Photography exhibit celebrates Philip Johnson’s Glass House


EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 24, 2010

With the aftermath of California's Prop-8 debate still lingering in the GLBT community, there is an old adage that's quite fitting for our time: "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

Those words come to mind when considering one of 20th century America's most famous buildings, the Glass House, by the iconic gay American architect, Philip Johnson.

Influential and controversial

Johnson, who died in 2005 at the age of 98, was both influential and controversial over his long career. He cut a memorable profile - a slight, bald man whose face was framed by thick, black round-rimmed glasses; and he stayed on the cutting-edge of architecture right to the end of his life.

From the 1930s on he embraced the International Style (the boxy towers best exemplified by Manhattan's Seagram's Building [1956], a project with which Johnson was an associate architect), only to reject it during his latter part of his career when Post Modernism came into vogue. It was during this phase that glass became an integral element to his often-monumental designs, such as Pittsburgh's PPG Tower, a mock Gothic skyscraper, and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, the temple of Robert Schuller's evangelical ministry in Southern California.

The Glass House

It may be surprising to some that the gay Johnson would agree to design a building for the conservative Schuller, but the huge structure gave Johnson the opportunity to complete a life-long dream: "To build the greatest room in the world - a great theater or cathedral or monument."

The Glass House, by contrast, is far more modest in scale, but is in no way a less intriguing structure. And it is being celebrated in an exhibit of photographs by James Welling at New York's David Zwirner gallery in New York City through April 24, 2010. (The exhibit recently completed a two-month stint in Los Angeles.)

The initial impetus for the show came when Welling was commissioned by New York Magazine to supply photos in 2007 for an article -"The New Monticello" -- by Alexandra Large published in the magazine to coincide with the opening of the house (and the surrounding grounds) as a National Historic Site. One of her more telling observations came when assessing the bunker like Brick House, which sits behind the main house. "...with pink Fortuny-fabric-upholstered walls and delicate arches. It is sometimes interpreted as the camp box in which he (Johnson) stored his homosexuality."

"Yes, I am a homosexual," Johnson proudly confirmed when asked on a Charlie Rose Show not long before his death, "The world is much more tolerant of such things, and now that I'm old (laughs), who cares?"

Actually, he never much cared: Johnson was always very open with his sexuality, but did mention a number of times when it was an issue in his life. He blamed his sexuality for causing a nervous breakdown while he was a student at Harvard in the 1920s; then in 1977 Johnson asked the New Yorker magazine to omit references to his homosexuality in a profile, fearing he might lose the AT&T commission, the Chippendale-topped skyscraper in midtown Manhattan (now owned by SONY). Johnson called this commission, "the job of my life."

"I’m a whore..."

Johnson used the Glass House, built in 1949 and located in New Canaan, Connecticut, as his primary residence until his death in 2005. Two years later the complex on the grounds of the estate (which includes the Brick Guest House [1949], the Lake Pavilion [1962], and the Lincoln Kirstein sculpture [1985],) became part of the National Trust for Preservation. The Glass House refers to either the house itself or to all the buildings and sculptures on the site.

"I'm a whore and I am paid very well for high-rise buildings," Philip Johnson once announced at a conference of fellow architects. Johnson is known for some of the world's grandest buildings, such as the pink granite Bank Of America building in Houston and Puerta De Europa, the twin "leaning" towers in Madrid, Spain. Yet, it is this small residence that he will best be remembered.

"Although the Glass House is symmetrical (the front is the same as the back,) James Welling explains, "I prefer a frontal view because you can see through the house to the landscape directly west. This is the aspect of the house that is perhaps most fascinating to me -- This big glass box, plunked down in the Connecticut landscape."

Welling tells a story of when fellow American architect Frank Lloyd Wright first entered Johnson's structure.

"He was unsure whether he was inside or outside," Welling laughs, "He didn't know if he should take his hat off."

"For me," Welling states, "this is one of the great things about the Glass House -- You're inside it once you step on the property."

James Welling represents a group of modern photographers who investigate a variety of theoretical ideas towards traditional photography. For the images in this series, Welling used an array of color filters positioned in front of the lens of a digital camera. These photographs utilize color in bold and unexpected ways and further the artist's treatment of light, color and reflectivity and how these elements articulate the architectural form of the building. The use of color manipulates the architecture in unusual ways. In this project, Welling explores three types of themes: the house, different views of the interior, and the pavilion on the lake.

"The superimposed filters," Welling explains, "created colored veils and distortions that transformed the image at the moment of exposure. I've been using the word filter as a noun, but it's also a verb."

The show is comprised of a short video installation and the photographs that were taken over a three-year period (October 2006 to October 2009.) The video, Sun Pavilion 2010, shows the six-foot tall cement structure centered on an artificial lake Johnson created for the compound. The Pavilion is visible from inside the house and it floats like a ghostly temple in the lake. It was used for picnics and moon viewings.

"In the video," Welling describes, "The entire project became a laboratory for ideas about transparency, reflectivity and color."

James Welling was born in 1951 in Hartford, Connecticut. He studied drawing at Carnegie-Mellon University before transferring to the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied video. His work has appeared in over 60 solo and group exhibitions, and is included in many public collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, all in New York, among others. Welling was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bard College. Since 1995, Welling has lived in Los Angeles, where he is head of the photography department at the University of California, Los Angeles.

James Welling Glass House runs through April 24, 2010 at David Zwirner, 525 West 19th Street , New York NY 10011. For more information visit the gallery's website.