by Courtney R. Thompson
It was a serendipitous decision to read Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art in the weeks prior to visiting the opening of the Stanley Tigerman exhibition. I’ll admit it’s initially an odd formulation to think of the Chicago architect as trickster. For me, it was the kind of timing where tangential interests in a particular architect’s oeuvre and mythical narrative seemed to open the door on each another without knocking. The more the curator Emmanuel Petit addressed Tigerman’s interest in dialectics -- the sacred and the profane, immortality and mortality, lightness and darkness -- the more I began to consider how these ideas played out in provocative, trickster-like ways in Tigerman’s plans, writing, and “architoons” (cartoons on or about architecture).
Hyde’s comprehensive historiography offers multiple criteria for classifying the elusive trickster figure that generally wreaks havoc on the paths he crosses. This havoc is not always singularly productive or necessarily destructive. From reading Tigerman’s recent publication of memoirs Designing Bridges to Burn, I had a similar sense of an individual who had a tumultuous impact on his profession. Sometimes the trickster myth alludes to the trickster’s failure, other times to his personal benefit. Hyde points out that to assess the trickster’s value in a cultural mythology is to see him as catalyst, a categorization that echoes throughout Tigerman’s projects. Indeed, my strongest impression of the trickster figure is more of one who reveals the “rules” as flawed and exploits them to reveal new knowledge and/or possibilities, or perhaps even knowledge transformed. In most cultures the trickster thieves from the gods to the benefit of humankind, more to irritate the powers that be than to be lauded as a hero. It is this spirit of engagement that crept up on me as I perused wave after wave of vitrines and their contents that crashed and broke upon the shore of a Miesian past.
Stanley Tigerman, The Titanic, 1978, Photomontage on paper, Approx. 28 x 35.7 cm, Gift of Stanley Tigerman, 1984.802, The Art Institute of Chicago; Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.
After a quarter century of what Tigerman has referred to as the “van der Rohe bandwagon,” a seemingly inescapable legacy in Chicago architecture, Tigerman moved beyond the formal influence of the omnipresent Mies van der Rohe in Chicago during the early 1970s. This aspect is represented in the exhibition through The Titanic, a 1978 photomontage that presents an image of van der Rohe’s Crown Hall building nearly half immersed in water to a backdrop of cloud-filled sky. Tigerman addressed this image in his boisterous text, Versus: an American Architect’s Alternatives: “Really determined sycophants nonetheless may see it as Crown Hall rising from the depths just as iconoclasts may see it as the watershed structure sinking. Given embattled Chicago it could also be easily seen as Crown Hall simply—if tenuously—afloat.” It’s a tricky sort of ambivalence that in the end reveals a dissonance, one that reverberates through many a line in the vast amount of drawings on display.
Stanley Tigerman, Life-Cycle Sketch, n.d.; Courtesy of the artist
Petit, who is an Associate Professor at the Yale School of Architecture, develops an engaging portrait of Tigerman through his draftsmanship. There are a few models and whimsically designed objects, but the architoons and plans are the meat of the exhibition. The architoons are both amusing and compelling; figures reminiscent of a style akin to Heinz Edelmann’s hover and erupt in Hieronymus Bosch-like compositions, dizzying the viewer’s eye. While humor informs many pieces on view, there are poignant moments as in the undated Life-Cycle Sketch that interrupt the reverie. Petit has organized the exhibition thematically around nine areas: Utopia, Drift, Humor, Division, Identity, (Dis)Order, Yaleiana (for Tigerman’s studies at Yale), Death, and Allegory. At times these subjects seem to drift and morph into one another, but the strategy is ultimately successful in avoiding a dreary chronological approach or a reductive didacticism that can occur in retrospectives. It was this constellation that presented an opening for seeing the architect anew after reading Tigerman’s notes that accompanied many of his drawings. I became charmed by the eloquence of his narrative and his investigations into opposing forces that remained non-synthesized.
Most trickster tales begin with a figure wandering. Even a quick peek at Tigerman’s writings over the years yields a similar journey. Some paths are well traveled (Modernism), some are detours (Surrealism) and others appear bulldozed (Chicago School of Architecture). The exhibition provides a similar itinerant feeling by creating a context for Tigerman’s work from projects both built and unbuilt. I’m still contemplating what it means to consider an architect as trickster in a mythology of architecture, but at the end of the day Tigerman’s exhibition left me thinking differently about the roots of the discipline in Chicago and the possibilities within architecture itself.
—Courtney R. Thompson
(Image at top right: Stanley Tigerman, Career Collage, 1978; Courtesy of the artist)