When Philip Johnson finished his Glass House in 1949, he had built a home almost without walls — a home built in its landscape, not on its landscape.
But the School of Architecture’s new exhibition, “Painting the Glass House: Artists Revisit Modern Architecture,” shows that not even Johnson’s minimalist masterpiece is truly transparent.
Modern architecture, the exhibit seems to suggest, is either opaque or reflective, depending on how it is viewed.
Eleven pieces are on display in the Sculpture Gallery on Edgewood Avenue, which is serving as the Architecture School’s temporary gallery this year. But only five of the pieces are paintings. Collages, photographs and video installations are also featured in Yale’s presentation, and even more items will be on display concurrently at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield.
No matter the medium, all of the objects are very much two-dimensional depictions of architecture, a three-dimensional craft. Even so, more than just the façades of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright are shown in the exhibition.
Three of Daniel Arsham’s paintings begin the show, and each seems to pose significant questions about Modern architecture. Architecture, by way of abstract shapes, is placed squarely on nature in Arsham’s work — whether on an iceberg or an inlet.
But, as Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, an Associate Curator at the Guggenheim Musem in New York who co-curated the exhibition said at last night’s panel discussion, “Painting Toward Architecture, Architecture Toward Painting,” Arsham’s paintings show that some Modernist architecture failed to be natural.
Whether Arsham’s work shows hope or despair in his view of Modern architecture is not obvious, but his art is nothing if not an exploration of the connections between the built and natural environments.
This difficult juxtaposition of Modern architecture and nature is a trend throughout the exhibit. One of the most notable pieces, Gordon Cheung’s “Rented Reality,” shows a decidedly distorted nature. The building in Cheung’s work is made of clippings from the Financial Times, and this representation of Modernist-turned-corporate architecture seems not just a catastrophe in itself, but also a cancerous presence for its environment — nothing left in “Rented Reality” is worth much rent.
Jessica Hough, director of the Mills College Art Museum, who also co-curated the show, explained that the artists on display manage to bring an emotional perspective to a style of architecture that often seems emotionless.
“The artists were interested in the utopian ideals that this architecture represents for them,” Hough commented, “but also the sort of passing idealism and the sense of lost opportunity that Modern architecture now embodies.”
One of the strongest elements of the exhibition is the reflective glass that meets visitors upon entering the gallery. Reflections are everywhere in the exhibit, and the artists seem to say that reflections are equally omnipresent in Modern architecture.
Luisa Lambri’s two photographs make this point bluntly. Both show the same large, circular mirror in a Modern building. But each photograph is taken at an angle such that no person is reflected in the mirror — only the cold, stark white walls can be seen cast back in the glass.
For the School of Architecture itself, the exhibition is a different kind of reflection. “Painting the Glass House” is first and foremost a visual arts show, and it is also one presented in two locations simultaneously.
Dean Sakamoto, director of exhibitions at the School of Architecture, said “Painting the Glass House” is particularly exciting for him in that it is so different from a traditional architecture exhibit.
“This is a risky exhibition,” Sakamoto said. “It portrays outsider architecture — it’s representations of architecture and even representations of architectural ideas — but from another field.”
One woman viewing the show yesterday afternoon exclaimed to a passerby that she could not believe the works were part of a School of Architecture production.
“This is art, not architecture,” she said.
But throughout yesterday’s panel discussion, this relationship was explored and, while no clear conclusions were reached, “painting envy” and “architectural envy” were shown to be extremes, with room for interplay in between.
Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said the exhibit is particularly meaningful in that it shows the relationship between art and architecture at a time when the Architecture School is housed in what will soon become the School of Art’s space.
“I thought it would be particularly apt for us to have this collaboration because we are in borrowed space,” Stern said. “It’s a sort of thank-you note to the Art School.”
And as art students mingled with architecture students after the discussion last night, there could be no doubt that the show has created a sharing of ideas between the fields, just as it will soon create a dialogue across Connecticut.
Yale is 37 miles from the Glass House. The Aldrich is only 11 miles. But the meaning of the Glass House, of the movement it symbolizes, seems at once closer than ever before — and yet still eerily distant.