Richard Meier at Louise T Blouin Institute
written by Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London
Not coming from an architectural background, the promise of reviewing the Richard Meier exhibition: Art and Architecture that has just opened at the Louise T Blouin Institute in Notting Hill, may have seemed a little unexpected. Certainly it was the collages and sculpture that drew me first and foremost, curious as I was to see what art the architect, Richard Meier, had created. More so when I found out that Meier used to be an Abstract Expressionist painter, attending night school to train after graduating as an architect, and that he shared a studio with Frank Stella back in the 1950s. The two have been firm friends since and Meier even recently told me how Stella wants to work on an architectural project with him. This idea of cross-discipline involvement sums up to a great extent the creative output of Meier over the last fifty years.
He and his daughter, Ana, whose face features in a number of the collages on display, are in fact currently collaborating on the design of a cashmere cardigan and sweater. I have the impression that Mr. Meier is not someone who can sit with idle hands. He is known, of course, as a modernist architect, and on the ground floor of the exhibition are a selection of his architectural models for the Jubilee Church, the Getty Center, the High Museum in Atlanta, the World Trade Center redevelopment, amongst others. Illustrating these beautifully crafted models are photographs of the constructed and finished buildings or three-dimensional renderings for those otherwise.
It took me a long while to really get into looking at these pieces, built by the newest members of staff who are sent straight to the model room to learn about three-dimensional space and how to model it. The wonderful thing about the models is that they allow one to see how light would fall through the space. I have the distinct impression that light is as important to Meier as space, for the two allow for the others to be better experienced. A little like Claude Monet, who used his subjects as palettes on which to record the passage of light and its subsequent colour transformation, so Meier seems to use his buildings as such. The Jubilee Church, just outside Rome, a beautiful building in design, in particular, seems to come alive as light moves through it. Of course, this remained an impression for the light that was focused upon said model was stationary. In my mind, however, I imagined how the Italian afternoon sun would turn the exterior layers and interior walls a golden hue and the evening sun send it, its layered shells like a cinema screen, melodic shades of oranges, pinks and golds and then later, darkening shades of blues and greens. I imagine that even in the darkness, the pure whiteness of the Jubilee Church would reflect the colours of the sky. It is quite beautiful.
The Getty Museum Center is an undoubtedly impressive building complex, it sits on the apex of an undulating hill, built up it seems from the ricochet of the contour lines of the hill that ripples, as though the Getty Center were a pebble thrown into a lake of water. This rhythm of seeming movement stills towards the centre, where the Getty sits monarchic. Its homogenous geometry and smoothed, perfect, white curves and lines prevent it from being a monstrosity or an eyesore. And I am only describing the model. Wonderfully placed opposite the model on a long table are two enormous sketchbooks of architectural drawings and diagrams for the Getty.
To the model’s right are a series of five drawings of the Getty that are eye-catching for their unexpected rawness. Drawn as though there were no need for computers, the building emerges out of thick, if it were possible, impasto of pencil strokes. These cross-hatch and seem to push the building out at the viewer. It took the wonderful eye of a friend to point out the beauty of these drawings. What stood out more than anything else for me was how the clouds in the sky were so abstract – the building, so rigid, so tangible, and the clouds were like the wan suggestion of such, as seen in the paintings of Edvard Munch. When I pointed this out to Meier, he smiled and seemed surprised but pleased.
Another quirky art historical reference was in the three-dimensional renderings of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, wherein, to give a sense of space, figures had been placed in pencil-lined silhouette. Yet, these were no ordinary figures, they were 19th century characters plucked from the pointillist paintings of George-Pierre Seurat – the La Grande Jatte and Bathers at Asnières.
Surprised at my enthusiasm for the architectural work and excited by the art historical cross-references, I made my way upstairs to where the design and sculptures had been placed. Upon entry to the second floor exhibition space, a series of forty collages had been hung, the earliest dating back to 1987, reaching away from the entrance both left and right. On the flight back from every trip he has taken, Meier has collaged together ticket stubs, newspaper headlines, photographs, hand-written notes, hotel stationary and such like. Aesthetically they hold very little attention but as a memento to his travels and experience, they are wonderful souvenirs. They are small (so as to be completed whilst in an airplane seat) and personalized and are probably of more interest to his children as records of their father’s activities.
What is interesting however, is to compare these neat, overlapping, personal, colourful pieces to his architectural designs. Worlds apart. Likewise, this comparison is carried further as one steps into the second part of the room, in which is placed in beautiful clear glass cases, examples of Meier’s design work – white plates with two perfectly placed black lines that dissect one another as a cross in the centre, as well as silverware, watches (without a dial and one of which Meier wears), bowls, cutlery, a 'Tea and Coffee Piazza', amongst others – each of which has a decidedly Bauhaus feel to them (except the watches which are perfectly minimalist and very contemporary); in another glass case sit glass and silver pitchers, a highly polished silver jug. One piece that stands out from the others and is surprisingly added as it almost clashes with the perfect geometry and cleanness of the other pieces, is a plate on which one of his collages has been glazed. The collage has rough, unfinished edges that peter out towards the rim. It’s disorder and lack of trademark polished Meier makes it look ugly despite it being such an interesting blend of disciplines and influences, which so characterizes Meier.
The next surprise in the room comes in the guise of a series of pastel sunsets. About twenty-two of these small, on average, 10x10 - 15x15 pieces face the design work opposite. They are beautifully colourful, blues, greens, pinks and reds and capture what I remember of the distinctive sunsets in Long Island. Meier told me that he draws these whilst sitting on the beach in the evenings when at home. The pieces are wonderful for their summation of a man at leisure, in repose. For this is just one of the things the great man does in his spare time, not sitting still for an instant. I like the fact that despite being the closest thing to conventional artwork, each pastel is strictly divided by an obvious statemental line dividing each piece – the line says: above is the sky and below is the sea. Hung side by side, there is an almost poetic and somehow architectural quality to them generated by the play of colour and line.
In the third and last space is the penultimate surprise in Meier’s oeuvre: his sculptures. Four in total and only a fraction - and those that are the smaller of - his entire output. He said he has had to stop making them as there are so many and he has no room to store them. I asked him whether he had thought about designing a museum for them. He didn’t brush away the idea. The sculptures are created from destroyed models that he has placed together in extremely abstract, almost angry formations. Like three-dimensional Jackson Pollocks. They don’t look as though they have been constructed from models as there is little that is recognisable but they have more resonance when one knows this. They are named after cathedrals which Meier visited on a trip through Germany. There is no additional symbolism behind these titles, he just didn’t know what else to call them. They are beautifully stark in their cast dark grey metal within the pure white of the room. There is an energetic resonance to them.
Additionally in this room is a chaise-longue (or chaise lounge, as the Americans call them) designed by Meier for Knoll International. It is a beautiful piece of design – fat black strips of padded leather luxuriously placed tightly alongside one another, a gentle curve indicating and inviting where the body could lie in repose and comfort. It suits the space perfectly and above it is Meier’s signature, black and bold against the white walls. A wonderfully humble man is behind all of this work and in the exhibition can be seen the many facets of his creativity. He seems slightly embarrassed to talk about his sculptures and drawings, as though doing so were to reveal a very private part of himself. I wonder whether this has anything to do with an event that took place in the early part of his painting career. Meier had rented a studio next to de Kooning's on Tenth Street and de Kooning had come into Meier's studio one day to have a look around. De Kooning walked out without saying a word. It was at that stage Meier decided to quit. A nerve-wracking rebuff for any budding artist. The exhibition reveals a completely different side of the man we know who is a very famous and distinctive architect, one of the founders of the New York Five and a bastion of modernism. It may not put on display the finest example of artistic skill but it shows a man known for his lack of colour and in exuberant expression (except for the odd curved flourish in his building design) who chooses to express himself in ways perhaps architecture does not allow him to.
In fact, I would argue that his entire output of creative work on the side of his architecture over the last fifty years (and what is in the exhibition, I am certain, is only a tiny fraction of it) gives depth and insight into his architectural work. His buildings suddenly seem more playful than I had noticed they were before and I went downstairs to have another look. This playfulness is summed up for me on the way out, for, in the entrance hall is a beautiful black- lacquer shiny square grand piano designed for Rud Ibach Sohn where Meier’s playful side comes out in giving the piano a leg that gives the impression it is about to take a bow. It is a gentle and elegant curve and gives the rather austere piano a softly feminine grace. It sums up rather well both the work and the exhibition of, Meier’s creative output.
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