Richard Smith, 1975. Photo: Rowland Scherman. Courtesy of The Rowland Scherman Project.
WHEN RICHARD SMITH, the British painter who spent much of his life in the United States, passed away in Patchogue, Long Island, on April 15 at the age of eighty-four, he was less well known than when he first came to New York, on a Harkness Fellowship in 1959. He had every opportunity to grab the brass ring on the merry-go-round of contemporary art, but for reasons no one really understands, he chose not to, preferring to virtually disappear from the stage where he had once been a shining star. When he was young, he knew all the celebrities in swinging London as well as all the Pop and Minimalist artists in New York, where Dick Bellamy gave him one of the first solo shows launching the Green Gallery, ground zero of the 1960s avant-garde.
Originally, Smith engaged with the new culture of commodity packaging and advertising; he experimented with film and extended his paintings into the space of the room to such a degree that the stretched canvases almost became sculptures as they slid from the wall to the floor. As an artist, he had the best training in the classical manner, but he rejected the stodginess of the past. In a letter to his tutor at the Royal College of Art he wrote, “To your generation the 30s meant the Spanish civil war; to us it means Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” Astaire he certainly appeared to be: nimble and quick, amiable and charming. He wanted to look at ease, but there was always some nervousness and tension behind the relaxed facade.
Smith had everything going for him. He could draw, he could paint, and he was highly literate although never pretentious. He was a member of the generation that succeeded Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. It was a generation whose great achievements have been virtually obliterated by the fame of the YBA—the Young British Artists launched by public-relations magnate Charles Saatchi and “Sensation” curator Sir Norman Rosenthal. Smith was one of the OBA—Old British Artists—who were schooled at the Royal Academy and were born painters. (Smith told me that his appreciation of graphic art came from the fact that his father was a printer for the British Parliament.) Some were representational artists such as David Hockney, Malcolm Morley, and Derek Boshier. Others, such as Howard Hodgkin and John Walker, remained faithful to abstract art.
In the early years they stuck together, leaving London for the country and then for the US. In recent years, first Hockney and then Hodgkin achieved a prominence that the others, including Smith, did not. I think the OBA will far outlive the YBA in terms of art history because they were connected to it, and tried to stretch tradition and push it forward, as opposed to simply thumbing their collective nose at convention.
Richard Smith, Mask, 1983, oil on canvas, 96 x 96". All artwork images courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.
In the beginning, Smith worked on stretched canvas, first flat and then projecting into high relief, implying they might jump off the wall to become three-dimensional sculpture like the work of his friend Frank Stella. However, Smith always identified himself first and foremost as a painter, a creator of images, not objects. By the ’70s, he gave up three-dimensional shaped paintings in favor of unstretched canvases suspended from rods and interrupted by cords and threads hanging off and passing through them. He called these “Kites” because they resembled the form and buoyancy of the kites he flew with his young family. Gravity now became a key component in his work. He continued to make the “Kite” paintings throughout the ’80s, often multilayered, superimposed diagonals that made pictorial planes literal. In the next decade, he also painted more conventional works that married a highly individual color sense with geometric structure that was, however, not hard edged in the sense of Constructivism but, rather, soft and painterly.
Smith was originally grouped with the Pop artists because of his enthusiasm for film and popular culture, but he was unquestionably an abstract artist, who combined painterliness and visible brushstrokes with bold imagery, brash, clashing colors, and a new large scale that was distinctively American. This duality meant that in a sense he was a man without a country, living between identities. Indeed, it seemed he preferred the spaces in between styles and nationalities. Smith, like Hockney, was a Brit the Yanks could love. The artists went back and forth across the Atlantic, exhibiting in New York and in London with the eccentric and inimitable John Kasmin, who also showed the leading American painters of the ’60s. For someone who appeared very conventional, Smith managed to move around a great deal, switching galleries, studios, and even continents, so that both he and his art remained elusive. He was one of five artists who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1966; the following year, he won the Grand Prize at the Ninth São Paulo Bienal and exhibited in museums in Europe and North and South America throughout the ’70s. Always a huge fan of Smith’s paintings, I was delighted to write the catalogue for his 1975 Tate Gallery retrospective, “Seven Exhibitions, 1961–75.” Each of these shows was like a chapter that opened and closed on a series of paintings dealing with a set of pictorial problems in a truly original fashion.
At thirty-four, Richard Smith was world famous. Instead of resting on his laurels, however, he called the Tate show a “kind of kiss of death” and left London for New York in 1978, which turned out to be a fatal career move. He lived in various places in the US and became known as a public artist who created installations for airports and Michael Chow’s trendy restaurants in Los Angeles, New York, and London. These decorative installations further confused his reputation as an artist.
When writing the Tate catalogue, I visited Dick and his American wife Betsy in East Tytherton, a small village in Wiltshire near the great megalithic complexes of Stonehenge and Avebury. Being in the country gave him more time to experiment. His palette changed to more muted colors, and his way of working changed as well. He invented new forms that were light and buoyant that he could move himself. In these radically reduced paintings, he removed the canvas entirely from conventional wooden stretchers and began to emphasize the literal quality of the canvas support as a piece of cloth, thus undercutting any residual illusionism.
For reasons of personality or psychology, Smith was an insider who chose to remain an outsider. He was clearly having a dialogue with Color Field painting and with the literalism of specific objects and Minimalism, but his activity was always distanced from any group or movement or critic. He acknowledged, without buying into, the graphic immediacy of Pop art or the insistence on explicit flatness as the sine qua non of high-modernist painting that required effacing brushwork as optically distracting.
Richard Smith, Round Flight, c. 1985, acrylic on canvas, 10' x 95". All artwork images courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.
The unstretched “Kite” paintings are surface and surface alone. They assume their orientation as a result of gravity. Thread, string, ropes, or tapes articulate the thinly painted canvas ground, acting as a kind of literal drawing. Fragility is part of the content, a characteristic Smith shares with the delicate constructions of Richard Tuttle, or the wax surfaces of Jasper Johns or a younger artist such as Martin Kline.
There are as many contradictions in Smith’s works as there were in his personality. For example, he adopted the diagonal as opposed to the square as orientation in hanging his “Kite” paintings, which is more radical perhaps than it sounds, going back to the early Russian and Dutch avant-garde. The fundamentally geometric organization of forms characteristic of Smith’s work references Constructivism, but the tough structure is contradicted by Smith’s often pastel landscape palette and lyrical brushwork. However, it is precisely the tension of contradictions that keeps his work consistently alive and interesting. The “Kite” paintings defy the conventions of the rectangle. They are torqued and twisted in real space, rarely resting comfortably against the wall. The aluminum bars on which the canvas is stretched as well as the strings read as literal things at the same time as they function as linear drawing.
The unwillingness to trash history and decorum is part of Smith’s style. No matter how experimental, his works came out of the painting tradition and pushed it in new directions. Ironically, this is the direction that many young artists, sick of the macho rhetoric of heroism and gigantism, are exploring today in their rediscovery of the work of the French group Supports/Surfaces. And Smith’s “Kite” paintings have much in common with those painters who detached the canvas from its support in the late ’60s and ’70s. Smith’s deconstruction of the elements that constitute the conventions of easel painting was, however, more sophisticated and ambitious in its stubborn commitment to color contrast, light, and surface articulation as well as its redefinition of drawing.
The English are best known for their immense literary achievements rather than for their signal contributions to the history of painting. But when an exceptional British artist looks back to Constable and Turner, incorporating their technical skills and capacity to create texture and radiance in a thoroughly modern revision, then the result can be a Howard Hodgkin, a David Hockney, or a Richard Smith. Within this charmed circle, Smith was unique in his ability not only to revive and maintain tradition, but also to push painting forward to the point that it could stand with the most progressive, radical, and inventive art of its time.
Barbara Rose is a critic and curator based in New York and Madrid. Her exhibition “Painting After Postmodernism: Belgium-USA” opens September 14 in Brussels at the Vanderborgh and the Underground Cinema Gallery.
ON JANUARY 26, 2016, Zaha sent me a text saying, “Stevie Wonder, we must meet to celebrate forty years of friendship.” I hosted her and Thom Mayne at my apartment in the West Village two months later, on March 16.
I am still in shock over Zaha’s sudden departure from this world. I loved her deeply and valued our friendship beyond words. Here are a few projects in chronology:
The Launching Place—Unit 9, the Architectural Association London: Malevich’s Tektonik was made to sing, bridging the Thames. . . . Birds were astonished. Elia Zenghelis, Rem Koolhaas, and I lunged forward in our jury chairs.
Undulant ripple of the Museum of the Nineteenth Century climbing up and over. Struggling for independence in new space.
Irish Prime Minister’s Residence feeling the wall’s deep tendency to fly. Black and celadon green swirl with cobalt blue making new journeys from painting into architecture.
The mountain’s stratified layers explode into a suprematist geology; with the Peak, in Hong Kong, Zaha leaves this Earth in astonishing new space. Rhomboids fly toward unreachable centers. Floor plans leap and thrust, making a new right of way. An eye-wide hillside of tomorrow leaps with confident joy.
The World (89 Degrees): An amazing painting summarizing Zaha’s then seven-year journey. Already leaving our planet via paintings of astonishing architecture.
New York, Manhattan: A new calligraphy of plan departing from Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse for Manhattan correcting for the multilayered . . . compression and density, black with white flying lines, untwined confetti dream-level beginning.
Kurfürstendamm constraints become Berlin IBA Housing sheet-metal wedge-shaped lofts . . . stupor of yes and no. Stepping slowly into the physical from the painted dream.
Tokyo Tomigaya and Azabu-Jyuban releasing space in Blade Runner spirit piercing the Earth, slicing the landscape, toppling conventions . . . bird-future aleatory “breath light and air into the urban condition.”
Fire and ice of Moon Soon in Sapporo, Japan. Glacial tables drift across space. . . . A whirling fire swarms above. . . . Orange-red peeling, microspatial in a self-starred soul spiral.
Weil am Rhein Vitra Fire Station . . . the promise of new space in concrete full of inspiring detail! The hope of real joy of realization! The fire engine’s red lines written on the asphalt. We all attend this special opening. Philip Johnson is amazed and so influenced by Zaha he copies her geometry for a new pavilion at his Glass House.
“The Great Utopia”: Guggenheim design for an exhibition of Russian Suprematism and Constructivism circles back to Zaha’s launching place with Malevich at the AA in 1977.
Cardiff Bay Opera House, a winning competition design: a new bursting open of opera-house activities “like jewels in a necklace” bulging and joined together, dismantling taboos of architecture . . . flashing before the eyes then smashed by a pitchfork, niggling.
Luxembourg Philharmonic Hall, a landscape of volumetric compositions erupting in separate rounded volumes. A precursor of the opera house to be realized in Guangzhou.
Doha, Qatar, Museum of Islamic Art, a wholly original imagination of space and geometry . . . a landscape painting setting a new path for architecture like no other architecture to this day. Fluid and calligraphic.
Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, an urban carpet folding upward intersecting blocks of concrete. The push and pull of the paintings of Hans Hofmann.
MAXXI: Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome, a turning linear urban texture; vectors of movement drawn in concrete. The competition—among seven—was fierce. At the end of the presentations, Jean Nouvel, Zaha, and I met for dinner at one of my favorite Roman restaurants, carved into the foundation of a two-thousand-year-old theater. I made a toast prediction: “The winner of this competition is sitting at this table!” I lost the competition by one vote but made a speech in praise of Zaha at the MAXXI opening in October 2009.
Phaeno Science Center, Wolfsburg, Germany: For science diagonal volumes floating in the shadows . . . monolithic curvilinear concrete whorls . . . dissolving the block, sliced-cone rooms turn inside-out. . . . Spatial wormholes are driven through, taking science for a flight. Architecture? It is a beautiful gift to culture, not a profession.
“Poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise”
—Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, 1973
Zaha was extremely loyal to all her old friends, paying visits to their studios, offering humorous critical remarks: “Stevie Wonder, that looks like a watermelon with a stick in it!”
When I walked inside the Guangzhou Opera House I was astonished at the liquid space of this large “house.” Photos cannot express the fluid theatricality of this spectacular space. The scala, that stalwart of opera-typology models, is nowhere in this rippling golden volume stippled with star points. The space renews the very idea of opera, giving it a twenty-first-century space of great acoustics and comfort. Instead of a choppy wood of Disney, a golden new fluidity.
Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan: Curvilinear stitches of landscape rise up pitching the curves in waves of open space. Everything is joyfully limp. Against the box blocks of Baku, this white cloud flashing with inner light, pointing to some new world in the distant beyond.
Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, Seoul, Korea, a blurred zone of park space, plaza space, public space, and new spatial space.
Serpentine Sackler Gallery, a floating fabric shapes space where light enters at the support structure. A cloud overhead opens through the hole, the sun shines in.
She said she did not really enjoy a big office. Dissipation? The swell and euphoric lift is eternal in the early and middle works.
Zaha’s space = a new optimism for twenty-first-century architecture. . . . The eclecticism launched by postmodern cynicism is over. She found a new path and forged it. Propelled by her teachers Elia Zenghelis and Rem Koolhaas, she swirled past them in inventive space.
Swept along, inhabiting radical spatial paintings of her own invention, she created in a very different way than the collage-sketch beginnings of Frank Gehry. When I asked her what she thought of Bilbao, she replied, “like a turkey popping out of an oven with foil peeling off.”
Her spatial horizon was much wider, aching for the light. Le Corbusier wrote in the last year of his life:
Over the years a man gradually acquired through his struggles, his work, his inner combat, a certain capital, his own individual and personal conquest. But all the passionate quests of the individual, all that capital, that experience so deeply paid for, will disappear. The law of life: Death . . .Thought alone, the fruit of labor, is transmissible.
Zaha’s spatial thoughts open doors to a new world . . . a ferry crossing from darkness . . . from oblivion of postmodern words . . . a new journey!
What space Zaha imagined! What cities, what marvelous geometries she invented! The most amazing architect of her day, and with such human kindness she lived her life—now suddenly gone—but her gifts will constantly move us in the new spaces of the transparent future.
Steven Holl is an architect based in New York and Beijing.
For additional Zaha Hadid Passages, see the Summer issue of Artforum magazine.
ACCORDING TO LEGEND, in 1978 Marlene Marder quit Nasal Boys—one of just a few bands in Zurich’s tiny punk scene—because the fame-seeking Boys thought the saxophone was uncool. But for Kleenex, her new band, she immediately gave it up to play guitar and sing, which goes to show that her break with them wasn’t really about the sax. She sought freedom generally, in principle, to do whatever. A few other young women from the group’s ever-shifting lineup were responsible, over the next five years, for the controversial instrument’s haywire presence—as a growling texture or startling punctuation—in amazing, clamoring compositions, such as one of my favorites, “Hitch-Hike” (1980). The song also incorporates a crossing-guard whistle and either a flute or an oboe into its brightly melodic, rhythmically precarious lattice of sound. Rising from the ashes of punk (if we accept 1977 as the genre’s initial death date), Marder’s so-called post-punk girl band began as a lark and ascended to fame on jagged beams of cartoon sunshine (her guitar), contagious call-and-response gang vocals, and a feral but stylishly restrained stage presence.
Kleenex/LiLiPUT, “Hitch-Hike,” 1980
Bold amateurism is at the heart of the Kleenex origin story; only Marder had played as a teenager and knew a few chords. And yet their music isn’t simple. In recordings, the women sometimes linger on a spare groove or a Ramones-y riff, but it always serves to throw their complex, expansive, no-holds-barred genius into relief. Interlocking parts chase the beat, and percussive shouts cascade like the urgent communications of friends running for a train or chasing a ball onto forbidden turf together. Wordplay, absurdism, and simple stories drive their difficult-to-discern lyrics across three languages. Lauded early on by John Peel, the tastemaking BBC Radio 1 DJ, Kleenex was shortly picked up by the legendary London label Rough Trade, then threatened with legal action by the band’s namesake (the preeminent tissue brand). So they rechristened themselves LiLiPUT.
I first heard of the band more than a decade after they broke up, their song titles handwritten on twice- or thrice-dubbed grunge-era mixtapes circulating in my Pacific Northwest feminist milieu. While Riot Grrrl is known for presenting a disunified aesthetic and political front against sexist exclusion in local underground scenes, it’s less frequently understood within a hard-won musical matrilineage. The movement’s pre-Internet participants often devoted themselves to searches for female precursors in record stores and the annals of punk, embedding tributes to their emboldening discoveries in new experiments. Kleenex/LiLiPUT’s influence, both acute and atmospheric, can be heard in pretty much all of my post–Riot Grrrl contemporaries, from Erase Errata’s queer poetics and puzzle-piece rock to the take-me-to-the-Kunsthalle electro-conceptualism of Chicks on Speed. And for sure my own band Le Tigre took the lessons of Marder et al—in instrumentation, arrangement, fashion, and freedom—to heart.
News of her death—she was only sixty-one—delivered a sharp pang. I didn’t know Marder personally, though. I only have the information available to the whole world, and thanks to the 2001 rerelease of the Kleenex/LiLiPUT catalogue on the independent label Kill Rock Stars and to the advent of YouTube, that’s kind of a lot. One need not rely on fanzine rumors and warping cassettes anymore. Watching footage online now, I get a sense of her—as a performer, at least. She’s unfeminine. In a corrugated paper skirt-form, blue Mylar, or leopard-print jeans, she inhabits a dandy, not a girlish, persona. Stage right, close-cropped hair, un-eyelinered, and looser than her bandmates, she appears as an inspiring, low-key leader, shouting her parts precisely into the mic, with a black guitar and a singular lust for life.
Slideshow: Marlene Marder at Zurich University, 1978. Photo: Ueli Frey/www.drjazz.ch.
Anita Brookner, 1986. Photo: Peter Jordan / Alamy Stock Photo.
ANITA BROOKNER, WHO PASSED AWAY ON MARCH 10, came into the limelight when her novel Hotel du Lac was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1984. It was hailed instantly as a masterpiece; it would be followed by many more.
For the most part, Brookner created haunting, introspective portraits of women coming to terms with the loneliness of middle age and how the world around them was vanishing. She created an original voice, elegiac yet incisive, in which one can sense echoes of her own life. Even as she got older, she continued to gain critical acclaim. Yet for most of her life, Brookner taught art history at the Courtauld Institute in London. It was Anthony Blunt, former surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, who took her under his wing. He would end his life in disgrace when he was exposed as a Soviet spy. Nonetheless, Blunt had a formidable presence, and Brookner’s years at the Courtauld were happy ones. She remained there until her retirement.
The granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Brookner was born in South London in 1928 and brought up in a large Victorian house in Herne Hill. Against her parents’ wishes, she studied art history at the École du Louvre in Paris. She felt elated by her newfound freedom, spending days looking at art, studying, and writing. After returning to England, she taught art history at Reading University before moving to the Courtauld.
Specializing in eighteenth-century France, Brookner wrote elegant monographs on Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Jacques-Louis David. But her love of nineteenth-century French novels brought her closer to focusing on the relationship between writers and artists, from Denis Diderot to Joris-Karl Huysmans. David, who witnessed the French Revolution and the collapse of the Napoleonic empire, was a pivotal figure for Brookner. After the Congress of Vienna, hope in reason and rationality was abandoned forever—only to be replaced by spleen and nostalgia. The central figure in this modern age was Charles Baudelaire, the “man in the black frock coat.” For Baudelaire, the greatest art critic of his time, imagination was the sovereign faculty, which allowed us to transform the experience of reality into an expression of the Ideal.
Baudelaire was quite aware of the physical and moral evils of mankind. Such a realization had religious undertones; the nineteenth century’s sense of mourning coincided with a taste for what is considered ugly and horrible, as though the creator had abandoned mankind and inflicted moral suffering upon him. As Baudelaire dreamed of finding redemption, art can be seen as a search for (and means of) spiritual perfection.
When Baudelaire wrote his tribute to Eugène Delacroix, he still thought he might be able to free himself from evil through this ideal of universal harmony. But in later years, he saw life as a mere form of exile, one which offered no harmony. Both Brookner’s novels and her art criticism are filled with such a vision. She could be scathing in her criticism (of Michael Fried’s much-discussed Absorption and Theatricality, for instance). Generally, she was a beloved mentor to a generation of art historians such as Neil MacGregor and Norman Bryson. I was fortunate enough to be her student just before she retired.
In a rare interview, published in the Telegraph in 2009, Brookner reminisced about her years at the Courtauld: “Teaching. Students! Lovely people! Then I did feel integrated. I felt I was doing what I most enjoyed. I loved the company. I loved the ideas, the images. And I loved the conversation! The exchange was valuable. That was authentic. Everything else was made up.”
By nature a shy and reserved figure, Brookner had a great flair for self-analysis. She also understood her students and their motivations with keen psychological insight—she encouraged the viewer to articulate his own feelings, as well as a vision based on his own character. The work of a particular artist, say, David, had to be analyzed within the larger framework of historical circumstances; yet subjectivity could not be avoided. In the case of David, she saw the revolutionary hope of creating a world of higher morality and virtue dashed as the artist anticipated the Romantic ideal by relinquishing intellectual control. Most crucially, Brookner believed that art had to be emotionally alive, and she advocated Baudelaire’s “impeccable naïveté,” which she termed the “ability to see the world always afresh, either in its tragedy or in its hope.”
Her advice was invaluable. Nearly every sentence she uttered is engraved in my memory. My fellow student Cornelia Grassi remembers the last thing Brookner said to her before our written exams: “Art doesn’t love you and cannot console you.” As Baudelaire recognized, it provides temporary solace, at best.
Olivier Berggruen is a writer and art historian based in New York. He is curating a retrospective of Picasso’s Neoclassical period to be held at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome next year.
Zaha Hadid, 2012. Photo: Yvette Wohn.
I AM IMMENSELY SAD about the loss of my friend and long-term collaborator Zaha Hadid, who was a trustee of the Serpentine Galleries for twenty years. Her contribution to architecture cannot be overstated. She once told me “there should be no end to experimentation,” and it’s this principle that drove her buildings to make a significant impact on cities all around the world.
I am honored to have collaborated with Hadid on numerous occasions. When I visited her for the first time, at the end of the 1990s, I was still living in Paris. A typical London cab picked me up from the airport and brought me to her (at that time, quite small) studio, in which, supported by her young team, there was an atmosphere permeated by futurism. It must have been the same among the Russian avant-garde at the beginning of the ’20s, when they not only started to reshape art, but also society. Three months later I visited her again, since I was working intensely on a project at the French Academy in Rome with an installation by Hadid in the garden of Villa Medici. I realized that the same cab driver picked me up. When, some time afterward, I saw him for the third time at the wheel, I asked about this strange coincidence. He explained to me that Hadid had bought herself a cab that was only there for herself and her guests.
Hadid’s work was so far apart from all artistic and architectural conventions and norms that it took some time for her to find the recognition she deserved. Her first building in London, where she had been living for years, was the pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in 2000 commissioned by Julia Peyton-Jones, which launched the Serpentine’s tradition of having a temporary structure built by an architect each year in Kensington Gardens. It was followed by a second pavilion, Lilas, in 2007. In 2013, she completed the dramatic extension for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, one of Zaha Hadid Architects’ first permanent buildings in central London. She also participated in the Serpentine’s Interview Marathon in 2006 and 89Plus Marathon in 2013.
Hadid was not only a great architect, but also a great artist, and she leaves behind an extraordinary body of work. A glowing admirer of Russian Constructivism, she made paintings influenced by Malevich, Tatlin, and Rodchenko. Among the many lesser known facets of her work are the free calligraphy drawings in which she often explored the ideas that would later be transformed into architecture. Drawing was at the very heart of her practice, and these projects contained all the lightness and weightlessness of her buildings, which seem to float, then to land on the ground. Once she told me that she put all of her creative energy into the attempt to override nature’s principles of gravity and death.
In 2011, when Hadid’s Chanel Pavilion of 2007 was relocated to the Institut de Monde Arab in Paris, Karl Lagerfeld asked me to conceive an opening event. I decided to make it a celebration of poetry and invited three poets each to write an ode to Zaha. These were Adam Zagajewski, Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Esber), and Etel Adnan. What follows is an excerpt of what Adnan wrote.
Model of Chanel Contemporary Art Container. Courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is a curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.
ZAHA HADID’s ENTIRE OEUVRE is an invitation to take a trip. One might think of Baudelaire’s “L’Invitation au voyage.” Hadid is a poet of forms and of the materials that give presence to these forms; one must admire them close up and from afar to discover, in this woman who built on solid rock, a permanent nostalgia for departure. Everything she made seems to always be the day before a departure, a permanent invitation to the imagination, and to the imaginary.
In this way, there is something magical and at the same time absolutely right about the fact that it is the Institut du Monde Arabe that shelters the first work by Hadid in Paris, not only because of her Iraqi origins, but because of the thinking that gave rise to that structure.
What surprised me most in Hadid’s pavilion is its very unexpected intimate character, arriving as if in counterweight: She created a place you want to enter. First, from the outside, a site that is not only visual, but tactile: You want to touch it, caress it, you feel it very spontaneously connects with all your senses, those that have a name and those that do not have one. Once you have entered, you find yourself inside of a secret, a thing to be discovered, a temptation, a promise of adventure. You are in an architecture of great and subtle seduction.
Zaha Hadid, Chanel Contemporary Art Container, 2008, New York. Photo: John Linden.
The prototype of this adventurous construction was a mobile creation, a structure that could be dismantled and was destined to be put, if one so desired, in different places: a roof, a terrace, an empty lot, a field. We are indeed at the beginning of a movable architecture, a revolution in the concept of an art considered historically to be the apogee of stable permanence, but also a reminder of encampments and nomadic tents.
The Arab world contains the oldest cities in the world, but its culture, or cultures, are essentially nomadic. And Hadid’s architecture is in the process of becoming “nomadic”—in spirit, first and foremost, and sooner and sooner in fact. That “object” that you see might be a shell that the waves will carry and place elsewhere, just as it might very well be a modified tent, a vessel.
But let us be careful: I am not saying that that wonderful construction will, by the stroke of a magic wand out of One Thousand and One Nights, fly away into the air, disappear! It is made of steel. It will last. But it has a poetry, a spirituality, such that in sheltering us, it makes us dream, it sets us off on a journey.
Etel Adnan is an artist and writer based in Paris.
Translated from French by Molly Stevens.
For additional coverage of Zaha Hadid, see the upcoming Summer issue of Artforum magazine.
CERTAIN ARTISTS TEACH. Every time I encounter a painting by Ellsworth Kelly, I learn this lesson again: A painting is not just an image, or even an object; it can also be a kind of architecture. I’ve always felt a compulsion to look closely at the edges of Kelly’s paintings, carefully examining the various ways in which he continues the painting beyond its front edge. Each time I lean into a wall in an attempt to look behind one of his works, I am left with the sense that even though I can see the way he has built the painting, I still do not fully understand how it is that the painting appears to be not quite in the same room that I am in.
Many twentieth-century painters put forth the framelessness of the canvas in order to expose the furthest frontier of paint, emphasizing the border between support and the action that takes place on it. But in Kelly’s work, the lack of obvious framing device reveals something different: It is as if the painting continues on, toward the invisibility of what is behind it. Sometimes this manifests itself in that the color simply continues seamlessly around to the back of the painting; equally intriguing are the works made in parts, not diptychs or triptychs and so on, but rather paintings where the image is created as a construction, assembling distinct elements directly abutting one another, edge to edge, though not completely joined. I have often found myself pondering the same mystery: Just how is it that he creates the sense that the painting is not confined to its own dimensions, its own boundaries? Even though each work ends sharply, as it were—in a hard edge where a frame should be—its shape somehow does not end the painting but rather emphasizes that the world it depicts continues on independently of what I can see in front of me.
Recently, I have felt like I have understood a little more, particularly during the process of making an homage to Kelly’s “first object,” his marvelous 1949 painting Window, Museum of Modern Art, Paris. His painting has a winning self-reflexiveness: Not only is it a picture of a window, but it is built like a window. (My attempt at revisiting this work was constructed as a reverse window, using mirrors to create an object that looks back at you instead of offering a view out.) It is in fact a piece of architecture, made using separate parts for the dark window frame and for the glass panes; most significantly, it is divided in two sections vertically, like a casement. Here, frame is both place and an image of place, an orientation and indication of where he saw from and where we see from. The frame, image, and object all become one thing, propping one another up. Many of his works resonate in great part because of the way that they carry these investigations further, from Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1956–57, which looks like the windows of a building, to his monochromatic panels, each of which is like a window into whatever wall they hang on.
Window is typically seen as a break or rebellion, a “blow he had dealt the pictorial tradition,” as Yve-Alain Bois puts it. I find this hard to understand: To me, the painting teaches us just how apt the Renaissance metaphor of painting as window still is, how it is perhaps even more important as a poetic construct today. If the function of a picture is to provide clues to how we might look, as an act of engagement with what is outside ourselves, then the frame, as photographers have always known, is what makes it possible to see the world not as a reflected in the inside of the eye, but as image of a reality outside the body. In other words, framing is seeing. It was one of Kelly’s gifts to show us how we can never leave the frame behind, but we might incorporate it, in every sense of the word.
Josiah McElheny is an artist based in New York.