Art and architecture: which comes first?

CHAPTER 2: Crouching artist, hidden architecture

A work of art can assume many identities over the course of its lifetime. Often, those identities are constructed according to the settings in which the artwork first hung or stood. Frederic Remington’s The Charge, for example, was originally painted for the swanky Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City, a fact that suddenly colors the scene with a tint of exoticism. Alternatively, Helen Frankenthaler made Over the Circle by crouching over the canvas laid flat on her studio floor, a technique developed from the famed Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock; those floorboards are therefore integral to the painting’s creation. Or, in yet another example, Donald Moffett’s series, What Barbara Jordan Wore, conjures the architecture of the Texas State Capitol, where the artist first saw the annual portraits he used as templates for his own compositions. Each time we look at these works, we are invited to imagine the Capitol rotunda, as well as the portraits that currently hang there.

The Charge [A Cavalry Scrap]

Frederic Sackrider Remington
Canton, New York, 1861 - 1909, Ridgefield, Connecticut

The Charge [A Cavalry Scrap]
124.5 cm x 348 cm (49 in. x 137 in.)
Gift of Miss Ima Hogg, 1943

In 1906, the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City commissioned artist Frederic Remington to paint a largescale work for its inauguration. "The Charge" (Remington’s largest painting) served as a monument to the tenacity of the frontiersman, theatrically depicted mid-battle. But Remington took equal delight in the musculature of the galloping horses—evidence of the artist’s awareness of recent photographic studies of horses in motion. The artist periodically traveled westward from his Brooklyn home to satisfy East Coast curiosity for tales of the American West, returning with images that helped shape popular notions of the “Wild West.” As the backdrop to the hotel’s lively Grille Room, this teeming panorama provided an exotic parallel to the hubbub of the hotel’s moneyed crowd.

Over the Circle

Helen Frankenthaler
New York, New York, 1928 - 2011, Darien, Connecticut

Over the Circle
213.7 x 221 cm (84 1/8 x 87 in.)
Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991

Helen Frankenthaler produced this work on the floor of her Provincetown, Massachusetts, studio, standing and kneeling inside the black-rimmed circle and applying color with rollers, cloths, and palette knives. Using her signature staining technique, the artist overlapped translucent washes of color with gestural punches of pigment on unprimed canvas; diluted oil paint seeps from the edges of the forms as a result. Frankenthaler had begun working with rolls of unprimed canvas directly on the floor years earlier, inspired in part by Jackson Pollock’s action painting approach. “You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror,” she said, “but you could depart from Pollock.” This work finds Frankenthaler’s practice at its most reductive, her composition pared down to an amorphous image floating in space, just over the circle.

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