by Richard FriswellJohnson’s subterranean Painting Gallery holds works by those luminaries who were instrumental in defining fine art in the second half of the last century
Entering the grounds of the Philip Johnson Glass House, a National Historic Trust site, on a cold February day, I am overtaken by a sense that my visit will be no ordinary walk in the park. For nearly half a century, this suburban/rural Connecticut property was the center of the universe for some of the greatest figures in 20th-century architecture, art, and cultural innovation. Stepping out of my car, I sense their presence.
I have come for a private tour of the buildings and grounds, led by the site's director of external affairs, Amy Grabowski. I look forward to the chance for a long, private moment of reflection on the paintings and sculpture collected by Johnson and his life partner, David Whitney, which will be on permanent display when the grounds open to the public in April. As an artist and dealer specializing in modern and postmodern art, I hope to make contact with the spirits of the luminaries who were so instrumental in defining fine art in the second half of the last century—Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, John Chamberlain, Julian Schnabel, and others.
Philip Johnson’s interest in collecting art preceded his formal training as an architect. Indeed—as I will learn on my tour of his estate—Johnson devoted his career as an architect to incorporating the principles of proportion, balance, structure, and integrated design reflected in the art he collected and cherished.
Amy leads me through the grounds and over a rail-less arched wooden bridge (my winter wind-whipped imagination conjures up images of swinging-rope bridges over the Amazon). This narrow, precarious trail only adds to my sense of adventure and discovery as I am led to the subterranean entrance of the Painting Gallery. This enclave, built in 1965, is modeled after The Treasure of Atreus, a Bronze Age tomb in Mycenae, Greece; its splayed, red-concrete walls are appropriately patinaed with patterns of gray-green lichen.
An icebox chill greets us as we push the door open. The lights come up to reveal a larger-than-life display of some of the finest works of art produced by the masters of mid-20th century Postmodernism. Mounted on large panels that rotate around a central pole, like massive, slow-moving spokes on a wheel, these masterpieces hang unceremoniously in the darkened room. There is Andy Warhol’s portrait of a youthful Philip Johnson, in Warhol’s classic repetitive photo silkscreen against a multicolored matrix of color fields. There’s Rauschenberg’s monumental collage Recital (Spread), done in 1980, as well as an early Frank Stella, Averroes (featuring patterns of contrasting color and line that vibrate before the eye), completed before he moved into his bold, dimensional, mixed-medium work. A paint-laden, heavily worked canvas by Schnabel called L’Amour: Carmen Iris Rivera 1967-1986 is visible behind Untitled #172, a Cindy Sherman installation photograph of a food-strewn and apparently abandoned banquet table. And much more.
Johnson, whose tastes were clearly eclectic, was influenced in his collecting strategy by his partner. David Whitney came to the relationship as an art authority, collector, curator, and man of independent means. Their art collection grew strong and deep because of their shared taste for the avant-garde, their extensive and well-formed links to the New York art community, and because they had the means to carry out an acquisition strategy that would put many emerging artists (such as Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, and Frank Stella) into the game. Johnson served as a founder and director of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture and design for many years; his donation of more than 2,000 pieces of his collection makes him the second-largest art benefactor to the museum’s permanent collection.
As I pause a moment to marvel at the design detail inside the gallery space, I imagine the day, soon, when the doors will open, the gallery will be illuminated, and the public will be able to see and appreciate this remarkable collection. Then it’s on to the Sculpture Gallery.
Emerging into the cold light of day, I am left with the impression that the art I have just seen does not occupy its bunker so much as inhabit it—becoming one with the building and the land around it. Think buried treasure. Think ancient ruins.
It is just a few paces to the Sculpture Gallery, sited on a knoll and built in 1970. Is that a felled tree beside the gallery door? It is, in fact, a monumental stone sculpture by Julian Schnabel, enigmatically titled Ozymandias (1986-89). This is another example of the close link that existed in Johnson’s mind between art, nature, and design. A brief glance at the Gallery’s quiet but elegant entrance leads me to the conclusion that the door can’t possibly lead to anything too remarkable.
How wrong I am! Like many other structures on the grounds, the gallery was designed to take advantage of the land’s topography; it opens out in the back to reveal an expanse of canted-glass ceiling that becomes the building’s principal design element. Ribs of steel support narrow rows of glass panels that can be made to slide open, casting a zigzag pattern of light on the objects and people below; it feels like being caught in the rays slanting through a giant, rooftop Venetian blind. This effect, in combination with the pattern of stairs, stepped partial walls, and open floor plan, reminds me of an Escher drawing where top meets bottom and where any sense of “up” or “down” is lost in a perpetual cycle of light and movement.
In this kaleidoscope of shadow and brilliance, the sculpture is more discovered than viewed. The pieces appear to lie “hidden” in the pulsating light of the gallery—even the monumental welded Stella piece Raft of the Medusa, Part I, which looks like the recovered remnants of some ruined spacecraft, and the minimalist works of Robert Morris, Untitled (1965-1970), which anchor the vaulted space at the lowest point in the room with their clean, unhurried lines and massive scale.
I feel somewhat voyeuristic as I stand before George Segal’s 1970 Lovers on a Bed II, with its two principals locked in an amorous plaster embrace, until I spot John Chamberlain’s life-sized metal sculpture, The Archbishop, the Golfer and Ralph (1982–83) standing close by. Knowing that this unlikely trio will monitor the scene carefully, I move down the open stairway to another level and another room, where I find several more monumental Stella pieces—and something else. An installation piece by Andrew Lord—27 large-scale ceramic vessels, in various shapes and sizes—evokes Johnson’s penchant for blending old and new, merging modern and classical themes into a unified and seamless visual experience. Johnson once said that “all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the person in that space.” I leave the sculpture building believing that I had experienced all of the above.
As Amy directs me back to the office, I take a moment to stand at the top of a rise and survey the land and structures around me. I recall that Philip Johnson was remarked, in a famous quote, “When people come into my house, I say, ‘Just shut up and look around.’” Now that I’ve had my say about this remarkable setting, maybe next time I’ll try to do just that. TMERichard Friswell is president of A World of Color, a fine-art consulting company that offers private showings of a wide range of contemporary, modern, and classic works in the client’s home. He also deals in art purchases and appraisals. He is a landscape painter himself, believing that the most meaningful assessment of art is offered by someone with an experienced hand and eye. For a private appointment, please call 203.530.9811.