Monday, September 28, 2009

Surgical Precision

Another of the artists found at the Amory Show whose work truly impressed me was Daniel Zeller. I'm very glad to have interviewed him. His were some of the most thoughtful, in-depth answers I've ever gotten in an interview, and it was quite fun. Here's my conversation with Zeller:

Ryan Witte: You just got married. How was the wedding?

Daniel Zeller: It was great.

RW: Glad to hear it all went well, and no one got hammered and fell into the cake...or...did they?

DZ: Some folks got a little hammered, but no major disasters--and we had cupcakes instead of a cake, so that whole problem was avoided.

RW: Did each cupcake have a tiny bride and groom on it?

DZ: No, but we did have them all arranged on a "tree."

RW: Oh...I didn't understand what you meant at first. That sounds pretty cool, actually. Where did you have it?

Daniel Zeller, Location Management (2007, graphite on paper), most all images can be clicked for larger views.

DZ: We were married at a day camp called The Village at Boulder Ridge in Barkhamsted, Connecticut (they cater events on weekends). It was fun. They have a climbing wall with a zip line and a pond with an inflatable iceberg for climbing on.

RW: ...And Mini-Golf!

DZ: No Mini-Golf, but they did have bocce.

RW: Oh, there's a Mini-Golf picture on the website...

DZ: Huh, I must have been too preoccupied to notice.

RW: I guess all that pesky getting-married business distracted you from the Mini-Golf. How did you two meet?

DZ: Mika [Yokobori] and I actually met at Pierogi.

RW: Are you both artists?

DZ: She is an artist. We do share certain aesthetic sensibilities. You can see some of her work at [her website].

RW: I see you were born in California. Are you now based in Williamsburg, in the vicinity of Pierogi?

DZ: We currently live in Williamsburg--for three years now. Both our apartment and my studio are indeed quite close to Pierogi. Prior to that, I spent thirteen years in DUMBO, in a very affordable live/ work space that rapidly became unaffordable.

RW: Yeah, it seems neighborhoods all over the city are becoming unaffordable, one by one. I really don't get how enough people to fill up the island of Manhattan are either making three million dollars a year or are willing to have five roommates in a closet-sized studio apartment.

DZ: I've wondered about that, as well. Ah, real estate, the perpetual New York conundrum.

RW: Amen. I'd imagine the type of work you do requires very specific and controlled working conditions. Could you describe briefly where and how you typically work on a piece?

DZ: I do prefer a quiet studio (I'm currently subletting a space from a friend, but will soon be looking to move) where I have some control over what I'm hearing. I listen to a lot of NPR and lots of different kinds of music while I'm working.

RW: It's funny, you know I think every single American artist I've interviewed so far has mentioned listening to NPR. It must be one of the job requirements.

DZ: Maybe we're all Liberals, but I think it's more that they seem to cover the broadest range of topics...and getting up to change the station is a pain.

On very large drawings I work on the wall, mostly standing--on milk crates to reach higher--sometimes sitting. For everything else I work sitting at a nice big drafting table that I managed to find used. It's awesome. It's spring-loaded and adjusts with the release of a single lever. I like to work on several pieces concurrently, to be able to switch back and forth between sitting and standing. It can get tedious to be in the same position for too long.

RW: Yes, I'd think that'd be a one-way ticket to debilitating back problems.

DZ: Back, neck, shoulder, eye, hand--not necessarily in that order.

RW: Am I correct that you begin with an ink drawing and the acrylic color goes in toward the end?

Embedded Inquiry (2008, ink and acrylic on paper)
DZ: I start the ink drawings with line work and outlines that will define where color is added, but I tend to work in patches, adding color as I go. Color is still relatively new to me, and I like to see how different ones work against each other as the drawing develops.

RW: Do you have one type of pen or instrument you prefer or do you like to switch it up?

DZ: Although I'm starting to use a brush just a little where there are wider areas to be filled, I work on the ink drawings almost exclusively with rapidograph pens. They are supremely annoying to maintain...

RW: [LOL] I think I still have a set of rapidograph pens around here someplace. I always found them extremely irritating.

DZ: Yes, they can suck, but when they are working, they rule...I've found that they are great for making consistent and fine lines, especially the Rotring brand. Those use an ink cartridge, so unfortunately, the colors are quite limited. For filling, I mostly use the Koh-I-Noor brand. They have a reservoir that can be refilled with any color that I can mix and different nib sizes allowing for more or less flow.

Occupational Hazard (2008, graphite on paper on panel)
RW: While looking at your piece at the Armory Show, Occupational Hazard, with its extremely intense hatchwork, my friend and I were joking that it appears you might have an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Would you care to defend yourself?

Occupational Hazard [detail]

DZ: I have no defense against Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, though I would probably describe it as Obsessive-Compulsive Order or Syndrome or something.

RW: I like that, "Obsessive-Compulsive Order."

Occupational Hazard [detail]

DZ: I think we all probably have some degree of it, but I don't think mine is too severe. I have always been attracted to imagery that is packed with detail, so the work I make is the work I want to see. I've had to learn some strategies for being able to sit or stand for hours, making repetitive gestures. But without a pre-existing tendency for Obsessive-Compulsiveness, I don't think I'd have even wanted to try.

RW: You may be pleased to know that, after studying your work much more closely yesterday, last night it showed up in one of my dreams.

I think it was most because of this one: Diffusive Cluster (2007, ink and acrylic on paper). I stared at it for a very long time. The colored sections began to appear as flat plateaus, flush with the surface of the paper. The surrounding lines recede away from the viewer as valleys, similar to a topological map. Trying to get my brain to wrap around the three-dimensional forms I think may have done something to my head.

DZ: I'm not sure whether I'm happy or sorry that something I drew showed up in someone else's dream. I dream some of this imagery, as well, and I'm never quite sure what it means.

RW: Don't worry, I thought it was kind of cool, actually. I'm tempted to believe that certain imagery activates something deeper, neurologically, in the brain and makes a kind of imprint--much the same way that certain songs or jingles get stuck in one's head more than others.

DZ: Someone once told me that ninety percent (or most, anyway) of brain activity happens below the conscious level, and I tend to believe it. It would make sense that studying any complex system or image would put that ninety percent to work. We'd be unaware that we were still thinking about it. I think that we evolved to be able to navigate within a very complex three-dimensional environment, and our brains are wired to retain a lot of this information. It's only fairly recently--in terms of evolutionary time--that we've been making and referring to two-dimensional representations of our world, and very recently since we've had the kinds of imagery that we can create today, through modern technology. We can translate it, and even mostly understand it, but who knows how it is affecting our subconscious?

RW: Honestly, I think you hit the nail right on the head. The three-dimensional world that the human brain is set up to interpret is external to us and "real," at least in a physical, non-philosophical sense. But two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional worlds, as we interpret them, exist only inside our brains. It would make sense that they would get stuck there a little more easily, since that's where they're "born," in a way.

Do you find that after a certain point in the process of creating a piece, the structures in it get fused in your brain, or is it more of a sort of Zen experience, more mechanical?

DZ: I'm pretty sure that many of the structures that I work with are fused in my brain. A large part of the fun of making drawings, for me, is in trying to figure out where they are going as I'm working. The process of physically putting marks on paper is so extremely slow compared to the brain's ability to envision all the possible futures that could manifest on the page. I think it does end up being a Zen-like experience, perhaps in a similar way that driving long distances can be: one has to be very focussed, but at the same time, parts of the brain are liberated to roam and explore. It's being in the moment and out of it at the same time.

Arbitrary Flow (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)
RW: I suspect one possible reason your work does this is because it has the most incredible formal logic to it. Is it a sort of alternative visual language, or a biological process, a way to give a strict order to the personal chaos of expressionism?

DZ: It probably is a kind of alternative visual language.

RW: What got you interested in this method?

DZ: As I started to explain (above), I've always been attracted to certain kinds of imagery, the more complex and detailed, the better. There is so much of it now, covering a huge range from the microscopic to the gigantic. It's almost too much. So I suppose I'm looking for ways to tie it all together and, at the same time, for ways to shred it apart. I don't know if that makes any sense.

RW: I think it does.

Transfer Locus (2004, graphite on paper)
DZ: Take just one source, for example, probably my favorite: satellite imagery. These views encompass so much. They are dense with information, with overlapping and interacting systems of geology, biology, and human artifacts.

RW: I'm with you one hundred percent on this. I've spent hours on Google Maps in satellite view, following the routes of major rivers, examining geological formations, exploring distant part of the globe. It's mesmerizing, really.

Orbital Clusteration (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)

DZ: Yeah, Google Earth is better than video games, and I had to give those up or I'd never have time to do anything. They have Google Ocean or something now. I haven't seen it yet, but I guess it lets you explore undersea topography.

Yet, in many ways, they only reveal a tiny fraction of what is there. They can only allude to what is underneath and to what lies outside the frame. There is a clarity and ambiguity at the same time. I think it is this dichotomy that attracts me--as well as the idea of scale: a satellite-mounted camera is nothing more than a big microscope looking at a pebble in space. Where do we fit into this continuum of scale, now that we have the ability to see so far in either direction?

RW: I'll take that to be a rhetorical question...

Linear Transversion (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)

DZ: Actually, I was hoping you could answer that...

RW: [LOL] Ummm...

DZ: I sometimes feel a little like a drowning rat. There's so much interesting stuff to look at, it's hard to know what to grab onto. I will never be able to better illuminate the kind of imagery that's already out there, because it is already out there, in all of its full and detailed splendor. So I borrow the pieces that I find interesting and splice them together in ways that lead, hopefully, to somewhere unknown. The journey, itself, becomes the focus.

Synthesized Abatement (2008, graphite on paper)
RW: Using line, color, and composition, can an artist manipulate in some predictable way the paths the viewer's eye will travel around through a work of art?

DZ: Artists (and others) have been attempting to manipulate viewers' eyes for a long time now. I think there are certain tools and methods for doing this, although it's ultimately up to each viewer, and everyone brings their own sensibility and history to what they see.

Synthesized Abatement [detail]
RW: The reason I ask this is being aware of how I tend to visually absorb works of art. Some of your pieces almost look like you could take a traditionally representational painting, say, from the Renaissance, lay your work over top of it, and yours would map out a diagram of the painting's compositional elements and patterns of eye movement. But perhaps I'm just projecting, as you say, my own sensibility and history onto it.

DZ: I think that we have all been bombarded with so much imagery by the time we become adults--and there is probably a finite range of "devices" used to manipulate our navigation through the frame--so these patterns have become embedded in us. It's likely that, as I work, I'm channeling something I've stored away subconsciously.

For my own work, I suppose a goal is the keep the viewer's eyes traveling around the image, and when they come to an edge, having something that will cause them to circle around and come back into the frame. As with any image, that may represent a section of something larger. I am intrigued by what is outside the frame, and how one can infer that information using what is inside the frame.

Deregulated Engagement (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)
RW: So there's a very deliberate tension between the self-referential quality of the objects in the frame and the fact that the patterns can extend outside of it, potentially to infinity.

Multiple Dispersion (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)
DZ: I would agree with that, although it's a little different when I'm working on a floating piece (where an isolated form "floats" on the page, surrounded by blank space). While these often refer to multiple systems or objects (sometimes recognizable, sometimes not), I think of them almost as specimens, cut off from some broader context. It's kind of strange in that the viewer not only has to interpret what is there, but also has to infer or even invent a context for it. We are used to seeing maps and photographs that fill the frame, so we understand that whatever is at the edge continues beyond it. But yes, in all cases, infinity is good.

RW: You might find it interesting that one of the major film theorists (I'm fairly certain it was Siegfried Kracauer) extended this idea to narratives. Since film originates in photography, which, as you said, captures a small section of the real world that continues beyond the frame, he said the classical tragedy formula--where the main character dies at the end of the story--is inappropriate for film. Film narratives, he claimed, should be presented as short segments of a larger timeline that continues on after the film ends.

DZ: That makes sense, and he's probably right. But it assumes the narrative ends when the character dies. I would suppose that it would have to continue, whether we like it or not. There are lots of folks affected by the death, and let's not forget about all the worms and microbes for whom he/ she becomes lunch.

RW: Don't think the ancient Greeks ever covered that one...

Implemented Cohesion (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)

A lot of your work seems to allude to the idea of humankind's false belief in its ability to master our environment. It's as if you're performing cosmetic surgery on both a microscopic, viral scale and a grand, geological scale at the same time. It's particularly poignant when, with an effortless wave of her hand, Mother Nature can lay waste to vast areas of Indonesia with a Tsunami or unleash a Swine Flu epidemic. Do you have unusually strong views about the relationship between humans and the planet we inhabit?

Seasonal Overlay (2007, graphite on paper)

DZ: This may be a kind of central question, and one that probably comes closest to the toughest question, which can be summed up: why do I do this? I do indeed have strong views about our relationship to the planet we inhabit, largely informed by what we can so easily see, now that we have the tools for looking. We are voracious as a species, and things are clearly out of balance, rapidly becoming more so.

There is a pair of satellite images in one of the books I have, Satellite Atlas of the World, that depicts deforestation in Brazil. The first is from 1984, the second from 2001. They show in striking clarity how humans have cleared away so much forest in such a short time, and this is happening all over the world. We are consuming the life on the planet.

I don't consider myself an "environmentalist" (though I am surely in that category), because that label completely misses the point. Semantics seem to matter here, because the environment is not something that is "out there." We are the environment, and the environment is us; how we treat it is simply how we treat ourselves. I'm not worried about the planet--it's just a rock--though I'm fairly concerned about the thin layer or skin on the surface of it and the atmosphere above, because it is us, and it is being transformed in ways that likely will not benefit us. That said, I'm just as guilty as any other modern, "civilized" person in my poor treatment of said skin...and thus, of myself.

We are indeed at the mercy of forces we cannot control. At the same time, we are, intentionally or not, changing the dynamics through our actions. Maybe it will all be for the best in the long run, but somehow I don't think it will be that great for humans. I think I remember a George Carlin bit where he said (to paraphrase), "people evolved on earth because the earth wanted plastic."

I'm on board with a great deal of what Carlin says. But I think it's somewhat dangerous encouraging people to dive off the endangered species bandwagon. So many of them are endangered directly as a result of humans' irresponsible behavior.

We are designed by nature to seek gratification. So I think it's just a flaw in nature that we are, at the moment, smart enough to be able to manipulate our surroundings but not smart enough, collectively, to be able to control ourselves, despite obvious evidence that we are on an unsustainable path.

Which brings me back to that nagging question: why do these drawings? I can't really answer the question. The work often feels like a futile, misdirected effort. In the face of such clear evidence of what is happening to our collective skin, and our collective ability to ignore this clear evidence, maybe I'm just looking for another way to see things.

Transitional Schematic (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)
RW: Do human cities behave like gigantic organisms?

Quantified Separation (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)
DZ: Human cities are gigantic organisms, with highways, train tracks, and shipping lanes as conduits or circulatory systems that bring nutrients in from the outside and some of the waste back out. They are connected to and a part of all the other organisms that inhabit our thin surface later. In some ways, they are extremely efficient and economical and yet can be seen as a symptom of imbalance. They cannot sustain themselves without constant input from outside resources. But there are lots of interesting things going on within them, so it could be that the balance might even out eventually. It's hard to know the ecological value of the culture that cities produce.

Sectional Regression (2007, ink and acrylic on paper)
RW: I suppose it's possible that our cities are enormous biological machines that devour resources and convert them into art, culture, different types of communication, and a whole lot of garbage.

DZ: Certainly, but machines can be controlled externally (at least, they are designed to be). Cities are colonies, composed of individuals, each of whom makes countless choices at any given moment. How can one even contemplate any kind of control over such mayhem? Even trying to nudge in a given direction becomes a monumental undertaking. And I think we agree that the waste products of these machines, or colonies, or whatever we call them, are becoming increasingly problematic. Our little world is a closed system, after all.

RW: Absolutely agreed.

So, in what direction do you see your work going in the next few years?

DZ: I have no idea where the work will go next. The thing that keeps me interested is not knowing. I have many ideas for new things to introduce to the mix, but they're too numerous to list, and I don't know which ones I'll actually use. I like the process of slow evolution in the drawings. The work kind of regenerates itself in ways that I can't predict. At the moment, I still get satisfaction from working this way, from the slow, methodical accumulation of marks on paper, but some day it may just drive me nuts.

RW: [LOL] Well, I certainly hope that doesn't happen any time soon!

DZ: I think I'll be okay for a while.


RW: Thanks to you, Dan, for a great conversation.

DZ: You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

Daniel Zeller is represented in New York by Pierogi and in Los Angeles by the Daniel Weinberg Gallery.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Friday, September 25, 2009

We Will Rock U--Part Five (End)

As a quick conclusion to my series on the Rockefeller University, I'd just like to mention some of the more recent things going on there.

First of all in 2000, as part of the same development as the renovation of Peggy Rockefeller Plaza (which it was impossible to not mention earlier), they put up the Campus Pedestrian Bridge between Weiss and the Scholar's residence.
Click for larger.
--All photos ©2009, Ryan Witte.
Designed by Wendy Evans Joseph, it was the first cable-stayed pedestrian bridge in New York and won all kinds of awards. I still remember reading about it when it was first constructed. Since it leads to a residential building and I felt it best to not go wandering around through the buildings' interiors too much, I didn't get to walk across it, but it's a very suave bit of civil engineering.

At the complete opposite end of the campus, a new addition is going in that connects Flexner Hall with another laboratory building from 1931, Theobald Smith Hall by CSBA:

Seen here from the terrace of Abby Aldrich:
I also didn't discuss Smith Hall because, with the construction going on, it's impossible to get over there and it's also a bit torn up, anyway. The addition is called the Collaborative Research Center, because it ties together various laboratories, and therefore scientists working in a variety of fields. It will give the people working in each of the two buildings more opportunities to intermingle. The architecture is by Mitchell/Giurgola, and it's slated for completion around this time next year. Perhaps when it's finished I'll return for an addendum to these posts.

The Collaborative Bioscience Center Annex is just about finished, with architecture by KlingStubbins.

Although they don't appear to have done anything else in New York, KlingStubbins has done some really sleek, impressive work, I'll have to say. Since I've been talking about casinos lately, they also designed the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Culinary Delights

Going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum is a fantastic little show entitled Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid. I highly recommend it. I was actually expecting a very stuffy, high-brow examination of this painting in historical context. Quite the contrary, this show is not only instructive, but intimate, personal, and downright funny. There are also somewhat complicated Feminist issues being alluded to by the discussion, but I'll let someone else travel down that bumpy road.

I had actually missed the retrospective of Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) when it was going around the United States in the 1990s. If I remember correctly, I think it bypassed New York and the closest it got was the National Gallery in D.C. But that summer, a friend of mine and I were traveling all around Europe, and got to Amsterdam while the retrospective was in The Hague. We figured we were already close enough, and The Hague seemed an interesting side-trip, a bit off the beaten path. So we went for two days and a night so we could see the Vermeer. He didn't really do all that many paintings, I think it's something like thirty-five altogether, and I think the retrospective included pretty much all of them. It was quite wonderful. So I'd seen all these pieces and studied them somewhat closely before, but as I told another friend when the Met show opened, I don't think you can ever really see too much Dutch Renaissance.

Anyhow, a first section explains how milkmaids and kitchen workers in general had a reputation--or "were assigned" the reputation--for being ~ahem~ amorous. The similarity between a milkmaid milking a cow and...other activities...was not lost on these painters or viewers of the works. These paintings have enough subtly and not-so-subtly sexual imagery to make a 1970s advertising executive start foaming at the mouth.

Click that and look at her back, right above his left hand.
--Credit there in the image.

This is the earliest piece in the show.
Peter Wtewael, Kitchen Scene (1620s, oil on canvas)
Her putting the chicken on the spit is so blatantly obvious it's almost hard to believe this is a painting from the 1600s. It's practically obscene and totally hilarious. But then there's also his hand holding the jug, also quite suggestive of certain

It's not all fun and games, however, here's one without as much suggestiveness:

Hendrick Sorgh, A Kitchen (ca. 1643, oil on wood)
Sorgh's piece is more just a reflection on the lives of these women, tending house for a wealthy middle-class family in the Netherlands. Text in the show also mentions how the middle-class grew to such prominence in the Netherlands during this time, and the lower-class house workers became a favored subject amongst painters, no doubt for its brutal realities. The woman at center does look off to the right, though. Evidently an older version of this work included a man entering with fish for sale, likely suggesting some erotic interlude. The posture and position of the woman on the left is remarkably similar to that of Vermeer's milkmaid.

Emanuel de Witte, Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft (1650, oil on wood)
De Witte (1616-1690) is surely one of my ancestors, or at least, descended from one common to me. Since the name is relatively uncommon, I get excited about things like this. Very likely, he and I could both trace our lineage back to the Wittisheim or Witternheim communes in Alsace. I guess it's only fitting then that I adore this piece in so many ways. There's another, almost identical view of the Oude Kerk by Hendrick van Vliet, but I thought it'd be better to support the work of my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great-uncle twice removed instead (that's thirteen "greats"). I wish I could find a more similar view, but here's the Oude Kerk in a lovely photograph by Theo Jacobs:

But click on de Witte's piece. First of all, it's a beautifully precise architectural rendering, which I love, of course. The quality of the light foretells the work of Vermeer and painters like him. And I just had to laugh. The boys at the left are tagging the column with graffiti. It'd be awesome to visit and examine that column very, very carefully to see if there are still remnants of graffiti on that spot. Even better, there's a dog peeing on the column on the right. Again, the realism is astounding, as is the painter's sense of irreverence for his sacred architectural subject.

Back to the sex, we have this one:
Gerrit Dou, The Kitchen Maid (ca. 1650, oil on wood)
This is the original. The piece at the Met is an engraving of it done about a century later. Dou's kitchen maid is incredibly lusty. Her surroundings are just chock full of all these objects that, to a viewer in 1650, would have been completely, blatantly sexual and suggestive of parts of the body where your bathing suit covers. The orifice of the jug she's pouring and the carrots are particularly obvious. I'm going to take a guess that the open lantern is an invitation for the viewer to light her passions aflame. The look on her face is about as come-hither as it gets.

Some of the objects on view in this show made it especially fantastic. They show pottery almost identical in style and age to the ones in Vermeer's painting. Not the one on display at the Met, but very similar is this Westerwald stoneware jug:

Westerwald Stoneware Jug (ca. 1650-1700)
--Photo courtesy H. Paul Garland.
The one in Vermeer's scene and the one on display have a pewter lid and slightly different design, but it's clear these were quite common at the time. The Met also shows a couple of earthenware kitchen vessels remarkably similar to the ones in the painting. In other words, when the exhibition is described as putting the painting into a context, they really mean in every possible way. It's such a delightful work of curatorship by Walter Liedtke from the department of European paintings.

Vermeer was quite a bit more subtle when it comes to l'amour than some of the other, more crass examples in the show, but one little detail was quite interesting. It's a ceramic tile in the lower right hand corner of the painting with the figure of cupid on it. It's very easy to miss if you're not looking closely. To illustrate all the better, the Met had next to the kitchen vessels an example of such a tile:

Delft tile depicting cupid (ca. 1650-1700, tin-glazed pottery)
--Photo courtesy Essential Vermeer.

Johannes Vermeer, A Maid Asleep (ca. 1657, oil on canvas)
Here Vermeer has already started to explore the subject of romance amongst household workers. The door left ajar and the position of the chair on the right indicates the recent departure of a gentleman caller. The maid is dreaming about the guy, of whom she's obviously quite fond. On her face is the remnant of a sort of peaceful smile.

Here it is, the painting touted as his "masterpiece":

Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1658, oil on canvas)
It really is a gorgeous painting. So much of Vermeer's work was masterful, however, I think I'd be hard-pressed to decide on a favorite. Nonetheless, it really is fantastic and the Met describes it as such because it was a transitional piece for Vermeer. The orifice of the milk jug has the same connotations here. The cupid tile is on the wall at bottom right, just next to that wooden box, which is a foot warmer. One might be tempted to wonder if these paintings weren't sort of like pin-ups. The only problem, really, is their intended audience. Presumably the consumer of such a piece would be an upper-middle class man with adulterous fantasies about the woman working in his kitchen. It leads to all kinds of creepy exploitative implications.

This is that guy's wife or potential girlfriend:

Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662, oil on canvas)
Here Vermeer switched from the servant of the house to the mistress of the house. This is an upper-middle class woman who the presumed owner of the painting would have courted. The map indicates worldliness. Here the pitcher isn't shown with its orifice on display, but rather concealed from view. Furthermore the bowl in which it sits is a symbol of purity. The faceted planes of the pitcher are rendered with these beautiful bands of reflected color. Those bands travel up her arm and are mirrored by the pleats in her collar, leading to her head, connecting her mindset directly to those symbols of purity. The headdress is the type of garment that would be worn during the morning toilette, alluding to a relatively intimate aspect of ordinary daily life. Another painting in the exhibition, A Young Woman at Her Toilet with a Maid (ca. 1651) by Gerard Ter Borch, who was a bit older but a contemporary of Vermeer's, describes a similar scene but with the tinge of vanity.

There are quite a few other interesting paintings in the show that really round out this examination. I've decided not to mention them, but they are definitely worth going to see. It's a very impressive little show.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The beginning of the 1990s would seem to be a good place to start Part 2 in discussing Donald Trump. Perhaps his heyday, for a brief moment in time he was building relatively better buildings. Of course, to say that a Trump building is good architecture is extremely relative, sort of like saying that a black velvet painting is a good rendering of Elvis Presley. But during this time, he did put up a few things I can fault a bit less.

Trump Palace (1991)
New York City
I am perfectly willing to admit that this is not a terrible work of architecture, at all. In fact, it's got a sort of Machine Age robustness to it that I very much appreciate.
Its proportions and detailing are handled quite adeptly. It also contrasts its hard, blocky massing with an almost elegantly soft silhouette. I'm not sure I would find it to be a particularly delightful place to live, it's a bit too strong and lacks a certain human sensibility. For one thing, balconies 300 feet in the air with no buffer or anything are a complete waste of time...not to mention money. But as architecture goes, it's very well done.

Trump International Hotel and Tower (1997)
[formerly Gulf & Western Building (1971), Thomas E. Stanley]
New York City
Renovation by Philip Johnson
I pass by this building on my way to work, and I really do like it. I think it has a sort of starkly linear, glossy majesty to it. Certainly there is a lot about it that's derivative; the first thing that comes to my mind is Eero Saarinen's CBS Building with its similarly diagonally-oriented piers. This one is also kind of a cheap copy of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Building. But I think it has its own merits, and furthermore, no one would ever describe Johnson as being particularly original with a straight face. His strengths were elsewhere. I also really appreciate his self-referencing the 1964 World's Fair. Trump International is still a little bit on the banal side, to be sure, but definitely an improvement on what it looked like before.
--Photo courtesy Corbis.
There you can see it adjacent to Edward Durell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle, another of the "Ugliest" buildings decided upon by people who clearly have no clue what they're talking about. Why the New York Coliseum (at center) didn't make it onto any lists, I have no idea. I'd have had no argument with that.

Trump Place: 200 (1999), 180 (1999), & 160 Riverside Boulevard (2001)
New York City
Philip Johnson and Costas Kondylis
--All Trump Place photos courtesy Wired.
Continued below...

New York City
(possibly Marta Rudzki for) Costas Kondylis Architects
One of the more controversial buildings he built, as many of you remember, World blocked numerous river views from adjacent (and no doubt pricey) apartments and cast a huge shadow over the rest. It may be the reason Trump mostly abandoned New York and began building in other cities where he'd get less community resistance. As I said before, I think Kondylis is a great match for Trump. I'm not convinced that, in 2001, we really needed another work of Minimalist architecture in New York. But as Minimalism goes, this building is glorious. From some angles in some lighting conditions, its façades look as if they could be made of one giant, solid sheet of glass. From others, the rigorous pattern of its window bays displays an unapologetic order unmatched in most other skyscrapers.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida
The funny thing about this is that everywhere lists this as a Michael Graves building, which redeems Trump slightly. The website, however, describes it as "Michael Graves inspired architecture" by Oscar Garcia. For a brief moment, I put a very contemptuous smirk on my face at this clever deception. It is a Graves building, though. Graves has it on his website, as well. I'll commend Trump for hiring an illustrious architect, but Graves was clearly just going through the motions. It has a somewhat personably proportioned street presence, but the primary colors are obnoxious. And the "I'm a cruise ship now" porthole windows are way too corny and obvious, even for Michael Graves. Garcia has done some interesting and quite subtly sculptural work. He's been particularly successful at times with a vaguely Latin-esque and decidedly Floridian typology.

Trump Place: 140 (2003), 220 (2003), 120 (2004), & 240 Riverside Boulevard (2005)
New York City
Costas Kondylis Architects
Again, Kondylis comes through with some nice, solid work. There's nothing particularly striking about this group of buildings, and I definitely think they'd have been well served by a little bit more stylistic cohesion. Having said that, Kondylis and Johnson seem to have referenced the historical language of New York's skyscrapers quite wonderfully. In a very nicely pared-down form, with the exception maybe of 120 Riverside, they would seem to recall buildings from the first third of the twentieth century. I wouldn't be surprised if the historical references were Johnson's contribution, although he had more or less abandoned Postmodernism at this point. I do find it a little disturbing, however, that this is such an enormous parcel of riverside property. It seems unnecessarily greedy somehow, even for Trump.

White Plains, New York
Costas Kondylis Architects
--Image courtesy 10 City Center.
Up in White Plains, it all starts to fall apart. Whatever happened to the grace Kondylis displayed in earlier works, I have no idea, but this shows none of it. Stodgy, awkward, uninspired, and painfully detailed, this is a real disappointment.

There are also various indications that Trump was somehow involved with the Acqualina Ocean Residences and Resort in Sunny Isles Beach, completed in 2005 with architecture by Robert M. Swedroe. It's about as tacky as Postmodernism gets but of course is described as having all kinds of "architectural splendor," disturbingly. It would appear Trump was only one of many developers involved with the project, so I'm not going to go into any more detail. More on Swedroe to come.

Sunny Isles Beach, Florida

Click these images: the files are huge and the photography is gorgeous.
That's the Palace on the left and the International Sonesta on the right. Here's the Sonesta:
This is the Palace, the Royale is its mirror image:
I thought I'd close out this installment here, because I think they're some of the best buildings Trump ever built. Certainly they wouldn't work in New York or many other places, but for their location, they're incredible. The practice of Charles Sieger and Jose Suarez is a mostly corporate firm that I'm not convinced I would trust to design a smaller, more intimate residence, but the architecture here is out of control. It's dynamic, sculptural, futuristic, and contextually appropriate. There's something ethereal about it that just screams Florida, and in a delightfully hip 1960s sort of way, but without being a throwback. The view of Sonesta from the beach:
The squared-off tower emerging like a chrysalis from the cocoon of the Sonesta's elliptical, terraced outer shell is particularly magical. That end seems to almost peel itself open in the most tantalizing way. The opposite façade presents a dramatic, sharp prow and a majestic but uncommon symmetry to the oceanfront.

The sort of overturned catamaran forms crowning the Palace and the Royale work so beautifully on a seaside site, but without being overly literal or blatantly symbolic. They're like giant, bright white futuristic machines. Machines that would perform what function, it'd be impossible to say, but they have the feel of enormous wind turbines or similar. The detailing of the window mullions creates a delightful texture from afar, and an almost Mondrianesque visual intrigue at closer range. In my humble opinion, they are a tour de force.

Unfortunately, this is the peak. Problems start to appear again in part three.

©2009, Ryan Witte