterpieces, Wright’s style evolved from the Prairie style, through the Mayan and Japanese influence seen in the “Imperial Hotel” and a number of houses he designed at the time, to his “Usonian”style of the mid-1930’s, to buildings beyond style, like the “Johnson Wax Headquarters,” “Fallingwater,” and eventually, The “Guggenheim Museum.” They would all fall under the umbrella of “Organic Architecture.” The “Usonian” houses began around 1936, and have a style which brings these houses even closer to the land than the “Prairie Style” houses, being almost universally a single storey, while featuring simpler materials, which, Wright believed, would make them more affordable. Though more “popularly priced”, he still designed all the furniture for them as well, and the chair I once owned came from a “Usonain” house. These “Usonian” houses, along with his “Broadacre City,” were part of his vision for urban and suburban landscape design, called “Usonia,” as in “U.S.-onia.”

Rendering of the “Johnson Wax Headquarters,” 1936. It’s innovations are everywhere from the dendriform columns in the great workspace that rise from 9 inch bases to 15 foot “lily-pad” tops (see below), to the design of the furniture to expedite cleaning, to the use of glass tubes to block out the “urban blight” outside while creating a soft light inside. A sideshow of Photos of this incredibly beautiful building are here.

No one believed Wright’s slender columns for the Johnson Wax HQ could support enough weight to be practical. So, he staged this demonstration and piled 60 TONS on top of one! Photographer unknown. 81 years later? They’re still standing tall.

The later masterpieces while unique to themselves, still remain true to Wright’s core beliefs. Herbert F. Johnson, president of the S.C. Johnson Company hired Wright to build his company’s corporate headquarters in 1936 in Racine, Wisconsin. The resulting landmark, above, is a sheer wonder- a cathedral of capitalism. Though they encountered some problems, Mr. Johnson was so pleased with Wright that he contracted him to build a research tower on the property and then to design a large house for himself, known as “Wingspread.”

Within the year, he, also, created what may be the most famous private house ever built. “Fallingwater,” for Edgar J. Kaufmann, owner of Kaufmann’s department store.

Rendering of “Fallingwater,” 1935. Legend has it that Wright had put nothing on paper though his client, Edgar Kaufman, was on his way from the airport to see the design of his house. Wright had it all in his head and put it down on paper in time for Mr. Kaufman’s arrival. This is probably not that Drawing.

Perhaps nowhere in Art is there greater harmony of Art & Nature than there is in “Fallingwater,” which may make it Wright’s ultimate expression of his “Organic Architecture.” In it, the Artist strives to achieve the ultimate- create something worthy of a spectacular natural site, a work that seems to grow out of it, and be integral to it. Mr. Kaufmann was expecting the house to be sited across from the waterfall so he could enjoy looking at it. Instead, Wright put the house directly on top of it, centering the living room on a rock the family liked to picnic on.

As a result of all of this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that later in his career he spoke defiantly about the Architects of the new “International Style,” with their bland, impersonal boxes of steel and glass, that are about as far from “Nature” as anything could be. Here in NYC, as in many other places, a casual look around reveals they’re already dated, and many (most? All?) are plain eyesores. One thing MoMA’s show reinforces is that Wright’s work has a way of not going out of fashion. Perhaps it’s because it’s so tightly integrated with it’s surroundings- with nature. It also helps that most of what he built and remains is out in nature, i.e. not in a City. Then again, perhaps it’s because his endless, unique, creativity serves to constantly inspire. Like the song says. For myself, my now long-standing passion for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright leaves me wondering if he is not the greatest Architect who ever lived. I’m lucky. I don’t believe in qualitatively comparing Art or Artists. But if I did? That’s one statement I might actually make. Now, I’m content wondering.

“The tree that escaped the forest.” Like a tree, it looks different from every angle. Originally designed for Astor Place in Manhattan, after it was rejected, it was redesigned and became the only “skyscraper” Wright built during his lifetime, the “Price Tower” in, you guessed it- Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Speaking of “not being in the City,” though Wright has only one building in NYC, that’s not because he didn’t try. Though he loathed cities, particularly this one, he did. He designed many structures that he wanted to have built here but he was shot down by the powers that be every single time4! Only when he had a client powerful enough to push through his project did the Guggenheim get built. MoMA’s show serves as a reminder of this nightmare as it shows us some of the projects he envisioned for the City, along with an in-depth look at the Guggenheim’s coming to be. It, therefore, serves to remind us that the travails of that other brilliant Architect named “Frank,”…Gehry, has had getting projects built here are nothing new. To date. Mr. Gehry, who has tried to get countless plans built that would have transformed the City, to date has only two. Between Wright & Gehry? Ohhhh…the City we should have had.

Rendering of the “New York Sports Pavilion,” for Belmont Park, 1956 , another of the countless structures Wright designed for Manhattan that were never built.

As his only NYC building, the Guggenheim Museum it is still able to inspire with it’s incredibly bold vision almost 60 years on. It echoes the trees across 5th Avenue in Central Park as a way of bringing a hint of Nature across the street into the City. But, lesser known is the building as we see it now went through quite a metamorphosis on the way. Take a look at this-

The Guggenheim Museum underwent extensive design modifications between this model and the finished building. Looking at it from the 5th Avenue side, very little is the same besides the ramp/rotunda (though here it’s located on the East 89th Street corner, instead of the East 88th Street corner, to the right, as it was built), and the lower overhanging floor. Everything else is different.

This detail fascinates me. It shows Wright’s rarely seen original design for the roof, most notably the skylight over the famous rotunda. The variously sized circles make much more sense to the overall composition than the grid that’s up there now, since so much of the composition involves circles (right down to circles being etched on the sidewalk out front). Of course, the Guggenheim chose to ignore all of this when they put a square building behind it. I wonder why this design was not used. Nor were the surrounding small domes.

The rotunda is now on the right in this rendering, done to demonstrate how it would look in pink. Yes…pink! Still, along with the final color, so much about the building remained to be finalized even here.

The Guggenheim didn’t follow through on all of Wright’s ideas when completing the building (which may, or may not explain the current skylight). So, perhaps, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the Guggenheim was altered in the early 1990’s, terribly in my opinion. I was actively involved in trying to prevent it, and the modification of the Breuer Whitney Museum (now, unmodified, it’s The Met Breuer). To that end, in June, 1987, my letter was published in the New York Times-

My letter in the NY Times Op-Ed page opposing the & Guggenheim & Whitney modifications, June, 1987. I love the very fitting drawing they added.

“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
All of the nights we’d harmonize till dawn.
I never laughed so long.
So long.”*

Today, are there ANY Architects who are also designing the dishes, rugs, windows, lamps & furniture for their buildings on a regular basis? Having owned an original Frank Lloyd Wright chair I can attest to both the ingenuity of the design (though “impractical” most people who saw it said, it’s 3 legs required you to sit with both feet on the floor, or fall off. Wright teaching proper posture), and to the fact that it was in itself a miniature work of Architecture. When I thought of Wright, I thought of Brahms, Mahler or Anton Bruckner (all of whom were alive during Wright’s lifetime) or his beloved Bach & Beethoven. Wright was building symphonies in the physical world. The extraordinary attention to detail in his work- down to even designing the napkin rings at “Midway Gardens,” is something akin to the musical structure of any of those Composer’s compositions, where every note plays a role in the whole. Wright creates a unified physical structure that is hard to find in any other Architect’s work- before or after. Music was the only analogy I could think of for what he had done. At least for me. I think he may have agreed- music was always central to him, particularly chamber music, which he would have weekly performances of at his Taliesin homes. It was hard for me to understand my fascination & obsession with all things Frank Lloyd Wright until I realized what he was doing was creating buildings the way Bach, Mahler or Bruckner created “edifices in sound.” Wright loved music and the connection is something that needs closer study.

Like Picasso, or Miles Davis, he was not one to stay in the same place for long. They are the only two other 20th Century Masters who had multiple unique “periods.” Wright’s style continually evolved, but it were always true to his principles- using nature as the supreme guide, building in harmony with the site, and building “organically.”

Approaching age 90, Wright unveiled one of his most daring ideas yet- “The Illinois,” perhaps better known as the “Mile High Skyscraper,” because that’s what it was- a mile tall. A number of Drawings related to it were on view at MoMA, five about 8 feet high each.

8 foot tall rendering of “The Illinois,” 1956. Wright’s “Mile High Skyscraper.” Designed to be made of concrete, some doubt it’s feasibility. It would have been FOUR times the height of the Empire State Building!

Interestingly, in one Drawing, the “Mile High” shares the sheet with extensive text. The curator’s video in the gallery says this drawing is his second “Autobiography,” to the book of that title. On it, Wright pays tribute to his influences, and proceeds to list some of his accomplishments. As a result, it’s perhaps the most fascinating drawing in the show. It’s something of a testament. It’s hard for me to look at the “Burj Khalifa” in Dubai and not think it’s Architect, Adrian Smith of S.O.M., owes a serious debt to “The Illinois.” It’s “only” 2,722 feet tall, though, half of the proposed height of “The Illinois.”

Wright’s “salutations,” list of accomplishments, and building stats on the top half of another 8 foot tall drawing of the “Mile High.”

One striking thing about Frank Lloyd Wright is that at the time of his death on April 9, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright was exactly half as old as his country. (He was 91, the country was 182 years old.) Remarkable. When Wright started in Architecture, working for Joseph Silsbee in 1872, he did so in a Chicago that was still digging out from the Great Fire the previous year. There were no skyscrapers until his “Lieber Meister” Sullivan began to create them 20 years later. When he passed away in 1959, one of his final masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum was about to open. Much had changed in the 87 years between. But, given that he stayed true to his core belief in “Organic Architecture,” (“building as nature builds,” he said), I’m not sure that Wright changed all that much as much as he evolved. As a result, in the final analysis, he showed us that his idea was infinitely pliable, and that creativity and imagination had a central role in it, something that seemed to go out of Architecture, increasingly, during that same period. While some of his greatest works are gone, his Archives contain an enormous wealth of materials that can bear witness to them, and the thousand or so projects he undertook (about 400 or so still stand). It was a lot for one life- even one that lasted 91 years.

Frank Lloyd Wright during the “Mike Wallace Interview,” 1957, near the age of 90, two years before he passed away.

“So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
I can’t believe your song is gone so soon
I barely learned the tune
So soon, so soon”*

As I left this show, filled with that same, familiar, head-shaking amazement, I was reminded of a quote of Wright’s- “The scientist has marched in and taken the place of the poet. But one day somebody will find the solution to the problems of the world and remember, it will be a poet, not a scientist5.” Whether the world will listen to the next poet is a question that remains to be answered. In the meantime, with regard to this poet, there is much still to learn.

“Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” is my NoteWorthy Show for September.

*- Soundtrack for this Post is “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” by Paul Simon, which is, also, something of his farewell to Art Garfunkel as Garfunkel was about to leave to go to Mexico to shoot “Catch 22,” which marked the end of Simon & Garfunkel. Garfunkel majored in Architecture at Columbia, admired Wright, and suggested to Simon that he write a song about the Architect. Published by Universal Music Publishing Group.

On The Fence, #14,” the Stair way to Heaven Edition.

This Post was created by Kenn Sava for nighthawknyc.com
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  1. Kliment Timiriazev
  2. Eight of the other eleven volumes are monographs dedicated to period of Wright’s career, the remaining 3 volumes contain preliminary studies, which I assume are part of his Archives. These books were the only way most of us could see these pieces of the Archives, except for occasional shows, until now.
  3. Controversy still surrounds whether he left or was fired by Sullivan for taking freelance commissions on the side.
  4. To read this very sorry tale, in detail, I highly recommend the book “Man About Town,” by Herbert Muschamp, who details Wright’s plans for Manhattan and efforts to overcome the powers that be. i.e Robert Moses.
  5.  As quoted in “The Star,” 1959, and “Morrow’s International Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations,” 1982, by Jonathon Green.

R.I.P. James Rosenquist- American Master

I was saddened to learn of the passing of the great James Rosenquist today at age 83. One of the greatest American Painters of the Post World War II era, he began as an outdoor Billboard painter (from 1957-1960). Ever since I first learned that, I’ve paid attention to the few that are still hand painted. I always stop and take a photo of them when a new ad is in progress, partly out of fascination at the death defying skill involved, and because they are wonderfully abstract before they’re finished. I actually took this photo on West 34th Street earlier this afternoon, before I learned of his passing, of one of the few outdoor billboards that are still hand-painted. Fittingly, it was unfinished. I post it in homage.

I shot this unfinished, hand painted Billboard at West 34th & 8th Avenue this afternoon, before I heard James Rosenquist, who began as a billboard painter, had passed. Fittingly abstract. Click any image to enlarge.

Mr. Rosenquist’s Retrosective at the Guggenheim in 2004 was a spectacle that overwhelmed the eyes and the senses. I lived with this on a smaller scale, (though too large for my small space), after I bought a set of 7 prints by Mr. Rosenquist, another example of which was in the Guggenheim extravaganza. The title of the series, “High Technology and Mysticism: A Meeting Point,” proved tantalizing and inspired endless speculation. Typicaly, they  were so large, (each 34 x 33 inches) that I could only hang one at a time.

“The” by James Rosenquist, 1981, limited edition print (set of 7) based on his photography.

Each print is titled by hand with a one word title. Together the 7 titles form the “poem,” or haiku,- “Somewhere Above The Sky Silverbirds Fly Somewhere.” In the Rosenquist Print Catalog by Glenn, Mr. Rosenquist says of them- “It was the first thing I had ever done that was solely photographic. I went to unusual lengths to take photographs. I was specifically trying to sandwich negatives together to bring about a certain look, a certain thing that I wanted through this photo process…I went to study where technology was illustrated, in libraries and other places. I went to hospitals to see how it all related to the human being. I went all over the place to see the sources of imagery from technology and find out what it had to do with so-called art. So, I came up with these strange shapes, DNA symbols, electrical circuits.”

“Fly,” From the same series, 1981.

When you look at these works, bear in mind that Adobe Photoshop was first released in 1990- nine years after Mr. Rosenquist created these remarkable images. Yes, he created these works that reference “high technology,” without actually USING high technology. How fitting to Post, and revisit, these now when they serve as, both, my personal remembrance of this great Artist, and because my head has been buried in Contemporary Photography.

And “Somewhere,” ditto. Where have you seen anything similar? Even Mr. Rosenquist never worked in this style again.

James Rosenquist hasn’t received as much attention (it seems to me) as his contemporaries Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein or Robert Rauschenberg (who’s Retrospective is set to open at MoMA next month and sure to be a blockbuster). He was an Artist who never stopped growing, and neither did the size of his work. I loved that about it, almost as much as I marveled at his powers of invention. Originally dubbed a “pop artist,” by those who need some sort of crutch (bear that in mind when you read his Obituaries that try to put him in that box), Mr. Rosenquist’s work quickly grew beyond categories. And stayed there. One only had to see the final huge gallery of his most recent work at the Guggenheim show to feel overwhelmed at the size and scale of his vision, and marvel at them. It’s something very, very few Artists, especially Painters have matched.

That scale, and the daring of his vision are what I will miss most. “Sail on, Silverbird…”*

I think I’ll remember James Rosenquist as he is seen in the front of the Guggenheim Retrospective Catalog, in my signed copy.

*-Soundtrack for this Post is “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” by Paul Simon, published by Universal Music Publishing Group.

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This Post was created by Kenn Sava for www.nighthawknyc.com

Zaha Hadid, And The “Rule Of One”

“I was taught to go
Where the wind would blow
And it blows away – away
Well, my eyes are full of stars
But I just can’t reach ’em… oh, how high they are”*

Once again this year, I’m very saddened to learn of the very premature passing of a visionary Artist, in this case, the great Architect, Zaha Hadid, who passed on Thursday. Rare are architects who marry vision with a unique syle in this world and create Art in the process. Rarer still when they are female. I happened to date one in the 90’s, who found it very hard to get work as an Architect because she was a woman and had to rely on work she got as an Engineer to suvive. Sometimes they had her do work which was really Architecture in the guise of Engineering because they couldn’t use the name of a woman as the Architect, and because, she said, they could pay her less. I’ll never forget going with her to a nightclub she designed near Dusseldorf, Germany that had a dance floor that could be raised and lowered using a system of locks, yes, with water, (like those used on the Panama Canal in miniature). The floor was clear so you could actually watch the water coming and going as you danced. As the water flowed in, the slowly floor rose until you were a few feet in the air. Amazing. She even designed the furniture in the place. As for Zaha Hadid, to this point, in New York, I have only been able to experience the terrific 30 year Retrospective of her work at the Guggenheim in 2006. It was a rare chance (along with the Frank Gehry Show there in 2000) to see the work of one great Architect inside that of another, Frank Lloyd Wright, of course.

While their work is very different, I have a feeling Wright wouldn’t have been too hard on Ms. Hadid. There is a futuristic organic-ness to her work that surprises at first glance, then seems to, somehow magically, fit her sites surprisingly & uniquely well. Plus, I think he would have gotten a kick out of the paintings she did for her design proposals. I know I did, having never seen them prior. I bought a set of two of them on refrigerator magnets to add to my extensive collection, and for inspiration!

DSC03371PNH

The white painting on the left echoes Wright’s Guggenheim Ramp’s Spiral!

Now, sadly, however, upon hearing the news of her passing, I was struck by a feeling I don’t like at all- It seems to me that this is another instance of what I hate to call, “The Rule of One.”

Meaning, it sure seems like great Architects only get to build one building, each, in NYC.

Witness-

Louis Sullivan, the “inventor” of the skyscraper, only built one in NYC, the beautiful Bayard Building in 1899 at 65 Bleecker Street.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Sullivan’s great student, and, perhaps, the greatest Architect ever (per Frank Lloyd Wright, himself), has only the Guggenheim Museum (I’m not counting the Mercedz Benz Showroom on Park Avenue he designed because it’s a showroom, not a whole building, nor the pre-fab house he designed that was built on Staten Island). He lived to be 91, and it took that long to get a project approved, and past Robert Moses, who succeeded in blocking all the rest of his amazing NYC projects, like these. Eerily similar to Ms. Hadid’s contribution (see below), he didn’t live to see it completed, passing 6 months before it opened.

Wright, in my favorite picture of him, on the balcony of the Guggenheim, under construction, that he would not live to see open. Guggenheim postcard from my collection.

“If I can make it here…” Wright, in my favorite picture of him, on the balcony of the Guggenheim, under construction, 1959. Guggenheim postcard from my collection.

Daniel Liebeskind- Won the competition for the World Trade Center master plan, but so far, he hasn’t had anything of his own actually constructed. (I have no idea where things stand with his “Green Tower” for 1 Madison Avenue, proposed in 2008. Looks pretty wild to me!)

Santiago Calatrava- The infamous World Trade Center Transit Hub. (Like Liebeskind’s Tower, I have no idea what happened to Calatrava’s, too.)

Frank Gehry has, thankfully, outlived the Rule of One, with his gleaming tower downtown at 8 Spruce (nee Beekman) Street, (a work that includes Public Elementary School 397 that I don’t believe he designed), joining his beautiful IAC Headquarters Building at 555 West 18th Street.

Gehry's IAC Building- like sails on the adjacent Hudson River. Seen from the HighLine.

Gehry’s IAC Building- like sails on the adjacent Hudson River. Seen from the HighLine.

Though, like Wright, all of his most visionary works for NYC were never built. Mr Gerhy is still creating, and I hope he will still grace us with more projects, soon.

And now, Zaha Hadid, who’s only NYC building, she didn’t live to see completed. Well, here it is, 520 West 28th Street, about 10 blocks north of Frank Gehry’s gorgeous IAC Building, above, and right smack dab on the High Line.

It's scheduled to open in the Fall.

Rendering. It’s scheduled to open in the Fall.

From the rendering, above, it looks like a beautiful, surprisingly almost conventional design, yet one that will leave us appreciative of what it adds to our lives (even just walking past it), and of her amazing talents.

April 1, 2016. No work taking place today out of respect for Ms. Hadid's passing. A compilation from the HighLine.

April 1, 2016. No work taking place today out of respect for Ms. Hadid’s passing. From the HighLine.

“All I believe in is a dream
I haunt the Earth though I am fully seen
In all my years I’ve never felt more sure than now”*

Yet, everytime I see it, as it’s completed, and after it’s finished, I’ll be left with this overriding thought-

WHY is it that so many mediocre Architects get to build project after project here (I’m not naming names but just look around. They’re easy to spot.) and the best get ONE…IF THEY’RE LUCKY!, AND have to move figurative heaven and earth to get it? They’d much rather be moving real earth.1

While I’ll be eternally grateful we have it, as I am the others I just listed, in this City where we have the second most tall buildings (over 150 meters) in the world (236 to Hong Kong’s 380. Chicago has 118, the only other US City in the worldwide top 20), nowhere is the need for great architecture more desperate.

It does, also, make a real point for any struggling Artist in this City, if not beyond- It’s not easy to get your work done, seen, heard, or built here. Even being a world famous Master of the Art is not an Ezy Pass to opportunity here.

It also points out that our loss is all the more in that we don’t know what might have been, and therefore, what we might have lost.

I’ll say it, again…before it’s, god forbid, too late- let’s get Frank Gehry to give us the masterpiece the City needs to define it for the 21st Century. PLEASE?2

*Soundtrack for this post is “Rise To The Sun” by Alabama Shakes, from their album “Boys & Girls,” written by Steven William Johnson, Zachary Riley Cockrell, Brittany Amber Howard, Heath Allen Fogg, and published by Alabama Shakes Publishing.

Comments are off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t welcome them, thoughts, feedback or propositions. Please send them to denizen@nighthawknyc.com

 

 

  1. I mentioned this here, not all that long ago.
  2. Yes, I notice that his 8 Spruce Street Tower is being used more and more in skyline shots behind the Brooklyn Bridge as seen from the Brooklyn East River shore, and that’s nice, but that darn Freedom Tower thing is in the background. The need remains!