Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Landscape of the Self: Adele Tutter on Philip Johnson’s Glass House

 Dream House. An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House by Adele Tutter

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion, 1648. The Louvre
Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with the Funeral of Phocion, 1648. The Louvre

The relationship between psychoanalysis and art history has not always been an easy one. Sigmund Freud’s own essays on Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and some minor artists have inspired respectful discussion, but they remain relatively marginal within the art historical literature. Art for Freud is a form of self-expression, which can be interpreted by scrutiny of the artist’s dreams or fantasies.

Although some art historians, like almost everyone nowadays, acknowledge the value of psychoanalytic perspectives, in truth the interest of scholars concerned with visual art have mostly moved elsewhere. Feminism, queer theory and positions on the left have each critiqued Freud. For Because there is a great deal of skepticism about classical Freudian theory, the future of psychoanalytic interpretations of art seems up for grabs.

Scion of an extremely privileged Cleveland family, Philip Johnson (1906-2005) became immensely influential not just as an architect but also as a collector and curator. He played a major role in the Americanization of the modernist tradition personified by Mies von der Rohe. His own buildings — the AT&T building in Manhattan, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center,and Pittsburgh’s PPG Place, to name just three –cut a distinctive profile in the American urban landscape. And his famous, oft-visited Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut is a monument of American modernism. Thanks to Johnson’s earlier biographers, we know a great deal about his life. The story of his dreadful flirtations with National Socialism in the 1930s, and his crucial impact at the Museum of Modern Art have been much discussed. And yet, as Adele Tutter’s monograph on the Glass House reveals, there is more to be said about his career.

cover of the book under review
cover of the book under review

Tutter offers a clear account of Johnson’s strange early family life, his schooling at Harvard and early career at MoMA; and a good discussion of his rivalries with Mies van der Rohe and other modernists. The core of her book, however, is an original interpretation of the Glass House. Seeking a site for a weekend retreat, Johnson purchased a large estate in Connecticut and starting in 1949, by stages constructed a house with all glass walls; other buildings for sleeping and writing; a guesthouse; and, also, underground painting and sculpture galleries. The Glass House has generated a great deal of critical interest, both because of its intrinsic qualities and because of its obvious relationship with Mies’ Farnsworth House (1951), another building with glass walls. Tutter’s analysis focuses on a prominent detail of Johnson’s house, which is not easy to interpret. Johnson collected only modernist art—with one exception. In a prominent location, visible in every photograph of the interior, is an old copy of Nicolas Poussin’s Burial of Phocion (1648). Indeed, the painting is in such a prominent sun-lit location that it’s now badly in need of restoration. Since this is the only old master picture in this small house, it’s fair to ask why it’s displayed in this very conspicuous location. Surprisingly enough, none of the earlier commentators on this much visited-house have asked (or answered) this question.

Thanks to his classical education, Johnson would have known the story of Phocion. Wrongly accused by his fellow Athenians of treason, Phocion was sentenced to death. Poussin shows his body being carried out of Athens, to a dishonorable gravesite outside the city walls. More exactly, his body is being taken on a path that leads towards the bottom right hand corner of the picture. If we follow that line beyond the frame it points towards the hearth of the Glass House.

The precise placement of the painting with respect to the hearth effects a perfect continuity between the subject in the context of the painting and the painting in the context of the house, supporting the proposition that the subject of the painting is the subject of the house. (p. 111).

Like Phocion, Johnson redeemed himself in his later career after his troubled youthful political life. But when questioned about this picture, he said that the Poussin meant nothing. He refused to spell out the meaning of the setting, Tutter argues, because he wanted that visitors look at the placement of the picture and identify its meaning for themselves. Jacques Lacan’s account of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” takes up the story of a Parisian detective who knows that a very clever man would hide a letter not in some secret place, but in open sight. Analogously, if Tutter is correct, Johnson hid the secret meaning of his house right out in the open, in the most conspicuous place possible. But then, it’s hard to hide secrets in a house with glass walls. She has interesting things to say about the underground picture gallery and the sources of Johnson’s thinking in the Mycenaean Citadel, a Greek acropolis, which fascinated the architect. And she links his handing of this site specific art to his deep conflicts about achieving artistic success, and the way that late in life he abandoned Miesean modernism for an eclectic post-modernist style.

The weak parts of Dream House are the appeals to prior theorizing, which sometimes, frankly, feel digressive. The strong portions of the book, which predominate, are Tutter’s compelling explanation (in the preface) of why she wrote this account;and the personal responses she then offers to Johnson’s life and architecture. As she explains, she originally became fascinated with the Glass House for a very personal reason. Her father, a political exile from his native Czechoslovakia, created in upstate New York on a large dairy farm a home “which reminded him of the evergreen trees of his youth, the fabled forests of Bohemia” (p. xii). He wanted, so she now realizes, to recreate the lost scene of his childhood. Johnson, she argues, did exactly the same thing in Glass House, which “is the landscape, the architecture,” of his “inner world—his history and memories, conflicts and difficulties, ambitions and longings. It is the landscape of a self” (p xiii). The result of understanding this parallel, she notes, was to cause a real transformation in how she understood Johnson. If initially she was critical, even contemptuous of this man who was so harsh, ultimately she adopted “a more tender, compassionate, even protective attitude . . . . a deeper understanding” (p. xiii). Ultimately, then, Dream House is less a purely psycho-analytic study than a sensitive empathetic exploration in the way that understanding a landscape can yield understanding both of one’s own feelings and those of another person.

If Tutter is correct, and I think she is, then she has solved a very important art historical puzzle, which no earlier commentator has even identified. And that is a great achievement. Like Falling Water, the manifestation house of Johnson’s greatest American rival, Frank Lloyd Wright, to which it should be compared, the Glass House may seem frankly unlivable. Here, arguably in contrast with his public commissions, Johnson created a highly personal masterpiece. But don’t accept my verdict: read the book and visit the Glass House in person to savor Tutter’s dazzling solution of this puzzle.

Adele Tutter. Dream House: An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House. (Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2016) ISBN 9780813938271 $39.95

A model of the Glass House on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City
A model of the Glass House on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City