Monday, February 16, 2009

Plaster Casts and Brutalism

A couple of weeks ago, two friends happened to be involved in a campaign to save the plaster casts of the University of Texas at Austin. Plaster casts were integral to architectural and art-historical education in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Having no utility in contemporary education, these plaster beauties are stored in basements collecting dust. Sadly, many schools and museum are now trying to get rid of their collections because they present an expensive challenge of storage and conservation. I became aware of these simulacra and their sad fate when Jeff Burden, my dear colleague who masterminded Clemson's historic preservation program, arranged to bring a selection from the Metropolitan Museum to our center in Charleston. Burden was targeting particular classical details, Charleston's architecture prototypes. Vassar College has taken pride of its plaster collection, and in 2006 Jacqueline Musacchio (now at Wellesley College) curated a unique exhibition entitled, Copies Casts, and Pedagogy: The Early Teaching of Art and Art History at Vassar College. The death blow for plaster casts was given by the Bauhaus, which immigrated to the United States during World War II, and offered a new pedagogical model. Attention to creativity, craft, invention and experimentation dethroned the values of imitation.

With the completion of Yale's Art and Architecture Building restoration, a confrontation between old and new is once more visible to the public. Yale's architecture building was designed by Paul Rudolph in 1959-63 and represents the developments of Brutalism. Best known for its complex section and its rough concrete textures, this building is relentlessly anti-historical. As one walks inside, however, a number of sculptural quotations emerge on the walls. Elijah Huge, who teaches architectural design at Wesleyan University, turned me on to these spolia. Apparently, Rudlolph rampaged through the Yale Art Gallery's cast collection and explicitly chose plaster copies to engage within his brutalist walls. These modern spolia are interesting because of their old-new, smooth-rough juxtaposition, but they also reveal a subtle historical sensibility in high modernism. The very modernist pedagogy that killed the plaster cast has revamped it in the Yale architecture building as an icon. Displaying plaster (the fake) over concrete (the real) creates a dialectical relationship of thesis-antithesis. If we discover the abstract principles underlying the old figurative art, then old and new will be equated and a dialectic synthesis would be achieved. One set of plaster casts includes the Parthenon's Panathenaic frieze. Another highlights Renaissance sculpture. I once sneaked into the "pit," the central studio space, and discovered a colossal plaster statue of Athena watching over the sleepless students.

My friends from Austin asked me to take some photographs of this arrangement, rarely discussed in Rudlolph scholarship. The images were taken this weekend (on Valentine's Day; after a Valentine's Lunch with my wife and daughter at our favorite Asian restaurant)

Plaster casts hanging on chiseled concrete, overlooking the library space. Louis Kahn's Yale Art Gallery (from which the plaster casts were mined) is seen through the window on the left.

Another dramatic composition of rough and smooth, abstract and figurative.

Detail showing steel clamp holding the plaster attached to the concrete wall.

Detail of Caproni Reproductions stamp. Caproni was an Italian workshop that produced plaster casts in Boston. A fabulous order catalog from 1911 is available on line, P. P. Caproni and Brother, Catalog of Plaster Reproductions from Antique, Medieval and Modern Sculpture: Subject for Art Schools (Boston, 1911)

An exhibition on Paul Rudolph's work is currently on display inside the renovated building. Model City: Building and Projects by Paul Rudolph was curated by Timothy Rohan (UMass, Amherst). A webcast of Rohan's lecture at the Library of Congress can be seen here. The exhibit highlights other masterpieces in New Haven, like the Temple Street Parking Garage (my favorite garage in the world) and Crawford Manor, which became Robert Venturi's foil to his own Guild House in
Learning from Las Vegas (1972). My favorite exhibit was Rudolph's own house in New Haven. Rudolph was dean of architecture at Yale, and in1961 he bought a house on 31 High Street. Rather than raising the building, he preserved the 1850s Italianate structure and added a modernist wing in the rear.

1 comment:

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States