When it comes to master architect Louis Sullivan, Chicagoan’s are awash in a sea of riches and even several years after his 150th anniversary year in 2006, we are still celebrating. Several of his notable works, such as the Celtic-Nouveau Sullivan Center facade and the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral have received coverage from ArtSlant, and even the artwork he’s inspired others to create is noteworthy, and is itself the focus of an exhibition presently on view at The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC).
In tandem with that show, Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian, and Chris Ware, renowned comic artist, have curated and designed (respectively) the radiant exhibition up now at the Chicago Cultural Center. It features many of the typical archival trappings, such as tinted postcards, posters, plans, enlarged photographs and engravings and 3-D models, but, thanks to the strong force of Ware’s layout and arrangement of imagery, presents them in an invigoratingly atypical fashion that underscores the unique brand of biography the show spins.
The great heights Sullivan soared to swiftly as a young architect and the pitiable depths he eventually sunk to, is a familiar, and often caricatured tale. Already the stuff of one of Ware’s existential crisis-inflected “Forlorn Funnies,” he set about color coding the show into three distinct time periods, painting each room an equally wistful and antiquarian tone of army green, maroon and navy (à la an Acme Novelty Library publication which features a similarly somber color scheme).
Sullivan’s disheartening setbacks, including some buildings that have since been demolished and some that were simply never built, are tempered by his stunning successes, such as the challenging Transportation Building, constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and the Auditorium Building, begun by Sullivan and his partner Dankmar Adler in 1886. Often taken out of context, his famous axiom, “Form follows function,” initially befuddles when viewing photos of the Auditorium Building in which every last inch depicts features rich details: stenciled walls, mosaic floors, decorative archways and ornate light fixtures. (In the Guaranty Building of Buffalo, New York, even the undersides of stairwells are ornamented) But these details, characteristic of Sullivan’s unique blend of organic abstraction combined with geometric harmonies, actually expound on Sullivan’s spectacular attention to all aspects of the built environment, both structurally and stylistically.
Akin to the page layouts of Ware’s much lauded Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth comic, the reproductions of Sullivan’s buildings and drawings are collaged together, with images and objects overlapping and interpenetrating one another, lending these two-dimensional items an illusionistic depth of field. And despite this patchwork, items still have room to breath, stretch out, and in fact span the entire 30 foot high space, often times scrolling from floor to ceiling on banners or cresting over the edges of free-standing temporary walls, as you can see in the image at left (all images on this page are courtesy of Lynn Becker and his ArchitectureChicago PLUS website).
Like Sullivan before him, Ware’s eye for design encompasses all parts of the finished product, down to the font type. And, echoing the exhibition’s title, Louis Sullivan’s “idea” meant much the same thing; a precise, laborious attention to detail where grand spaces were designed top to bottom, inside and out, to be used. Much like the grandiose scale of the visuals in the exhibition, which themselves are a sort of comic strip meant to be read visually instead of expounded upon by placards, the scale of viewer to the didactic material is breathtaking. In the final room, with an entire wall dedicated to a photographic reproduction of the interior of the Home Building Association (Newark, Ohio, 1914-15), bank teller windows are just slightly smaller then actual size and the one-point perspective with a central vanishing point tops off this virtual trompe l’oeil.
The lack of vitrines and any substantial casework in favor of pedestals and actual architectural remnants, which include wrought iron fencing, light fixtures illuminated by tungsten bulbs, carved wood banisters, cast iron key plates and door knobs, stencils and slabs of terra cotta facades, some of which viewers are permitted to touch (thanks to Samuselson’s generous loans that he has permitted us to pet), gives these objects center stage and the visceral weight and presence that they’re often denied in other exhibitions.
And viewers aren’t the only ones engaging with these buildings and their itinerate-designed objects; several documentary photographs illustrate how people used these spaces in the past, beginning with workshops of metal workers crafting the architectural elements like the ones on view, to suited and mustached men on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange.
The relationship between Ware’s exhibition design and Sullivan’s architectural acumen is brilliant, and amplifies the ways in which each artist engaged the element of time in their artwork. A bittersweet vestige of this, akin to Ware’s comics and the existential crisis the characters that populate them are often embroiled in, is the single, withered fiddle head fern frond displayed on a shelf next to a text inscribed by a then young Sullivan. Without explanation, it becomes a romantic symbol for the promise of unfurling potential and a simultaneous transitory memorial for Louis Sullivan and the mathematical fractals and inexplicable majesty of the natural world that so captivated him.
-Thea Liberty Nichols