Decompressing from the luminous double feature of “Antonio Gaudi and the Catalan Spirit” and “Louis Sullivan and the Uses of Ornament,” I had a fantasy that I ran into Andrew Carnegie on Fifth Avenue at 91st Street, just outside his old manse that the Smithsonian has transformed over the past decade into the most imaginative design museum in the world. This is the AC whose passion for bringing classical replicas to Pittsburgh for the edification of its burghers was memorialized last year with a centennial Corten by Richard Serra! AC looked mighty despondent until I explained to him that both Gaudi and Sullivan gave a considerable boost to steel and iron sales with their diverse geniuses. (The most depressing thing to the shade of AC about the Serra was that they had to go to Lukens Steel to get the Corten. Coatesville instead of his Bigger Pittsburgh! What a bummer!)
It is odd that the three most inventive architectural artists we have come to associate with Art Nouveau—Macintosh of Glasgow, Gaudi of Barcelona, and Sullivan of Chicago—were non-Metros, talking their newly engoldened local businessmen into buying their fresh stuff. (The Chicago crowd chickened out during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, setting back American architecture fifty years, as a glum Sullivan conjectural.) At least, given our Post-Modernist overreaction to BowWowHaus. I saw the Sullivan at the Chicago Historical Society where it originated, and where the galleries were more spacious. Here they have a number of fresh angles, including retrieving the disassembled parts of the Chicago Stock Exchange elevator from thirteen different collections.
But Gaudi and his peers are C-H originals (and only). It was almost as levitating as the first time I turned a corner in Barcelona and saw La Sagrada Familia. I must have visited it a dozen times since 1970, but the sense of exaltation (after an all-night train ride from Geneva) eighteen months ago was the same, like a surge of joy. So to see how Gaudi emerged with his contemporaries Puig and Montaner is simply overwhelming. There is furniture, mosaics, iron work as well as the architecture itself presented in good photos and even more delectable drawings. (Gaudi’s first student project, a sort of high tech Venetian gondola stop for the Barcelona waterfront, though interesting in its own right, shows just how far the genius developed under the fiercely partisan sun of Catalonian nationalism.) You have until June 9 to savor Gaudi and his fellow Catalans, June 28 for Sullivan. If you go, your riches will be embarrassing, because “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings: Creating a Corporate Cathedral” will run until July 19. What a triple ploy for the founding director’s exit. What a tough act to follow.
From Art Matters, July 1987