James Welling

James Welling discusses his work at the Glass House

Left: James Welling, 0467, 2009, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2". Right: James Welling, 9818, 2009, digital ink-jet print, 33 5/8 x 50 1/2”. Both images from the “Glass House” series, 2006–2008.

James Welling’s long-standing interest in abstraction has often distinguished his practice from his Pictures-generation peers. His recent subjects include Mies van der Rohe’s 1945–51 Farnsworth House and Philip Johnson’s 1949 Glass House. An exhibition of a new selection of works featuring the latter and a video installation opens at Regen Projects in Los Angeles on January 30 and at David Zwirner Gallery in New York on March 24.

WHEN FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT visited the Glass House, as Philip Johnson tells it, he was unsure whether he was inside or outside. He said that he didn’t know whether or not to take his hat off. Another quote by Johnson on the house: “Nature is the most expensive wallpaper.” I think the greatest thing about the house is that you’re “inside” once you step on the property. The Glass House is, in truth, a large structure of landscape architecture and a dozen buildings and sculptures.

In 2005, I started making multiple exposures using six filters (red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, yellow) for photographs I called “Hexachromes.” These images recorded vibrantly colored shadows on succulents in my front yard. I exhibited the “Hexachromes” in 2006 at Donald Young Gallery, in Chicago, and it was on that trip that I had an opportunity to visit and photograph the Farnsworth House. I showed these pictures (also made using six filters) to Jody Quon at New York magazine and she asked me to photograph Philip Johnson’s Glass House using whatever techniques I wanted.

I started shooting the Glass House in 2006 with the same filters I used for “Hexachromes,” but that technique really depended on motion and shadows to produce multicolored images. Nothing moved over the three days, so I decided to hold the filters in front of the lens, sometimes in pairs. This is how I began to incorporate arbitrary colors into pictures of the Glass House. I went back seven more times over the following three years.

I’ve been using the word filter as a noun, but it’s also a verb. A filter lets some wavelengths of light through and certain kinds of information to seep in. In addition to colored filters, I used clear glass, clear plastic, fogged plastic, pieces of glass that were slightly uneven or tinted, and finally a diffraction filter that breaks light into spectrums. Now I bring everything with me when I shoot, but initially I introduced new filters one by one. When I realized I could make the grass red or make sun flares, splatters, and different types of visual activity in front of this supposedly transparent house, or box, the project became a laboratory for ideas about transparency, reflectivity, and color.

In December 2008 I brought an HD video camera to the Glass House and shot some footage, but I wasn’t happy with it. Two days later I went back with my low-definition Canon G6 camera and shot video in the strange, snow-covered Lake Pavilion, which was built in 1962. It turned out to be much more exciting footage than the material I made with the HD camera and it became my first video in thirty-five years. I showed Lake Pavilion in 2009 at Galerie Nelson-Freeman in Paris and at Donald Young. Now I’m working on another video installation, Sun Pavilion, based on footage from that pavilion that I shot in October, which will debut at Regen Projects.

When I work at the Glass House, time seems to speed up. I never have enough time to work there. It’s very strange. One of the problems I have with the house as a piece of architecture is that, although it is symmetrical, the front is the same as the back, there are very few views of it that I work with. I use a frontal view primarily (because you can see through the house) and occasionally I can get something out of a diagonal view. Recently I have been photographing the inside of the Glass House. I’m trying to deal with Johnson’s very precise interior, unchanged from 1949, still housing an Elie Nadelman sculpture, a Nicolas Poussin painting, and an ensemble of furniture by Mies van der Rohe.

While the architecture of the Glass House in itself isn’t so revolutionary, what is revolutionary about Johnson’s house is its conceptual use of glass. This big glass box is plunked down in the Connecticut landscape. It’s such a direct statement of transparency and of reflective surfaces. It’s a lens in the landscape. In my work I’m adding to the conceptual conceit of the house by introducing a new decor of color and of distorted reflecting surfaces.