New York

“Figure in Architecture: Michael Graves, Edward Schmidt, Raymond Kaskey”

John Nichols Gallery

This was an exhibition with an idea and a commitment to its investigation, but the boundaries were too circumscribed and the material too spartan for any conclusive evidence to appear. It did, however, focus on an aspect of Michael Graves’ work that is frequently passed over in favor of more controversial issues. It examined the use of the human figure in contemporary architecture through the involvement of two artists, Edward Schmidt and Raymond Kaskey, in the realization of several of Graves’ recent public and private projects. Kaskey made the 35-foot-high hammered-copper figure of Portlandia (Graves’ mythic invention derived from the figure of Lady Commerce), installed in 1985 above the main entrance to Graves’ Portland Building (1982) in Portland, Oregon. Schmidt is currently working with Graves on two projects: he is creating eight figurative panels for the J. Ralph Corbett Pavilion (1984) at the Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a cycle of murals on the history of wine-making for the Domaine Clos Pegase Winery (1985– ) in Napa Valley, California.

While the Portland Building does include figural imagery, it should be noted that Graves and Kaskey were not engaged in a concurrent collaboration. Kaskey’s proposal was selected through a competition sponsored by the city’s Metropolitan Arts Commission when the building was nearing completion. In contrast, the creative connections between Schmidt and Graves have been more studied and planned They have worked together from an earlier point in each project, but there is still no question about who is in the driver’s seat and, ultimately, who is responsible for the success or failure of the joint venture.

The Corbett Pavilion is one of Graves’ most engaging public projects. It responds to a program and site with simplicity, directness, and a welcome modesty. The project consists of a tentlike frame that extends from an open-air stage and terrace overlooking the Ohio River. On the other side of the pavilion, beyond the sloping, decorative roof, is a bilevel pergola, in the base of which are offices and concessions. The project is clearheaded and doesn’t read as a heavy-handed position paper for civic architecture; it succeeds through economy and a balanced use of scale. This spring Schmidt will place eight two-dimensional, porcelain-enameled steel figures above the primary supporting columns of the roof. Based on musical themes, the clothed or nude female figures (which appear to have been administered megadoses of steroids) play horns, triangles, cymbals, and harps. I suspect that they will be utterly incongruous when installed above the no-frills space-frame and geometrically patterned roof. Judging by the model, it appears that Schmidt ’s fat figures will neither enhance this building nor confirm the necessity for a human dimension in contemporary architecture. They are a much too literal recapitulation of Renaissance ideals for a people-oriented environment.

Graves’ recent work is difficult. It often seems scaleless, making it difficult to distinguish between private and civic architecture, and his vocabulary is not modulated by circumstance. But his work is important for the issues it has raised about the successes and failures of Modernism and the ideological vacuum of Postmodern architecture. His efforts to engage other artists in projects is commend able but the results thus far are unpromising. Graves has the wisdom to know that historical precedents used as sources must be transformed if they are to mean anything in a contemporary cultural landscape; Kaskey and Schmidt, however, seem interested only in nostalgic resurrection. The revitalization of the human dimension in architecture is not an unworthy goal, but I suspect that the route examined in this exhibition will leave most citizens still hungry for an appropriate civic model. Looking ahead to the past does have its limits.

Patricia C. Phillips