Louis Sullivan architecture photographs at Art Institute of Chicago (2010)

Louis Sullivan architecture photographs

Art Institute of Chicago
19 June - 12 December 2010

Press release text by Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago, home of one of the most comprehensive architecture archives and photography collections in the United States, has organized an innovative exhibition that explores the work of Louis Sullivan through the lenses of legendary photographers John Szarkowski, Aaron Siskind, and Richard Nickel. These photographers employed their cameras to document and interpret Louis Sullivan’s architecture and, in the process, helped shape his legacy. Showcasing more than 60 photographs, 20 Sullivan drawings and sketches, and terracotta and metal architectural fragments, Looking After Louis Sullivan: Photographs, Drawings, and Fragments— on view in Photography Galleries 1 and 2 and Architecture Gallery 24 from June 19 to December 12, 2010— provides a rare opportunity to examine Sullivan’s structures and ornamental programs across a variety of media.

Since photography’s beginnings in the 19th century, architecture has proven an ideal and compelling subject for the camera. In the 1950s, photographers John Szarkowski, Aaron Siskind, and Richard Nickel embarked separately on in-depth photographic explorations of structures designed by the renowned architect Louis Sullivan, whose commercial buildings and theaters of the 1880s and early 1890s broke with historical precedents by displaying a radical, organic fusion of formal and functional elements. Attracted to Sullivan’s renegade American spirit and uncompromising values, Szarkowski, Siskind, and Nickel also found inspiration in the play of light over his ornamented facades and the dynamism of his buildings within the bustling city of Chicago. The interest of these photographers came at a critical moment; many of Sullivan’s most important structures were being threatened with demolition in the service of urban renewal, and these photographic projects illustrated the fragile existence of his architecture, provided new impetus for its preservation, and recast Sullivan’s reputation in the annals of architecture.

During his lifetime, Louis Sullivan was known as the father of the skyscraper and served as an important mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright and other members of the Prairie school. His work had largely fallen into obscurity by the 1930s, when a small group of historians began to identify the structural transparency and horizontal expanses of glass in his commercial building as early American manifestations of the International Style that was gaining in popularity worldwide. In order to fit Sullivan’s work into the triumphal narrative of modern architecture, scholars had to dramatically edit his oeuvre, marginalizing his writings and residential projects, and most importantly, disavowing his use of ornament. When photographers in the 1950s began taking pictures that focused on the sensuous, abstract, and even strange beauty of the architect’s façades, they reconstructed Sullivan’s project and demonstrated just how selective previous generations of scholars had been. The photographers put ornament back at the center of Sullivan’s production and drew new attention to it as the locus of art, intellect, and the freedom of man’s creative powers— as Sullivan had originally intended it to be.