Did Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime kill the artist/architect relationship?

In his 1908 manifesto Ornament and Crime, Adolf Loos laments the use of ornament as a means of architectural decoration at the expense of simple lines and plain white walls-walls he associates with Zion, the holy city (reprinted in K. Smith, Introducing Architectural Theory, 2012).

Loos believed the people of his generation had moved beyond the need for ornament and were more sophisticated that their forbearers whose taste for rich detail demonstrated a lack of cultural hegemony. It is worth noting that Loos writes his essay during the early years of what would become the most tumulus century on record, and in Vienna, Austria, no less, whose famous and overly adorned palaces and opera halls were at odds with the more modern designs beginning to show promise as one moved ever westward.

Loos supports his critique by claiming ornament of his time has no place in contemporary building design, unlike in the past when ornament employed by Gothic and Baroque artisans were integral to the form and function of their often sacred spaces.

The cult of the carts, Laon Cathedral, 1155-1205. Oxen carry the load of stone to the work site for artisans to build the grand cathedral. Ornamental stonework, and the stain glass windows that tell the story of their creation, are the hallmarks of Gothic architecture.

By the Baroque era, the practice of painters, sculptors, and architects working in unison to create multi-media works of architecture was cemented with the church of Gesu, a masterpiece of early Baroque design.

Interior nave and alter, Gesu, Rome.
Ceiling fresco with sculptural campaign, Gesu, Rome.

While Loos may have had a point-artists have been viewed as subordinate to architects at least since the decree was first made by Luis XVI in his effort to minimize the growing power of the craft guilds, the tradition of architect and artist working on site together was for the most part disbanded in the 20th century with the few exceptions of the excellent glass work of Luis Comfort Tiffany and the interior design attempts of Frederic E. Church at his well preserved house, Olana, situated high above the Catskill Valley in upstate New York.

This penchant for austerity and clean while walls begs the question: did Loos’ critique, which was meant to “free” the long suffering artist-including the shoe maker-from the grip of ornamental overlords for whom they worked for low wages, inadvertently disadvantage them by denying him/her the opportunity to engage in major design campaigns and subject them to creating smaller-and less costly-works of art destined for private patrons who exhibit the work in their own and therefore less traveled domestic spaces? All the while the artist’s work is minimized in scale and significance, the architect continues to design major creations for which the multitudes can experience. Custom built Homes, public buildings, sky-scrapers, all are grander in scale since Ornament and Crime was first published-and later supported by minimalist architects such as Le Corbusier-whose villa Savoy is a perfect example of “white Zion walls”.

Joseph Rykwert (1975) addresses this unfortunate reality in his excellent essay Ornament is no Crime in which he outlines various attitudes regarding ornamentation throughout architectural history.  He concludes that ornament may “be seen not as a problem of ornament or not ornament, but as a problem of meaning.” (as reprinted in K. Smith, 2012, p. 41).  In other words, while Loos sees all ornament as politically charged and disadvantaging the artist, plenty examples exist for positive artist/architect collaborations as previously mentioned.

Since 1908, and or more reasons mentioned here art schools have increasingly moved away from the Beau Arts paradigm of teaching students to practice working with future clients to a more bohemian model of art for art sake, while architecture programs have adopted and embraced technology such as Auto-CAD, Revit and In-design. The differences is striking.

There are signs of a resurgence between the artist/architect relationship, however. Only only need look at the collaboration between Herzog and De Meuron who worked with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing as an example.

For now, the artist is reliant largely on the gallery owner and art consultant whose work is vital to connecting artists with architectural projects. One can only hope these important outlets can withstand the economic downturn apparent at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century in support of artists who hope to collaborate on major building projects. The 21st century you ask? That’s right, over 100 years after Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime.

My own example of a collaboration between my studio and the architecture firm of Smith and St. John. This is a painting I created of River Road, Topsfield, for the Topsfield Town Hall. Contact me if you would like to learn more about my commission experience with architects and designers.

The picturesque comes to America, and George Washington gets in on the act

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, c. 1750, oil on canvas, 69.8 x 119.4 cm (The National Gallery, London).
George Washington arrives home to Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Despite overthrowing the British Government in the Revolutionary War, early settlers such as George Washington were keenly aware of the British aristocracy and the trappings of their elegant lifestyle. Among these were lush gardens where one could stroll around “the grounds” taking in the fresh air and sounds of nature. Whereas English landscape painting tended to emphasize the aristocracy as portraiture-note the scale of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews in the Thomas Gainsborough painting compared to that of George Washington which shows him engulfed in his vast property, almost as an afterthought-American painters sought to celebrate the land itself: natural, unspoiled, and vast. Acres of raw land complete with huge trees and rolling hills suggesting miles of open space dominate the picture plane as much as Mr. And Mrs. Andrews dominate their landscape.

Autumn, River Road, Topsfield (2018). Mixed media painting, Collection: Town of Topsfield

Celebrating vast landscapes is one of my favorite subjects to explore in my own work. For the commission I completed for the Topsfield Town Hall, the viewer is encouraged to step into the composition walk down the road, rest at one of the fences or sit on the rock wall for a spell and enjoy the view.  And in the spirit of including a small subject engulfed in a vast landscape, I included my self-portrait to the painting leaning against the white fence waving back out at the viewer. To order a large (12 x 25 inch) print, click here. To order a small print, 11 x 20 inch print, click here.

Finished-Resilience, (2020), 40 x 40 x 4 inches. Mixed media painting.

Resilience, (2020). 40 x 40 x4 inches.

I named this painting Resilience to emphasize the metaphors I see within the subject of rocks and water. The rocks demonstrate resilience as they stand up to the pressures of the crashing waves. The waves in turn are resilient against the steadiness of the rocks which appear to resist their constant force and unending pressure. This, for me, is the metaphor for life, and the reason I have chosen to illustrate this subject so often in my artwork. The subject of ocean waves and crashing seascapes mesmerizes us and has filled our imaginations with awe and wonder for as far back as artists have sought to capture this subject. But, the same beauty of the seashore presents a danger-get too close and one is bound to stumble and fall. And as one who has slipped on these rocks more than once, I can testify to how much it huts. But, stay too far away from the surface, and life becomes mundane, boring, no risk, no glory. To purchase this painting, or to order prints, click on the enclosed links.

Office interior lobby . Blank wall for copy space, lots of light, sunlight scene. Black leather sofa. gray floor tiles. daylight scene. designer copy space background

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Pest House in Jaffa

Has resonance for today’s coronavirus pandemic.

The Picturesque Movement gets its start with Ursula and 11,000 of her closest friends.

Claude Lorrain (1641).  Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula. Oil 
On canvas, National Gallery, London. 

St. Ursula, a British princess (in yellow), who refuses to marry a pagan king, holds the flag with her emblem.  She is returning to Cologne from Rome-a replica of Bramante’s Tempietto in the left foreground suggests she is embarking from the eternal city-with her 11,000 companions who hold bows and arrows, the sign of their coming martyrdom. For her part, Ursula will be shot through the heart by her enraged fiancé. Although the legend of Ursula is not official Christian doctrine, 11,000 virgins embarking on a journey in front of a dreamy landscape made for a fantastical subject for 17th century Romantic artists. Note the golden sunrise in the distance which projects a soft glow throughout the composition. The ships whose silhouettes block the sun, suggest travel to distance lands full of adventure and suspense. Paintings like Ursula, with their glowing light and fantastic architectural renderings, are precursors to the Picturesque movement, a romantic art movement that acted to balance the more rational Age of Enlightenment. The idea of creating a mood using natural light is a feature common to the Picturesque, a Romantic art movement in which artists and landscapers delighted in the rawness of nature-unspoiled, beautiful, majestic, forbidding and wild. Within a century of Lorrain’s painting, landscape art and architecture will become a popular subject in English and American art and architecture.

Detail, Ursula in yellow.

Claude Lorrain is famous for his ability to paint natural light-fading, emerging, brilliant, and romantic. He became so well known for this “stroke of genius”, that “Claude” glass, a treated mirror contained in a box, became wildly popular as a portable drawing and painting aid in the later 18th century by amateur artists on sketching tours. The reflections in it of surrounding scenery were supposed to resemble some of the characteristics of Italian landscapes made famous by his capable hands (V&A Museum, collections).

Claude glass, collection: V&A Museum, London. c. 1775-1780.
Detailed painting of a woman holding a Claude glass. Claude glasses defused the light in the landscape, making for a soft yellow or pink glow, depending on the color of the glass. This colored glass enabled the artist to paint the subject more easily as the defused light softened details that could be more remissly read by the artist. The term “see the road through rose colored glasses originates from the popularity of Claude glasses.

The picturesque subject has inspired artists for centuries. For my own example, I visited Broughton Castle in North Oxfordshire, England. Using the photograph of the gardens shown here, I created one of my first picturesque inspired paintings, which I titled Courtyard Garden, in 2008.

Broughton Castle, North Oxfordshire, England.
My painting, Courtyard Garden, inspired by my journey to England to visit picturesque art and architecture. 30 x 26 inches. Private collection. Limited edition prints available

Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People influences Rocks and Water Composition.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, is a giant painting in which the allegory of Liberty charges toward the viewer ahead of an angry crowd who tramples over freshly dead bodies as they make their way through the streets of Paris. We, the viewer, are clearly in her way, and given the gun tooting youth on her right-holding a canvas bag that had until moments before this action was captured, belonged to a then living soldier, had better move out of her path quickly. The composition used by Delacroix captured in his most famous painting is a simple triangle, a classic compositional technqieu used for centuries before him to highlight action and drama-perfectly incorporated here at the height of the Romantic art movement and its underlying philosophy of the sublime.

I chose this same triangular composition for my seascape painting, the working title of which is Resilience. By anchoring the rocks on the bottom of the painting’s composition, and capturing the image just as the rock in the distance is showing its jagged surface, I sought to create the idea of an anchor, rising movement, the coming of drama, and the idea of the sublime-one can smell the salt air, bust stand in this spot long enough and the waves will charge right at you, knocking you over, tripping you over the hard rock and uneven sandy surface.

It is this idea of the triangular composition, used so often in art history, that informed this painting. Like Delacroix, I seek to include the viewer in the composition from the angle of which they would be standing, the make sure they feel the tension and energy of the action, and to stand their ground or move out of the way. Either way, Liberty will trample over you, as will these crashing waves.

Applying over-beaten abaca to the surface of the painting.

In this short video, I demonstrate how I apply abaca, that has been beaten for 20+ hours, to the surface of the rock and water painting, to give the illusion of pebbled rocks.

Rocks and Water painting: choosing the composition.

The in-progresspainting in the studio, January, 2020.
Notice how the X shape in my photograph is similar to that of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. I chose my composition based on his famous drawing. By using the X format, the viewer connects the foreground and background of the rocks, which act as the anchors for this image-much like Leonardo’s hands and feet of his Vitruvian man act as the anchor for his drawing.  By visually connecting the rocks in this X fashion, the viewer senses the hardness of the rocks against the rush of the waves in an even more energetic fashion. 

Here is a short video of me applying overeaten abaca and flax to the surface of the painting. I do not plaint with traditional media, I use beaten abaca pulp, he same medium first used to create oil on canvas paintings.

In the 17th century, Venetian artists began using the canvases of shipping vessels as surfaces to apply their paints. These canvases were made from durable fibers such as linen, flax and abaca.  It is for this reason that these now famous works have survived to us through the ages. 

Using these same fibers, I have embellished on this idea and created an actual painting method that is just as durable and permanent, and pigmented with light-fast colors to match the rich hues of nature.

My process provides a textured, almost three-dimensional quality to the painting’s surface, thus mimicking nature in all its splendor . . . from its rocky crevices along the ocean shoreline, subtle shadows in a garden path, the fullness and detail of a treed landscape, and the smooth surface of a still lake.  

Natural fibers, beaten into thick coats of pigmented pulp, provides the perfect media with which to create these modern interpretations of representational art.  

I’ll share more about this painting in my net few blog posts.

Sale of River Road Prints meets 1000.00 goal for Tri-Town Council.

Writing a check for 1000.00 to the Tri-Town Council. Photo: Jonah Rehak
A group effort to make this moment happen. Photo: Jonah Rehak
Pulling the five winners of the paper making workshop out of a hat. If your name wasn’t called, it was returned back to the bag for next year. Photo: Jonah Rehak

It was a pleasure to present a check on January 6, 2020, to members of the Tri-Town Council for 1000.00 from sales of River Road prints.

The prints are reproductions of the painting in the Topsfield Town Hall that was commissioned in 2018 by the Panella family in memory of their mother, Joan Panella. Per request of the family, proceeds from print sales benefit the work the council does on behalf of the Tri-town community. A video I created of the commission tells this story in detail.

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who purchased a print from me and supported the council. I also want to thank council members who included information about the print sale on their web site and in social media posts in a herculean effort to promote the sale. Without this team effort, it would not have been as successful.

Best of all, five people who had purchased a print this year were entered to win a paper making workshop at my studio on Saturday, February 8, 2020. I’ll be sure to post photos of the workshop in future posts so we can celebrate the creative efforts of our community members. If you would like to purchase a print, support the council, and be entered to win a slot in a paper making workshop for 2021, please click on this link. Free shipping or in-person delivery to Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield.

Thank you to all for supporting Meg Black Studios. What a great community we live in and call home.

My life as an intern at the Women’s Studio Workshop, Summer 1983.

In the old basement print shop where we worked with silk screening.

I can’t remember this young women’s name, but I remember she was a big help who came to work with us several days a week.

I was thrilled to find out my artwork and subsequent career trajectory have been added to the Women’s Studio Workshop web site. What is my connection to this group, let me explain . . .

In the Spring of 1983, I was a junior in college at SUNY Oswego majoring in studio art. One of my professors told me about two women she had met recently, Tatana Kellner and Ann Kalmbach, who were starting a non-profit studio for women artists to work out of somewhere near Woodstock New York and were looking for a summer intern . . . and would I be interested in driving to Rosendale  to meet them and have an interview of sorts. Sure, I agreed.  I remember thinking if my professor thought I was the right person for the job, I didn’t want to disappoint her and tell her otherwise.  Besides, I was 21 years old and what else was I going to do for the summer?

I remember meeting Ann for the first time on a very rainy day in May in the “old house.” I must have brought some of my student artwork with me and a good attitude because she invited me return for the summer to intern.  I would be sleeping in the attic next to the paper making studio-I know, a paper making studio in an attic-what could possibly go wrong?  And I would earn something like 6 college credits. No, I would not be paid, but I would have full use of the studio. As it turned out, I was their very first summer intern, a source of pride if I am to be completely honest.

I can say this now after all these years: I was scared to death driving back there for the summer and kept wondering what had I gotten myself into. I remember arriving at nighttime and feeling my way around the now empty house as everyone had left for the day. Here I was all alone, a very naive girl from central New York, living in the attic of an old house where I would often wake up to someone rummaging around my room looking for their dried sheets of paper.  I knew nothing of women’s art or their struggles with the art world (this was a few years before the Guerrilla Girls) and was totally unprepared for the experience of working with complete strangers.  Oh yeah, and I don’t remember hearing anything during my interview about helping to build the new studio; I’ll never forget the day we poured the cement floor for the new building at Binnewater-half way through the truck dumping the cement, the skies opened up and it started raining cats and dogs. What a mess!

But, as I look back on this experience, I now see I was one brave young girl who didn’t let fear or nerves stop me.  I knew I had something to learn from these women and I was determined to show them they made the right decision in offering me the internship.  I remember working very hard, making good friends and finding myself emerged in a culture of caring women for which I have not know many times since.

I look back at this experience and can see all the difference it made in my life. I learned bookmaking from Susan King, the resident artist that summer and then went on the teach book arts at the Massachusetts College of Art and SACI International in Florence, Italy.  Like Ann and Tatana, I earned a MFA (and a PhD) in art and art education and have taught over 6000 of my own students over the years with their sage advice and good humor riding on my shoulders (sorry about spilling the red pigment on the attic floor . . . . ) and I can say with all the certainty I can muster that I wouldn’t trade this experience in for the world.

Thank you Ann and Tatana for believing in me, for helping me find my voice, for pushing me to do my best work, and for all the efforts you have made over the years for countless other 21 year olds who are just as scared as I was but who want a chance to grow and challenge themselves. Let me know if you ever need me to talk to a young person who is thinking about interning at WSW for a summer.  I’m happy to share my experience with the next generation and let them know how eternally proud I am to be a member of the WSW extended family.