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Art in Architecture

The reciprocal and sometimes antagonistic relationship of architecture and painting forms the unifying topic of this otherwise uneven collection of essays

Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie does not accommodate art easily. Mies van der Rohe knew what he was doing. Detlef Mertens posits that Mies wanted to ‘support and even provoke the emergence of new ways of displaying and experiencing art, perhaps even new ways of making it’. That may be so, and the gallery’s uncompromising glass grid, its sheer openness, has certainly led to new horizons in curating. But what did Mies have to say for himself about his low-lying glass box and its audacious simplicity? ‘It is such a huge hall and that of course means great difficulties for the exhibiting of art,’ he admitted, ‘I am fully aware of that. But it has such potential that I simply cannot take those difficulties into account.’

Giving uncompromising Modernism the benefit of the doubt, the potential he spoke about was surely a double opportunity for the architecture and the art it would contain. In the 1969 Piet Mondrian exhibition, for instance, a system of white rectangular suspended panels had to be devised to compartmentalise and respond to the glass zone. Mondrian’s own pictures suddenly gained an exceptional conversation partner when inserted as vertical punctuation in Mies’s Berlin structure.

Painting with Architecture in Mind is less about the interface between art and architecture than how painting has dealt with, negated, or invested in architectural spaces and histories. Its scope is diverse. The strongest and most provocative essay in the collection is Eric Alliez and Jean Claude Bonne’s ‘Matisse in the Becoming − Architecture of Painting’, in which still lives and mural projects are interpreted based on Matisse’s own notions of rhythm, colour, space and modernity. Further essays interact with work by Gerhard Richter, Thomas Scheibitz, Pablo Picasso and Michel Majerus. Author Bernice Donszelmann exhibits a stroke of genius in subjecting Binky Palermo’s minimalist interiors to Gottfried Semper’s theories on wall coverings.

Yet, there is one serious drawback to this ambitious collection of scholarly material. Each chapter marshals big-name philosophers and critical theory to advance arguments. Some authors wield these tools with more precision than others, however, and more than one essay is rendered nearly unreadable by sentence structures and methodological assertions so convoluted as to be impenetrable. In a book that aims to clarify complex relationships between painting and architecture over the past century, this approach fails its subjects. More positively, the book’s producers have conceived it as an art object, with a specially commissioned fold-out image by Brad Lochore. A penetrating curiosity about how we perceive built and artistic environments underpins the book’s themes, and the collection is a tough but rewarding read.

Linda Khatir’s essay investigates Pierre Buraglio’s series of ‘windows’ from the early 1980s. Made of fragments of scavenged and modified windows, the art works exist somewhere between painting, sculpture and architecture. Khatir’s jumping off point for an analysis of Buraglio’s motivations is refreshingly direct: ‘we acknowledge the work as a window, even though we know it is not’. A useful comparison can be made with artist Robert Ryman, who insists his paintings ‘don’t really exist unless they’re on the wall as part of the wall, as part of the room’. But when Frank Stella and Jackson Pollock used industrial paints with metallic bases meant for cladding buildings, did their work take on an architectural gloss? There are times when art, architecture and the visual cultures of industry can be blurred to an unhelpful extent. When any given aspect of a picture gets positioned as architectural, it’s necessary to pull back and get intellectual perspective.

Whittaker and Landrum’s collection of essays all insist in their distinctive ways that we must rethink how painters have interacted with architecture in the age of abstraction, Modernism and conceptualism. It brings us into contact with a cohort of iconic and obscure artists whose architectural explorations with pigments and canvas are as diverse as the buildings and traditions they respond to.

Painting with Architecture in Mind

Author: A Landrum and E Whittaker (eds)
Publisher: Wunderkammer Press
Price: £19.99

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