Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan fans, in my experience, tend to be quirky fuss pots. I'm not surprised, so was he, and whilst I've been browsing a fantastic book, 'The Idea of Louis Sullivan', a very precious series of loving photographic B&W plates by John Szarkowski published in 1956, I'm not getting much closer to reconciling Sullivan at all. Perhaps it's the appalling language, that blend of court, pulpit and criminal dock with unbearable titles like 'Kindergarten Chats' and 'Autobiography of an Idea' that distances him so effectively, perhaps it's his formulation of the organic itself?
If Henri Lefebvre hadn't deemed it convenient to debate Venice as a combination of 'work' and 'product' in 'The Production of Space'- a text I also find more irritating by the year- he would surely have been on steadier ground if he'd come across Sullivan. These are definately 'works' in a time of 'products' utilizing products (lifts, steel frames, whatever), and if you like, dressing them as works (frills). Sullivan would not have liked this analogy, because he saw the organic whole everywhere, in everything, as seed to the flower to the seed, and he lost a good deal of money doing it.
The Guaranty Building 1894, Buffalo NY is an amazing thing, no doubt. However it sits there solid as a geometrical rock but seems to be wearing lace. I can't get away from this transgender interpretation, this one thing and another. Is the decoration intrinsic or applied? No matter how intrinsic Sullivan meant it to be, you can't help but see it as applied, as rather over the top gratuitous, can you?
The Szarkowski book is fabulous because it includes quotes from clients, from Torsten Veblen, from Rudyard Kipling, from Whitman, from all sorts representative of the tumult of the times (including the big swinging dicks who only cared for money). Of course, there is a melancholy side which feeds the heroism. Sullivan was to fail, get plastered, and die in poverty. In America there are few second acts. However the image that comes to mind when I think of Sullivan is a contemporary painting of another highly agitated man, Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, painted by John Singer Sargent in the 1880's. Here also, I see male and female, but totally insecure in the picture frame, uneasy in their bodies. To me, the composition is as peculiar (and lovable) as a picture as the Guaranty or Wainwright building are as architecture. I guess there was no Grayson Perry just when you needed him most.

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