December 2005

CRITIQUING THE CRITICS

Critique. To critically examine a thing with respect esp. to its conformity to standards--
of logic, for example, or common sense.


Santiago Calatrava
An Architect Who Makes . . . Sculpture?

by Louis Torres

Is Santiago Calatrava (the subject of a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) "a sculptor who designs buildings, an architect who makes sculptures, or an engineer who excels at both"? In James Gardner's view ("The Art Behind the Architect" [excerpt], Front Page, October 18, 2005), it is not clear--"impossible to say," in fact.

Since there is no dispute over the meaning of the terms "building" or "architect," of course, all will agree that Calatrava is an architect who designs buildings. There is, however, a great deal of controversy over what "sculpture" is. That ordinary people tend to reject the notion that abstractions such as Calatrava's "purely sculptural works" (whether "organic," "kinetic," or "constructed") qualify as art has long been known.

At the press preview for the Guggenheim's 1996 exhibition, "Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline," for example, art historian Mark Rosenthal acknowledged in a brief conversation with Michelle Kamhi and me that abstraction still met with "a certain amount of skepticism," though he declined to speculate why this was so.

In his catalog for the exhibition, Rosenthal emphasizes the close kinship between architecture and abstraction. Both, he observes, are "nonreferential . . . unencumbered by narrative concerns." Both, in other words, are detached from life.

Gardner seems aware of this issue. At one point he says that Calatrava's architecture is similar in some respects to that of Richard Meier, whose work "does not--perhaps it cannot--evoke much beyond formal beauty and lustrous competence." For most people, that is not enough.

Art must do more. That is why neither architecture nor abstract "sculpture," such as Calatrava's pretentiously titled Mother and Child (pictured with Gardner's review), can be considered art.

Just before he concludes his review, Gardner compares Calatrava's architecture to that of Frank Gehry. What Gehry makes, is--are you ready?-- "sculpture that presumes to the status of architecture." That makes as much sense as Goethe's comparison of architecture to "frozen music"[*], which is to say no sense at all.

* * *

This critique was first published as a letter (the latest of a series) in the New York Sun, October 21-23, 2005, under the title "The Art Behind the Architect." It was accompanied by a prominent photo of Calatrava's abstract piece.

In a letter published October 31, a reader named Queshaun Sudbury objected to my criticism, asking: "How much more must art do? What transgression has Mother and Child committed?" Does it, for example, "lack concern for the basic qualities of fine art?"

Oh, and what would these be?

Why, among others: "form, medium, composition, color, texture, technique" and "historical context."

So far so good. These are, indeed, basic to sculpture. What Sudbury ought to have asked of Calatrava's work, however, is "does it lack concern for the basic purpose of fine art?"--which is, to convey meaning. Countless mundane objects--a fire hydrant [more], say--have "form," "medium," "composition [design]," "color," and "texture," even "historical context" [more]! But meaning? We have to look to a work of art for that--to sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh's Mother and Child, for example.


* In an interview on WNYC in 2002, architect Richard Meier provided a gloss on the Goethe quotation, claiming that "Architecture is frozen music" was a condensation of what Goethe actually said, which was, according to Meier, "that 'Architecture could also be thought of as silent music.'" Meier further noted: "I think there is a relationship between architecture and music--you could almost call music 'fluid architecture,' because in both there is sense of design, one uses space, one uses form, one thinks about the tonality of the building and always there's an overriding idea in which there's a relationship between the space, the form, the intonation, the mood, the sense of atmosphere. So there are many overriding elements which go into the creation of the idea of the work."

Meier's gloss on the Goethe quotation (if it is accurate) makes no more sense than the original. His own metaphor of music as "fluid architecture" is ludicrous, and even more nonsensical (because drawn out), than Goethe's. It is also self-serving--implying "Mozart's like me!"