Rethinking Painting toward architecture (1947-52) (2017)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art

| 26 October 2017
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 36(6), July / August 2017, pp. 18-21.

Painting toward Architecture exhibition
Painting toward architecture exhibition as installed at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (January-February 1950). Courtesy the Karl Kamrath Collection, University of Texas at Austin architectural archives.

Emily Hall Tremaine and her husband, Burton, the CEO and owner of the Miller Company in Meriden, Connecticut, are mostly remembered as collectors of cutting-edge 1960s art and for the prices commanded when some of their works were sold at auction in 1988 and 1991. But [in c. 1945-55], Mrs. Tremaine was the art director of the company, and she organized a traveling exhibition, “Painting Toward Architecture”, for the developing Miller Company Collection of Abstract Art. The show, which featured some of the biggest names in modern art and architecture, was seen in [28(+) venues] across the U.S. between 1947 and 1952. Combining experimental art and design crossovers, it also achieved a very sophisticated fusion of art, design, and publicity. The show and related initiatives were dynamic, pioneering, and entrepreneurial. As “Painting Toward Architecture” approaches its 70th anniversary, it seems a good time to reflect on its achievement and legacy. [1]

"Painting Toward Architecture" debuted at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford in December 1947 with over 40 works. A Miller Company press release [from the following show] described it as a "collection of ’modern’ painting and sculpture with the intention of illustrating with actual examples the kind of abstract art which has already had a historical influence on modern architecture, and contemporary work which perhaps has something to offer to the contemporary architect." For example, works by Mondrian and van Doesburg pointed toward J. J. P. Oud’s 1925 Café de Unie in Rotterdam, and later in the exhibition run, Gerrit Rietveld’s Schröder House in Utrecht, and aesthetically beyond. Works by Fernand Léger and Le Corbusier pointed to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1929). Two-dimensional works by Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Josef Albers, and Moholy-Nagy pointed to the Bauhaus and Walter Gropius. In addition, the simple geometric elements in a Kunisada print, Japanese actors (1805), pointed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hickox House (1900). Contemporary works by Stuart Davis and artist-designer Harry Bertoia were presented, and surviving checklists indicate that Roberto Burle Marx’s Design for garden (1948) was part of the show by the time it reached Cincinnati in October 1948.

Sculpture, according to the Miller Company press release, a "medium already dealing with three-dimensional space, has nevertheless been considered previously as merely an ornament for architecture. The [work] of Amino, Callery, and de Rivera, for instance, have more fundamental suggestions about space and transparency to make to the architect.” Alexander Calder’s Bougainvillier (c. 1947) and Henry Moore’s Studies for sculpture (1942), a work on paper, were also included. Overall, the show emphasized visual elements, principles of design, and new ways of thinking about them, at times generating discussion and debate.

Painting toward architecture Miller Company
Painting toward architecture exhibition as installed at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (January-February 1950). Courtesy the Karl Kamrath Collection, University of Texas at Austin architectural archives.

In November 1948, the [book /] catalogue Painting Toward Architecture was finally released with an essay by Henry-Russell Hitchcock. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of MoMA, wrote the foreword. (It’s not clear who curated the exhibition; it was likely Mrs. Tremaine in consultation with her husband and many advisors.) Noted graphic designer Bradbury Thompson designed the cover and the book itself, which includes photographs of architecture with visual connections to modern art. It is not clear when such photos were introduced in the exhibition. They are first mentioned in a review of the show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (December 1948-January 1949) and listed on the exhibition checklist the month after the book release.

The initial nine sites were museums (or spaces that later became museums), then the show appeared at Knoedler Art Galleries in New York (November 1948), an event organized as a benefit for the Scholarship Fund of NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. The brochure lists more than 70 sponsors, a New York who’s who, including the Tremaines. Afterwards, the exhibition was shown largely at art centers and university venues, and substitutions were made for some of the works; by the end of the initial 24-venue run (1947–50), about 25 percent of the show’s pieces had changed. The newly added works included van Doesburg’s Composition (1930), Barnett Newman’s The Euclidian Abyss (1947), an El Lissitzky, and two works by Jacques Lipchitz. Max Ernst’s A beautiful day (1948) appeared in at least four of the later venues, then dropped out. Meanwhile, the fragility of Mondrian’s Victory boogie woogie (1942-44), with scotch tape on the canvas, prevented it from traveling to more than a few venues after the inaugural show in Hartford; its understudy, an exact copy commissioned from the artist Perle Fine, usually took its place. [2]

painting toward architecture
Painting toward architecture exhibition as installed at the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston (January-February 1950). Courtesy the Karl Kamrath Collection, University of Texas at Austin architectural archives.

In addition, a few core works took breaks to appear in other shows. Braque’s Black Rose (1927) ventured off to the Braque exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art and MoMA, then apparently retired from "Painting Toward Architecture" after 11 exhibitions. Stuart Davis’s For internal use only (1945) took a temporary leave to join a three-artist, three-venue show originating at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. The Roberto Burle Marx garden design work spun off to the MoMA exhibition "From Le Corbusier to Niemeyer: Savoye House - Tremaine House 1949” (February-April 1949). MoMA described this show as “based on Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s book on the Miller Collection of abstract art" [MoMA press release], and it featured a commission by the Tremaines— an unbuilt beach house designed by Oscar Niemeyer for their Santa Barbara property, with integrated garden by Burle Marx. [Other architectural designs around this time included commissions of Frank Lloyd Wright (unbuilt) and Philip Johnson for Meteor Crater in Arizona, which the Tremaines owned, among others.] [3]

The [public justification] for the exhibition is spelled out in the press release: "The Miller Company are manufacturers of modern lighting equipment… With the advent of the fluorescent tube as a source of light, they believe that lighting is no longer merely an afterthought to be installed in a building after it has been built, but a functional and structural element which should be ’designed into’ the building by the architect. They have, therefore, become interested in contemporary architectural design. This interest has led them to make this collection of painting and sculpture which has had such a bearing on architectural development and may be of future use to architects."

Surviving communications material reveals the company’s integrated approach to innovative lighting and design. For instance, José de Rivera’s sculpture Black, Yellow, Red (1942), with its implied colorful motion, transforms into a symbolic graphic generating energy for a Miller Company heating division catalogue. Josef Albers’s Flying (1929/35), also in "Painting Toward Architecture", had already appeared on the cover of the 1945 Ceilings Unlimited catalogue. [4] Reduced in size and repeated as inspiration inside, a sketch showing fluorescent lighting strips in a commercial interior proposed a visual parallel to Albers’s work. Loose pages from an attributed 1948 Ceilings Unlimited catalogue (Serge Chermayeff papers, Columbia University archive) suggest other stylish applications.

A new Miller Company logo with two tall "l"s was also developed about this time, with some sort of Albers-Chermayeff-Miller Co. / Emily Hall Tremaine attribution. [5] A glass-encased sheet of Miller Company letterhead, presumably with logo, appears on the "Painting Toward Architecture" checklist for at least six venues, showing another art/design crossover. Used in a full-page advertisement in The School Executive (September 1952), the two stretched letters of the logo rocket up the page. Regarding product design itself, Philip Johnson, then-director of the Department of Architecture at MoMA, is described by Burton Tremaine in a 1951 letter to Nelson Rockefeller, President of MoMA, as having advised the Miller Co. on lighting for three years and possibly consulted on two lighting design lines; the letter offers the gift of the company’s lighting for the museum’s new building. [6] Further documentation about this design work is either hidden or lost.

On the art, design, exhibition communications front, surviving documentation suggests a very sophisticated plan, a predecessor to late 1990s "discussion- generating" London art communications and multi-angled Starck / Schrager designer hotel publicity. [7] Media coverage often pulled chunks of text verbatim from the company’s well-crafted press releases and placed the messaging into editorial copy. These communications, probably joint efforts by the Miller Company and the exhibition venue, were directed at multiple target markets through art, architecture, design, and lighting trade publications. National coverage appeared in Newsweek and influential newspapers. The volume of regional newspaper coverage varied across the venue locations (as [today’s digital access]). In December 1948, both the United Press and British United Press news agencies ran short "new art books" articles that mentioned [Hitchcock’s] Painting Toward Architecture, potentially printed in newspapers across the U.S. and Canada. Event marketing included a number of regional architects’ events at the venues, with some announced in area newspapers. Henry-Russell Hitchcock gave lectures at some venues, as did Serge Chermayeff. Sometimes separate newspaper announcements appeared about the talks. [One also imagines communications to— and through— Miller Co. distributor channels, sales contacts and prospects, but no documentation has yet been discovered. Also to be considered is the Tremaines’ substantial art and design network developed by this time.]

[Overall, the] coverage was largely favorable, sometimes applauding the effort. By the time the show returned to the Northeast for its 10th incarnation, at Knoedler Art Galleries, Carlyle Burrows reported in the New York Herald Tribune, "This collection is one which… has stirred considerable discussion… from Hartford to San Francisco" (November 2, 1948). On the more sensational end, in Ohio, the Cleveland News ran the headline, "Akron’s modern art show has city gasping, ’What is it?’" Two months later, the Milwaukee Journal illustrated a roundup of local shows with two photos from "Painting Toward Architecture" and a children’s drawing (May 16, 1948).

But conflict in the architecture world was brewing. A [book] review of Painting Toward Architecture, published in Architectural Forum a month earlier, stated, "But that painting has had a direct and immediate impact on architectural design… is more debatable; enough so that Alfred H. Barr Jr., who furnished the introduction, is constrained to warn us against exaggerating the relationship. ’It (the relationship) was short-lived so far as composition and plan were concerned and not always salutary.’" [8] In the end, "toward" created division [whereas "and" clearly would have been more palatable and reflected the overall spirit of the PtA project].

The following year, stirring a "discussion" became an understatement. On November 4-5, 1949, "Painting Toward Architecture" was installed for a special viewing in the classic Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, on the occasion of a regional American Institute of Architects conference. It attracted nationwide attendance. On the closing evening, AIA president Ralph Walker gave a rambling speech trashing modern art and architecture, with the exhibition presumably all around him. He declared, "If I may be forgiven, ’Painting Toward Architecture’ makes me think of a ’bull in someone else’s china shop.’" Walker’s speech was later printed in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in two parts (February and March 1950). Charette, a Pittsburgh-based architecture publication, found the debate amusing and published an illustrated parody, "Architecture toward… painting" in April 1950. The most concerning coverage, however, was [a separate article unrelated to the PtA exhibition, or is it? In the University of Rochester’s Tower Times during the exhibition’s appearance on campus, "Is Modern art communistic?" became a discussion point] (October 14, 1949).

[To what extent did this happen elsewhere directly around PtA?] One wonders how these debates affected the presumptive mission— to encourage architects to rethink interiors, [utilize Miller Co. lighting, and increase sales]. One wonders how existing customers and sales prospects reacted. The Miller Company decision-makers [probably] mixed smart business and financial planning with a passion for Modernism— with openness to discussion, brainstorming, and innovation. While there were other corporate art exhibitions on the national stage at the time, the family-owned corporation’s decision-making structure perhaps enabled more experimentation. The book reviewer in Architectural Forum wrote, "through Mrs. Burton Tremaine… the whole program has been intelligently and, from a commercial point of view, unostentatiously made available to public appreciation." [The initiative seems almost "artist-led"— expressive, energetic, entrepreneurial.]

Three decades later, in 1984, the Wadsworth Atheneum hosted “The Tremaine Collection: 20th Century Masters— The Spirit of Modernism.” By then, the Tremaines’ art collecting was legendary. In the preface to the catalogue, Wadsworth director Tracy Atkinson wrote, “[’Painting Toward Architecture’] provided for thousands of people across the country their first serious look at great works of modern art and in particular those in the tradition of geometric abstraction to which the Tremaines had been uniquely sensitive. In addition, the catalogue essay by Henry-Russell Hitchcock was an important formative influence of the entire thinking about contemporary art at the time. I can personally vouch for both, having seen the show as a fledgling art historian in Columbus, Ohio. The revelatory effect… was indeed shared by a whole generation… 1947 was at the very dawn of one of the most exciting times in the whole history of American art."

Following Atkinson in the catalogue, Robert Rosenblum wrote about the Painting Toward Architecture catalogue: "It persuasively suggested that the three traditional major arts— painting, sculpture, architecture— had joined forces in a common endeavor to materialize, even if for the moment more on drawing boards and in museums than in the real world, a dream of a Utopian society founded on an alphabet of new forms." He adds, "To me, at least, the illustrations had a kind of Book of Genesis look, the first wonderful steps of a new version of Creation."

Looking back, how significant was "Painting Toward Architecture" in 20th-century art and design? [This question requires substantial research, so time will tell, hopefully. But for this artwriter, it was the greatest show on Earth. Why, you may wonder?] I grew up in Meriden, site of the Miller Company, [in the town’s] post-industrial 1970s and early 1980s. I wasn’t aware of this history until fairly recently. I have been on a magical, almost mind-boggling adventure of discovery ever since.

For a detailed list of the found 28 (+) venues of "Painting Toward Architecture", documentation, and media coverage, see <www.artdesigncafe. com/painting-toward-architecture-artworks>.

[1] Kathleen L. Housley’s Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the cusp (2001), particularly chapter 6 “Painting Toward Architecture”, was an important starting point for my research.

[2] Ibid, pp. 79-83.

[3] Ibid, pp. 114-15.

[4] Both catalogues are in the Wadsworth archive.

[5] Housley, pp. 102-3.

[6] December 27, 1951; EHTF archive; Miller Company book, 1995, p. 102.

[7] See my previous writings on Tony Matelli (2014), Damien Hirst (2008; 2009), Tracey Emin (Parkett, 2001), and the Delano Hotel, Miami Beach (1999). This footnote is not in the Sculpture hard copy version.

[8] October 1, 1948, pp. 158–59.

Additional note: The hard copy Sculpture article includes the first and third installation photos above; a photo of the sculpture Black, Yellow, Red by de Rivera; a photo of the cover of the c. 1945 Ceilings Unlimited catalogue and page 6 within this catalogue showing a ceiling / lighting design concept.

READ MORE about Painting toward architecture:
1: Painting toward architecture - Miller Co. press release | 2: Painting toward architecture: Documentation and historical information | 3: Painting toward architecture - artworks and designs | 4: Article - "Rethinking ’Painting toward architecture’ (2017)" | 5: Article - "Painting toward architecture: Three works, three histories, three Modern mysteries" (2017) | 6: Miller Co / Tremaine art & design in exhibitions (1945-present)