JOHN WELWYN CLARK
REFLECTIONS: THE FUNCTION OF FORM
opening reception: Friday, May 31st, 2013
The Function of Form: Blurring Boundaries
My paintings deal with related themes. They blend art and architecture, and explore themes common to both. They are concerned with fundamental form, nature, and optics / reflections. I often develop several themes concurrently, in painting and architecture. These themes may overlap, or influence one another. They oscillate between abstract and semi-representational: Drawing from nature to give more force and authenticity to abstraction. Following is a loose grouping of these themes:
These paintings began as abstracted water paintings. Originally I began painting an abstracted Monet "Giverny" series, with modules that could be grouped with other paintings to form larger, more complex images. As individual paintings became more complicated, they appeared interesting by themselves, without additional images attached to them. Still, the idea of assembling larger paintings from a series of smaller paintings, and allowing this arrangement to be flexible, remains interesting. This is like using modules in the development of architecture; or like constructing a poem through a series of pictograms, as is done in Chinese.
These paintings merge four to sixteen-square grids with concentric circles. I began these after painting a series of water ripples in perspective, but the mandala paintings are flat and planar, without perspective. Paint is used as a fluid medium, to represent water as well as paint itself. The structured framework provides an opportunity to paint freely.
Nine- and sixteen-square grids have long been a predominant, trans-cultural way of structuring pictures, space, and architecture. These and similar grids prevail in art and architecture as a fundamental structure for drawings, plans, sections, for organizing spaces. This organization is as basic and fundamental as an X, to which it relates. It seems we are predisposed to these basic patterns. These frameworks provide simply replicable and extendable patterns, which these paintings also explore.
The Tango series is similar to Mandala, but focuses on the intersection of two sets of radiating concentric circles. These begin a fusion of Asian and Western painting traditions. with staining, washes, and direct brushstrokes.
The Dance series explores reflections of linear elements, which may be trees or architectural mullions, or simply lines. Reflections of linear elements remind me of the fluid Chinese style of calligraphy called "grass script", which has a compelling similarity to vertical reflections on water. Calligraphy, and the movement of light, shadow, and reflections on water, all involve time and movement, with fast and slow rhythms. Calligraphy seems not so much a preconceived artform as one that is fluid, responsive, and expressive. In this way it is like dance.
Dance (Diagrid): One series of Dance paintings uses diagrids as regulating lines. These explore reflections, similar to those in water or glass curtain walls, with superimposed structure or implicit pattern. These paintings arise from the incidental reflections we find everywhere throughout our environment. Reflections are remarkably complex: They invert and abstract, paint and reshape our environment.
The Prairie series is similar to the Dance series in the sense that they develop from linear reflections. Rather than being directly representational, they are abstractions or reminiscences. Prairie refers to open grasslands, reflections in Midwestern ponds, and also the diagonal "regulating lines" used in Prairie School architecture.
The Waveform paintings continue the thinking of other painting series like Mandala, but use layering or extrusion like axonometric drawing to suggest vertical form. These paintings are like the early stages of architectural thinking.
Ingmar Bergman's description of the film process reminds me of the early very abstract stages of painting or architectural thinking:
"A film for me begins with something very vague—a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation. It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street....These are split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet leave behind a mood—like pleasant dreams. It is a mental state, not an actual story, but one abounding in fertile associations and images. Most of all, it is a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious. If I begin to wind up this thread, and do so carefully, a complete film will emerge."
Much has been written about the similarity of film and architecture: Both are four-dimensional "time arts" that need to be experienced over time, spatially, to be understood. Many early film directors, like Fritz Lang and Sergei Eisenstein, first studied architecture. This vague mental state that Bergman describes reminds me, for example, of Alvar Aalto's vague yet pregnant initial architectural sketches, where form is first struggling to emerge from "the dark sack of the unconscious." Because they are vague, these initial sketches are pregnant with possibility.
Modular concepts: Sullivan ornament
Often I think in terms of modules, of component or unit elements that can grow or be grouped into larger assemblies or structures. Here, sketches loosely based on ornament designed by Louis Sullivan for the Guaranty Building are assembled in a modular way. This modular assembly is reminiscent of the way Sullivan replicated his designs in cast terra cotta. These drawings, though, are not drawn directly from Sullivan ornament, but from ornament a friend of mine cast for me, which I modified during the fabrication process. I had wanted copies of Sullivan's ornament developed for the Guaranty building, and since I couldn't find any, we made some. So they are drawn from casts that are themselves my interpretations of Sullivan's ornament.
The Guaranty Building was completed in Buffalo New York in 1895. Sullivan saw its design as a culminating achievement. Its elevation has a characteristic three-part composition: a wide-windowed base for ground-level retail; the main nine-story office block, expressed with vertical masonry ribbons rising unimpeded to emphasize the building's height and singular function; and an ornamented top floor and cornice, perforated by round windows, which houses the building's mechanical units. Its cornice is alive with ornament. Column moldings unite in a continuous flowing rhythm, rising from base to top, where they wrap around each arch to run down the next shaft to its base in a smoothly flowing sequence.
The main massing of Sullivan's buildings is spare and crisp, with broad planar surfaces. Yet these surfaces are often alive with ornament that erupts at edges and focal areas. Sullivan carefully cultivated his ornament as the intensely personal and idiosyncratic expression of his design philosophy. It ranges from organic forms like interlacing vines and ivy, to more erotic or geometric designs. It was usually cast in iron or terra cotta, since these materials are lightweight and more easily malleable than stone masonry.
Sullivan saw himself as a creative force of nature, working to release architecture from the constraints of material. He was not interested in depicting nature, but in working as nature did. Like the Nietzschean “superman,” he imitated nature’s behavior, or “will to form”. He worked to express the innate existence will of his age. Manic and mystical, he empathized with built form. He delighted in creativity, experiencing the erotic through the act of creation. Though their work is very different, Jackson Pollock's later statement, "I am nature," reminds me of Sullivan.
Wright called Sullivan's ornament "erotic": which it often is. Wright's wife Olgivanna mentions that after his death she discarded a number of erotic ornamental drawings that Wright himself had drawn. Oligivanna was not especially prudish. Since Wright tended towards heavy abstraction, to extract the "essence" of things, I often wonder what drawings he might have made that were so overtly erotic as to compel her to discard them.
More recent paintings push further towards abstraction. They explore themes similar to the ones described above, but these themes are more sublimated. They explore common areas between figurative painting, architecture and design.
I am a Chicago based architect and planner, and partner in a diversified architecture and planning firm. I am also a painter. Painting for me is an end in itself, as well as a means of exploring themes, often those related to architecture and design. At a time when so much process is computerized, I consider painting especially important because it deals directly with form, harmony, color, and theme: freely, and independently of technical demands. Work that unites concerns of various disciplines, blurring boundaries between architecture and painting, music and abstract form, is especially interesting to me. Extending disciplines by merging and abstracting them seems more interesting than the artificial separations that have now become so prevalent.
Chicago architecture uses modules, repeated form, unit systems, in ways that can approach a musical state. The Chicago architect Bruce Graham called architecture "the most abstract of all the arts": even more abstract than music. Graham, an otherwise apparently pragmatic architect of enormous buildings such as Chicago's Hancock and Sears Towers, seemed semi-mystical when he discussed the city as a multi-dimensional grid. Every art likes to claim pride of center. Architecture, though, has often been an art that acknowledges and embraces all others. Certainly it is influenced by all others, and often either incorporates or houses other art forms.
Nature has long been a basis for architecture, as it has been for art: undoubtedly for as long as both art and architecture have existed. We cannot not relate to nature and the natural environment. Nature's primacy to painting is well understood. In architecture, "Green Design" and the recent Biomorphic movement are overt expressions of nature's importance. Yet these merely revisit, with new means, metabolism, the Prairie Style and transcendentalism of Sullivan and Wright; or the bio-mechanical design of Viollet le Duc and Ruskin. Soon we will be able to "grow" buildings with programmed biology, so that nature and architecture will be even more directly united.
The connection of painting to architecture is often overt. Cezanne seems to me an architectural painter: his paintings are "built," in a way that Renoir's, for example, are not. So too are the paintings of Picasso, Matisse, Morandi. Mondrian, Stella, Marden, and Scully are even more overtly architectural: They build their paintings in a way that pertains directly to contemporary architectural composition. Their paintings incorporate a visual logic of load and support, unit systems, and even painting on individual canvases and assembling them like bricks. Some associations of painting and architecture for me are more personal: Brice Marden's wiggly lines in his later paintings remind me of Felix Candela tracing a room's outline with a shaky hand on my student projects; or Cy Twombly's vague forms, and Alvar Aalto's initial sketches as he struggled to conceptualize a building.
When I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we studied the gridded reflections in mirror glass on Michigan Avenue in front of the Art Institute, and then tied one another to trees in a nearby park to simulate figures in leaded glass. Then we went back to studio and to draw this experience.
The art historian Kenneth Clark, in his essay "Diagram and the Blot", argued that buildings inherited the grid and painting the blot. The reflections of clouds in the reflective glass of buildings recombines the two.
Seeing an exhibit of Wright's drawings while a student at the Art Institute, I was fascinated by their line and structure. I was also intrigued that these drawings, which were beautiful in themselves, implied habitable spaces: they had function. You could imagine yourself within the spaces depicted.
Wright was a protean creator who inspired entire movements around the world. He called his leaded glass at the Coonley Playhouse "the first Mondrians," and in a sense he was right: His architecture had a tremendous influence on architecture and design in Holland. It directly inspired Mondrian's friends, especially Van Doesburg, and can be credited as an influence on the direction Mondrian's painting took. Mondrian's statement "The more the natural is abstracted, the more pronounced is the relationship" is one Wright would have agreed with.
Wright's example, and the exuberant creativity of Gaudi's work, showed how art and building could blend. Architecture has long been Chicago's most powerful art form. And it's all pervasive: In Chicago it's impossible not to be strongly affected by architecture.
Later, when I taught on the faculty of the School of the Art Institute in the "Time Arts" department, I blended art, architecture, with other arts such as painting, film, and dance. The Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein, like many filmmakers at the time, had been trained as an architect before becoming a filmmaker. Eisenstein diagrammed his films with graphic scores that indicate how camera movement, image movement, musical score, script, and tone interrelate through time. This suggested parallels with architecture, considering movement in time, and became a basis for my approach to teaching architecture to art students. I even taught a few classes in tandem with the dance department. Many choreographers have felt that dance and architecture share the same concern: this shared concern is space. Dancing bodies and architecture both shape and manipulate space. The director of the dance department at the time, Tom Jaremba, had read the work of a Viennese philosopher who said that architecture and dance were the only true art forms. (Ezra Pound similarly described the primacy of dance when he wrote, "... music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance; that poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music; but this must not be taken as implying that all good music is dance music or all poetry lyric. Bach and Mozart are never too far from physical movement.") So we co-taught some classes that explored movement, architecture, and dance. Other classes I taught focused more directly on painting and drawing.
For as long as I can remember I've drawn and painted. I've always been interested in many things, and drawing has been a way to explore and understand them. In grade school my interests and drawings ranged from dinosaurs, rocks and minerals, birds, insects, fish, airplanes, plants, and war. I spent countless hours drawing and painting: mucking around with paint, making shapes and images. Young children draw and paint a lot: far more than adults. The impulse to draw and paint, to depict things seen or imagined, seems innate. The computer encourages copying images by replicating them. Importing and replicating images wholesale, and not drawing them from scratch, is not the same thing, and does not engage with things the same way drawing does. Once you draw a thing you possess it in a way that you don't when you look at a picture, take a photograph, or use photomechanics instead of hand drawing to copy an image.
The impulse to make marks, and paint, is probably as old as humanity. Paleolithic cave paintings from France are more than 30,000 years old. The caves that housed these paintings were not used for human habitation: Apparently they were places of ritual, like our cathedrals. Many of these paintings look remarkably accomplished, as though painted by an early Renoir. Often the drawn forms are sleek and streamlined and could be as readily applied to an automobile or spacecraft as to a bison. They suggest that the tradition of painting actually has a far longer history than we've yet discovered. They also suggest a period of apprenticeship and practice. Perhaps there were schools of cave painting, and even cave critics. Cave paintings, though old, do not seem like early works. Like many people, I am directly related by DNA to these early European painters, and so am perhaps genetically predisposed to painting walls. Canvases of course are merely portable walls, or portions of walls.
In Paleolithic times, traditions of painting apparently extended far longer. Apparently an artist would come along a thousand or five thousand years later and paint directly alongside a prior artist's work, in a tremendously protracted visual dialogue. Lately art cycles have been speeding up until now they are measured by year rather than decade or century. Art too often is rapidly deemed outdated. Many now even deem painting as an activity itself outdated. Too often each new generation seems oblivious to what's come before, and are often too quick to believe they are discovering for the first time things that have actually long existed.
In art, in keeping with a culture of obsolescence, there has also been a movement away from teaching drawing as an academic discipline. Increasingly, drawing from life, or drawing altogether, is considered unnecessary to the production of art. Often it is replaced with photomechanical or electronic methods of producing images. Computerization furthers this trend. Computers facilitate the creation of new art forms. Certainly in architecture computers have supplanted what used to be the physically demanding yet enjoyable process of direct drawing by hand. This change to computerization has also changed the way people learn architecture, because now apprentices can copy a detail instead of drawing it. In art schools it's the same. Yet unless they're drawing, students aren't looking as hard or seeing as much.
This is not to imply any devaluation of art created by computers. On the contrary, as a fellowship juror at the Art Institute of Chicago, I was on the first jury to give an award for computer graphics. We had long discussions about whether they were art: At first I was the only juror to argue strenuously that they were, and should be acknowledged. Probably not coincidentally, I was also the first architect to be a fellowship juror (this was before the school taught architecture as a distinct discipline, which it now does.) While I acknowledge the importance of computer graphics, I don't feel they are more important than drawing.
The impulse to draw is deeply human. It doesn't go away. It is better expressed in children, who approach it like play, and are eager to draw what they see or imagine. Society now has less place for it. And too often schools allow children little time for drawing. Yet unless one is still drawing, the process of seeing and visual learning is less intense and immediate. You look harder when you draw. You see more. And you can change what you see while you're drawing it. There is a supple and deep relationship between mind and hand that should still be cultivated in the arts. Fortunately computers are now developing programs that allow a more direct drawing process that doesn't require right-brained impulses to be translated or filtered.
When arguing to reposition art to make it more potent, Sean Scully argues that Warhol and Lichtenstein are over-specialized dead ends. Scully wants to reinvigorate painting. There has been a movement in past decades away from painting and making expressive marks. Donald Judd and others have argued that the expressive brushstrokes of abstract expressionist painters such as Kline, de Kooning, or Guston, were merely furthering the romantic and emotive naturalism of earlier expressionist art movements, which in turn continued that of nineteenth century romantic painters. So Kline, from this reductive standpoint, was little else than a nineteenth century landscape painter.
Scully sees Johns as conflating emotion with abstract form, restoring a human sense that was lost, and wants to further this effort to restore relevance to the medium of painting. Scully does this with forceful images. But when he says he's been painting stripes for decades, and knows that in ten years he'll still be painting stripes, he seems to have straight-jacketed himself. Of course Scully's stripes are wonderful. But knowing that in ten years they'll lead to more stripe paintings seems to short-circuit exploration in exchange for the formulaic.
If a theme is interesting, to me it doesn't matter what its pedigree or artistic chronology is. Our lives are short: But it seems future generations may be able to at least double their lifespans. If this happens, will artists still base entire careers on tightly repeated forms or themes, even in the same media? Or will they once again allow themselves greater freedom, and the freedom to explore many media?
Writing on Van Gogh, Sean Scully said, "Photography in particular is an art form that came along exactly at the right cultural-historical moment to put some distance between us and what we were doing to the world." This is in contrast to Van Gogh's very visceral grasp of the world through his art: a grasp that in turn gripped him, perhaps too intensely. Scully, who is an abstract painter and in fundamental ways an architectural one, sees the painter's abandoning representation as a natural corollary of photography's rise. The paradox though is that he also sees the resulting separation of the artist from environment that this leads to.
For me some of the most insistent examples of the power of painting are the paintings by my friends, the artists DaHuang and Shanzuo Zhou who came to Chicago from China. They provide a powerful example of art as a way of life. The two brothers were born in China and arrived in Chicago during the mid-eighties. They create their art together. Sometimes they paint simultaneously on remote areas of a canvas, each concentrating on his own passage. One may pause while the other paints, then respond by adding to or somehow enhancing the brushstrokes or wash the other has made. Their painting is a visual dialogue. Eventually they each work on most parts of a painting, fusing the work of one with the other. They have painted so long together that, even while watching them create their work, it becomes difficult to see where one has left off and the other has begun. Their act of creating art is itself performance art. Often they make paintings before large audiences at special events around the world, which are as much about the act of painting as about the finished work itself.
Much of their work features subtly blended light and dark grays and whites, cut by bold black heavy calligraphic strokes and figures. A few thin whimsical crimson lines weaved through the painting before finishing in a spiral flourish off to the edge. Large areas are intentionally left blank. Their painting fuses western expressionist and neo-expressionist influences with primordial forms and the long tradition of Chinese painting and calligraphy. Their work is both severely crude and strangely elegant. Where so much contemporary Chinese painting seems stiff and derived from the poster painting that prevailed during Mao Tse-tung’s regime, the Zhou’s paintings seem to have far deeper roots in Taoist aspects of China’s culture.
Lately, I have been working with the Zhous on a resort complex anticipated for their home town in China that blends architecture with painting and sculpture, and that will incorporate a museum for their painting and a sculpture park for their sculpture. The architecture incorporates aspects of their artwork as inhabitable art.
For millennia, and during recent centuries, the boundaries between painting, art, craft, design, and architecture, have been blurred. There has been frequent crossover between fields. In the Renaissance, many accomplished painters turned towards architecture later in their careers. Architects like Brunelleschi also developed the three-point perspective that became a predominant basis for painting. But especially over the past century, narrowing specialization has also led to greater separation between the arts. Hopefully this is changing, especially through the development of technologies that enable and enhance the creation of architecture.
Architecture, sculpture, and painting are related but very different arts. I don't believe that art is necessarily useless, despite insistence to the contrary for the past century by many from Wilde to Serra. Richard Serra, after Guggenheim / Bilbao was built, said that its architect Frank Gehry wasn't an artist because architecture is useful, and art isn't. Of course the Guggenheim / Bilbao goes far beyond being merely useful and satisfying merely utilitarian needs. A definition of art that doesn't recognize it as art seems surprisingly narrow, even in this age of over-specialization.
Serra's insistence that art be useless extends beyond his own work. With his Tilted Arc, he rendered a plaza useless to subordinate it to his sculpture. This insistence on uselessness seems an overly narrow view of art, and one that wouldn't have been widely accepted until the last century. Art has long been used to communicate, educate, evoke, instruct, inspire. In Paleolithic times it was apparently used for ceremony and ritual. Cave wall imagess likely gave early artists a sense of oneness with or power over the images depicted. The use of art by Catholicism and many other religions has a similar function.
Architecture, in addition to its more practical uses, also has social, cultural, and cerebral functions. Painting and drawing also have social, cultural, and cerebral functions: These functions are obscured, however, by being less necessary for mere survival. This may seem to stretch the concept of function. Yet good art can change the way we see things. The forms, subjects, and elements it uses can assist thought. Art is a different way of thought, one that frees us. Though not necessary for survival, it seems necessary for life, or at least for life that is elevated above the basic.
A more reasonable attitude towards art than Serra's was expressed over a thousand years ago by Bai Juyi, the 9th century Chinese painter, poet, and collector, who said, "If something suits my disposition, it is very useful." People are complicated, and their needs extend far beyond the merely utilitarian.
The practice of architecture promotes a way of seeing that may be different from other arts. Increasingly, I am interested in how people inhabit buildings, and how buildings inhabit nature or their environment. I often find that in art museums and galleries the movement of people walking among paintings and through gallery spaces is as interesting as the artwork displayed. The practice of architecture also seems to cultivate an aggressive way of seeing: Frequently I find myself mentally redesigning or rearranging a space, building, or environment. Innumerable visual decisions go into the making of a building. The number of left-handed (right brained) architects, and artists, is disproportionately high compared to the general population.
An example of the fusion of art and architecture, and a direct example of how painting can influence architecture and the environment are my designs for the 41st and 43rd Street Pedestrian Bridges over Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. These feature double-curved arch monotrusses to form large, graceful S-curves. These leisurely curves recall Olmsted’s original walkways for the Chicago Parks, while extending this park aesthetic westward over Lake Shore Drive. The horizontal and vertical curves of the bridges create a graceful urban promenade that is visually dynamic from any approach. Their structure continues Chicago’s tradition of muscular structural expressiveness. Their double curvature adds structural rigidity and wind resistance while having a simple profile with minimal detailing. Slender and elegant arches provide the structure for a curving deck that widens midspan and projects outwards to form grand balconies. The bridges glide gently to a rest in the park by ramps supported on tapering rustic prairie-stone. Energy-efficient lighting parallel to the surface of the deck provides continuous, low-glare illumination along the entire span of the bridges. This indirect lighting highlights the curving silhouettes of the bridges and adds visual drama to the landscape at night.
The Chicago Tribune's architectural critic Blair Kamin wrote of these bridges, “41st and 43rd Streets: It was crucial that this pair of bridges be visually in sync not only with each other, but also with the 35th Street Bridge because the trio will appear as a group to parkgoers and drivers. Fortunately, the winning design for a pair of S-shaped bridges meets that challenge and offers more: It promises to harmonize with the sinuous pathways of Burnham Park and the planned curving geometry of the mixed-income Lake Park Crescent housing development just west of the Metra tracks.... In that spirit, these bridges, while growing out of the Chicago tradition of expressing structure, would be anything but objects dropped into their surroundings.”
I had been painting wave images. The weaving curves of these bridges were informed by the weaving curves of these paintings. The earlier paintings at least represent a predisposition to this form, and encouraged sympathy to Olmsted's sinuous curves in his design for the lakefront. The bridge designs abstract this geometry, horizontally and vertically, and the form of the earlier paintings is still part of them, blended with function and fused with nature.
-- John W. Clark, Chicago, 2013