WAN's Sharon McHugh assesses Michael Graves' painted treasures
Few architects rise to the level of a household name. But Michael Graves is indeed one of them. The Post-Modern master who in architecture circles is perhaps best known as one of the New York Five and arguably its most productive member, is truly a Renaissance man, moving effortlessly and quite successfully between the disciplines of architecture, product design and painting. It is this later discipline, painting, that was the subject of an exhibition of the architect’s work held earlier this year at the Rider University Art Gallery in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Curated by Harry I. Naar, Professor of Fine Arts & Gallery Director at Rider, the exhibition titled ‘Michael Graves Landscapes and Still Lifes’ put on view over l00 of Graves recent paintings, mostly small scale works of landscapes and still lifes drawn from the architect’s own experiences - from both his travels in Italy and from his home in Princeton, New Jersey (the celebrated warehouse that he rescued and refashioned in the image of a Tuscan Villa). Graves draws upon Corot and others for inspiration, but the flatness and sense of absence in the landscapes also brings to mind the work of Giorgio De Chirico
While Graves is celebrated as a product designer and architect, his paintings offer a window of understanding into these other pursuits, particularly the sense of colour, form and composition that informs the buildings. Writing in the book Five Architects Twenty Five Years later, Steven Hurtt said: “Graves has always painted….and his paintings, even at their most abstract and cubist, were partially figurative and usually based on landscape”, as were many of the works exhibited here. While the paintings in the show are indeed a joy to see and experience, for the trained eye, they offer a rare glimpse into the larger body of work of this important American designer.
Graves and others have often expounded on the role colour played in the evolution of his architecture from the more abstract to the figurative. From the green beam in the Benacerraf House, where colour is used abstractly to reference a nearby garden hedge, to more recent work like a house in Malibu where colour is used directly as part of the composition to impart character, colour has always central to Graves’ work.
The importance of painting to his architecture is perhaps best summed up as by Hurtt who said: “Graves introduced traditional architectural elements into his paintings and then into his architecture”. “It has been said that my architecture is very painterly but I doubt if people would say my paintings are very architectural” said Graves. Regardless, Graves continues to engage us.