Art and architecture: which comes first?

CHAPTER 5: Abstract architecture

Even when an artwork references an architectural structure explicitly, it isn’t always visually obvious. Stuart Davis’s Lawn and Sky, for example, requires a long, focused look at the vivd planes and shapes in order to begin to read them as a landscape. Louise Nevelson’s sculpture, on the other hand, naturally coheres as a built structure, but its cluster of towers and steeples confound identification—as she once said, she considered herself “an architect of shadow…and light,” perhaps even more so than of tangible objects. Finally, works like Jim Campbell’s Street Scene and Ellsworth Kelly’s soon-to-be-built Austin fuse abstraction with architecture in new and unexpected ways, prompting us to reconsider the parameters of the built environment and how we exist within it.

Dawn's Presence - Two Columns

Louise Nevelson
Pereyaslav, Russia, 1899 - 1988, New York, New York

Dawn's Presence - Two Columns
Painted wood
294.6 cm x 170.2 cm x 78.7 cm (116 in. x 67 in. x 31 in.)
Purchase as a gift in memory of Laura Lee Scurlock Blanton by her children, 2005
2005.1

Manhattan frequently inspired Louise Nevelson. She saw the city as a monumental and ever-changing sculpture. “All I need is to feel New York coming through the wall,” she told a reporter the year this work was first exhibited. Composed of found wooden objects from lower Manhattan and seen in the round, "Dawn’s Presence—Two Columns" evokes a city-like perspective; just as buildings in a skyline appear to shift as the viewer walks around them. Nevelson built her career on the color black, which first coated her monochromatic sculptures and wooden installations in the 1950s. She exhibited her first white-painted sculptural installation in 1960. The artist broke up the larger pieces of the installation and reintroduced them later as discrete sculptural works such as this—a frequent practice of hers. The artist first exhibited "Dawn’s Presence—Two Columns" in New York in 1976 as part of a larger work comprised of several loosely arranged sculptural towers. Nevelson explained, “If you paint a thing black or you paint a thing white, it takes on a whole different dimension. I feel that white permits a little something to enter . . . a little more light, just as you see it in the universe.”

Lawn and Sky

Stuart Davis
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1892 - 1964, New York, New York

Lawn and Sky
Oil
47.3 cm x 57.5 cm (18 5/8 in. x 22 5/8 in.)
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991
1991.205

Stuart Davis frequently thought of his compositions in relation to jazz, which he considered the musical counterpart to abstract art. This is evident in "Lawn and Sky," in which Davis superimposed several views of his summer retreat in Gloucester, Massachusetts, within a single composition. The work hints at musicality in colorful symbols scattered throughout the picture: a pink squiggle resembles a bass clef, egg-like spheres appear like a two-note chord, and the red infinity symbol, or gruppetto, indicates a sequence of notes that boomerang up and down before returning to their principal note. Artist Robert Henri, who mentored Davis and who is also represented in the Blanton’s collection, encouraged his students to pursue spontaneity in their work. As in jazz, Davis’s decisions regarding the composition of "Lawn and Sky" are both harmonious and spontaneous, generating a visual rhythm.

High Yellow

Ellsworth Kelly
Newburgh, New York, 1923 - 2015, Spencertown, New York

High Yellow
Oil
204.6 cm x 146.8 cm (80 9/16 in. x 57 13/16 in.)
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991
1991.246

Nature was a primary source of inspiration for Ellsworth Kelly, and it is tempting to read "High Yellow" as a landscape with green grass, blue sky, and yellow sun. But Kelly believed that art should transcend the quotidian experiences of daily life. Though he derived his compositions from the world around him, he did not intend his work to be seen as representational. As he once said, “The form of my painting is the content.” In order to achieve a purity of form, Kelly took inspiration from the works of anonymous medieval craftsmen and eliminated the trace of his hand from the canvas. By pointing beyond the personal, he felt he could conjure the universal. Kelly is widely known for his intuitive use of color. Yellow, in particular, figures prominently in the artist’s practice—most notably at the beginning and end of his color spectrums. The hue also takes the topmost position in the colored-glass window designs for "Austin," Kelly’s most monumental work and the only freestanding building he designed, given to the Blanton in 2015.

This art object can not be displayed

Image credit:
Stuart Davis
Lawn and Sky, 1931 (detail)
Oil on canvas
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991
1991.205

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