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Flesh and stud: 'Soft Schindler' at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture

Exploring multiple dualities and unearthing layered histories, Mimi Zeiger’s curation for the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House makes oft-prohibited softness central

The exhibition begins with a pink echo. A strip of faded salmon paint, hidden high on the wall of Clyde Chace’s studio at the Schindler House in West Hollywood, bears the memory of something that slips out from the cracks of a dominant idea: an idea that was constructed with the house in 1922 – fresh, pure and, at least in the imaginary, unadulterated by time or adaptation – an idea of the house as a groundbreaker, as an object lesson, to which it was restored and is now preserved. Somewhere between that construction and that reversion, there was some time for a living dwelling, moving and breathing with its inhabitants. 

In late 1949, Pauline Schindler, then estranged from her husband – though both of them were living on opposite sides of the house they had built together – made some transgression against the idea of the monumental, untouchable house by painting the walls of her half of the divided building salmon pink. Curated by architecture critic, editor and curator Mimi Zeiger, Soft Schindler takes the trace of that transgression to soften the house as a manifesto: to insist on softness as a form of resistance.

10 softschindler mak center c taiyowatanabe

10 softschindler mak center c taiyowatanabe

Source: Taiyo Watanabe, courtesy of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture

Occupying the former nursery, Sonja Gerdes’ 2019 artwork reconceives the room as a techno-futurist cocoon for meditation, inviting visitors to listen and breathe together within its structure. It is called Pie of Trouble. Stays Trouble. Belly on Belly. Let’s Hang. Breathe you infinite. Animal Creature Plant Breath Soul. The Energy Plan. Amorphous Hypersensibility. Do Spiders Breathe? Mothersmilk. The Multiple Amorphous Us. Air For Free

Appearing at surface to be a paradox in a societal structure in which hardness has been made an indicator of strength, the slippery sort of softness contains a duality: to be resilient and yet to have ‘give’, to remain or return when placed under duress. That duality is founded in the house’s own history. ‘Both/and to its core, the house contains nearly a century of fluid, alternating domesticities’ Zeiger writes; its bounds redefined notions of public and private, inside and outside, as it played home to dinner parties, debates and love affairs.

These multiple dialectics, the very spirit of the house’s inhabitation, plays out in the words that emerge from some exhibited artworks, inspired by the letters exchanged between Pauline and Rudolph Schindler after their separation. Some of these are insistent: ‘Don’t Don’t Don’t / I Will I Will I Will I Will I Will’ read the north clerestory windows of Marian Chace’s studio, part of an installation by Los Angeles-based studio Design, Bitches. The refrain gestures to the greater text of the ex-couple’s relationship, a fragment of which is also reproduced on a cushion as part of The Response to a Hard Edge by Bettina Hubby, made specifically for Soft Schindler. ‘Madam:’ it begins, as Rudolph’s letters also began, ‘I hear you want me to select a color for the painting of Kings Road…’ The cushion’s transcript trails off, leaving space for extrapolation.

Around the same space, resounds the stern voice of Merce Cunningham, circling two latex casts peeled from the floor of his rehearsal studio and lit from below to reveal the dust and residue left by the labour of dancers. The artwork by Jorge Otero-Pailos brings Cunningham into the room and, with him, the spectre of John Cage. The composer and Cunningham’s lifelong partner had a brief affair with Pauline Schindler in 1934-35, making him an absent third – the hinge between the two.

08 softschindler mak center c taiyowatanabe

08 softschindler mak center c taiyowatanabe

Source: Taiyo Watanabe, courtesy of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture

Humanoid vessels by Alice Lang take the form of fragmented and sometimes cartoonish bodies, examining how existing power structures manifest across individual bodies. Pictured here are Better Half #2 (2018), Better Half #4 (2017), Better Half #5 (2018) and Cut Out (2019)

As the Schindlers’ own echoes reverberate in writing around the house, bodies are brought to physically inhabit a space that is otherwise preserved as a coolly inorganic entity. The anthropomorphic forms of works by Tanya Aguiñiga and Bryony Roberts, tense and languorous in their composition respectively, instil the space with an uncanny humanity. The fleshy masses of these unspooled bodies are countered by the hollow volumes opposite: porcelain vessels by Alice Lang transform human skin into a brittle but rippling representational shell, the sexualising frames cut around their calcified forms both humorous and dislocating.

Just across the patio, gneiss vats full of bubbling ferments concocted by Leong Leong stew hot in the afternoon sun; inhuman but very literally alive, their microorganisms quietly culture a life of their own for the duration of the exhibition.

Between the lasting voices of the Schindlers and these corporeal forms, Soft Schindler goes beyond its individual exhibits to bring to the fore a fuller, layered history of the Schindlers’ shared architecture: the house thickens out from its role as a lesson in Rudolph Schindler’s architectural ethos. Remembering Pauline Schindler’s pink paint, the shag rugs from the ’70s and the Modernist attitude to material expression in equal measure, the exhibition recalls in a monumental setting that architecture is so much more than machine, than bare bones – it is a process, continuous and emphatically lived.

Soft Schindler is at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House, 835 North Kings Road, West Hollywood CA, US until 16 February 2020