Unearthing modernist myths at the Glass House

Last spring, David Hartt unveiled “A Colored Garden,” a dense circle of flowers in the lower meadow of Philip Johnson’s Glass House planted with flowers found in still lifes by a 19th-century black artist named Charles Ethan Porter. This year the flowers are back, accompanied by a neo-mythological film in Johnson’s self-glorifying gatehouse and visitor center and, down the hill, an installation by Porters in the personal clover painting gallery. of Johnson. It’s still the house Modernism built — the architect’s taste for Arcadia sits alongside his Nazi sympathies — but, says Hartt, Johnson’s aren’t the only myths that live there.

PARTNER OF PHILIP JOHNSON, David Whitney was an avid gardener. He would create these exuberant gardens throughout the Glass House estate, until Johnson and Whitney recalibrated the landscape to suit a more austere, controlled aesthetic. This erasure of Whitney and his paternity in the field held the clues of what I could add to the site without straying too far from its history.

The landscape suggests an Arcadian ideal. There’s the fact that it’s New Canaan. There’s Poussin’s landscape painting that Johnson owned, Burial of Phocion, 1648, displayed in the house. But I didn’t want to deal only with what was present. While researching an earlier work, I came across Charles Ethan Porter, a Connecticut-based African-American still life painter active in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He also did landscapes. I was interested in understanding Johnson’s pitches through his eyes.

I looked at as many Porters as I could find and took inventory of all the flowers. Then I mapped these flowers so that A colorful garden would be in constant bloom from early spring until late fall, starting with peonies, then moving on to daisies and chrysanthemums, and ending with zinnias. The size and shape of the garden in the Lower Prairie was determined by the round pool and circular cast concrete sculpture by Donald Judd on the site. The flower arrangement overlaps so you have a full field at all times, even as it grows and changes, like any good garden.

Chez Poussin Burial of Phocion became the key to understanding Johnson’s reference to unspoiled, somewhat wild landscapes, where one could perhaps imagine the wanderings of a shepherd. In many ways, Johnson projected himself into this character of Phocion, this noble general and stoic politician. Johnson used the paint, perhaps, to restore his legacy and reputation. The preservation of a historic house-museum like this is also a kind of writing on the landscape, transforming a personal mythology into a public mythology.

David Hartt, Et in Arcadia Ego, 2022, digital video, color, sound, 15 minutes 13 seconds.  Olympia (Tomeka Reid).

The most powerful mythologies help us navigate the present. For the video And in Arcadia Ego, I wanted to recast characters from classical and contemporary mythology. Another painting by Poussin depicts Orion led to the sun by Cedalion – this beautiful, beautiful painting of the blind giant with those hovering Greek gods. I reimagined Orion as a black woman. I also wanted to imagine other bodies inhabiting the house and occupying the site. Thinking about other mythologies Johnson was tied to led me to Oskar Schlemmer. Johnson donated his 1932 Bauhaus staircase painting at MoMA, which was important in bringing the legacy of Bauhaus and German modernism to America. This coincided with Schlemmer’s cultural exile in Germany under the Nazis. There’s this incredible ambiguity in her relationship with Johnson. What did it mean to Schlemmer to have his heritage adopted by a fascist sympathizer while being persecuted?

In his costume design for triadic ballet, Schlemmer refers to ETA Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman”, merging man and machine. I imagined Olimpia, Hoffman’s character, still as a black woman, in Johnson’s glass house, dressed in a sort of Greek goddess armor but also in the exoskeleton of an automaton. His mask is based on one of Schlemmer’s designs. It is a device that Olimpia can put on and take off depending on the role she wants to play. The mask also sits on the dining room table, where it is sometimes used as a vase for cuttings from the garden. One could just as well imagine it as the mask of Philip Johnson.

Paintings by Charles Ethan Porter in “David Hartt: A Colored Garden.”  Photo: David Heald.

The film follows Olimpia, played by cellist Tomeka Reid, as she gets up in the morning, writes music, makes tea, and starts writing music again. Then she goes into the living room and records the music, then she walks in the garden. She goes to the pavilion on the pond and hooks up the recording to this huge Jamaican sound system and serenades the giant that haunts the place. The sun in Greek myth is replaced by a flare. It’s a distress signal, but it’s also linked to protest. It is a symbol of activism, of occupying the street, of reclaiming it.

In the painting gallery, each of the walls pivots around one of the three columns like the leaves of a book. There are half a dozen additional walls behind each of the three pairs of walls the viewer can see, and they contain works by Frank Stella, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, Robert Rauschenberg and other artists that Johnson and Whitney have collected. All these works are still in the room. But I made Porter’s work visible instead. Its scale is radically different. You think of a huge Stella – the painting gallery is really made to accommodate this kind of work. To hang something as delicate and compact as Porter’s still lifes on it is, I think, an act both beautiful and subversive.

I’m not interested in erasing Johnson. What interests me is bringing out these other narrative possibilities in the same space. Using the garden metaphor – by tilling the soil you are trying to increase its health and productivity, but you are also digging up what is buried.

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