Modernist Architecture and Hans Hofmann: Some Added Context

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This essay by JJ Bauer (Visual Resources Curator and Lecturer, Art Department, UNC-Chapel Hill) includes selected information and images from her February 24th Art For Lunch talk at the Ackland.

Modernist Architecture and Hans Hofmann: Some Added Context

24ANTIQUES2_SPAN-popupBefore they worked with Hans Hofmann on mosaic murals for building projects in New York, there is evidence that architects William Lescaze and Kelly and Gruzen were already incorporating modernist abstract mosaics into their designs and rethinking the place of other forms of art in modern architecture in the 1950s.

A Known Precedent

Noted International Style modernist architect William Lescaze incorporated a 60 foot wide mural by Max Spivak on the long interior wall of the two-story lobby of the Calderone Theatre in Hempstead (Long Island), New York in 1948-1949, in his own words, “to bring life and interest to a very large wall located in a strategic area.”[1] The mural was then reflected back at movie-goers from a mirror on the opposite wall as they arrived at the mezzanine level via escalator from the lobby. 711-Third-web  750_750_1_e52384b0-4c98-b5b4-f788-d425a17bc0feThe architect was not unique in thinking Spivak’s non-objective mosaics were appropriate artworks to be incorporated into modernist architecture that otherwise eschewed anything that could  be considered superficial or applied decoration. Writing about the nascent career of Spivak in the New York Times, critic Aline B. Louchheim states, “And it seems equally astonishing that modern architecture and mosaic decoration, deeply compatible by nature, should not by this time have had a long and prolific marriage. For modern architecture finds its beauty through expression of its structural design and through emphasis on the intrinsic handsomeness of its materials. And mosaics, becoming an integral part of the architectural elements, enhance them without obscuring their function.” She then goes on to speak about mosaics in terms comparable to those Clement Green
berg was also just beginning to apply to the New York School of painters that included Hans Hofmann, emphasizing mosaics’ use of color, variations in tone, irregular pieces, and, above all, flatness and formal patterning.[2]
e01c6d1bc4e250529523a10e7ef0dfd9&ext=Lescaze would again argue in favor of abstract mosaics and sculpture being included in the design for 711 Third Avenue, convincing the developer Melvyn Kaufman that it needed “‘some color…some life’ …nobody was putting art in their buildings.” Lescaze had Kaufman commission Hans Hofmann’s mosaic for the lobby’s elevator block and Jose de Rivera’s stainless steel sculpture, Continuum, for the building entrance.[3] Rivera certainly understood the purpose of the commissions and their relationship to the architecture, saying of his sculpture, “My idea was to integrate a form with a wall; to provide pleasurable animation for the area.”[4]

And Maybe Another?

Hugh Kelly and Barney Gruzen were also International Style modernist architects, inspired by the white walls, piloti and ribbon windows of Le Corbusier, but a firm that took a much lower profile approach than Lescaze to having consistent work, designing mostly for the government and institutions, especially notably for New York schools. Before working with Hans Hofmann on the New York School of Printing, they built New York’s first post-World War II high school, the General George W. Wingate School, 1952-1955, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The building0001 (1) 0002itself is a good example of modernist functionalism, with a low horizontal rectangular administrative wing pulled out from a taller main wing of classrooms encircling an auditorium (and thus leading to its nickname of the Banjo School).[5]

The Wingate High School was closed by the NYC Department of Education in June 2006 and divided into four smaller magnet schools, so finding information on other aspects of its architecture have been challenging. But sometimes Google search can bring up interesting and tantalizing nuggets of information that hint at the possibility of something more to be discovered in a trip to Brooklyn. Image searches for “Wingate High School” were turning up the following:

From at least 1958 to 1965, the Wingate High School Yearbook cover was a modified photograph of different details of a larger modernist mosaic. Images inside the yearbook, in addition to the usual individual student photos, also seem to mostly be of the grounds and exterior and classrooms of the Wingate High School itself. Given that high school yearbooks are often named after something of significance to the students at the school, and the repeated use of details from the same mosaic, could it be that Kelly and Gruzen also commissioned this artwork as integral to their building as Hans Hofmann’s would be to the New York School of Printing later? The mosaic is somewhere between representational and abstract, a flattened and bulbous guitar next to a severe outline of a figural bust, bottles and measuring tools near squiggles and irregular trapezoids, in a muted color palette but bearing a similar tonal variety of color to that in Hofmann’s later and brighter work for the High School of Printing. Who is responsible for this mosaic and where might it be located?

mosaicIllustrations:

  1. Mosaic mural by Max Spivak in the lobby of the Calderone Theater in Hempstead, N.Y., designed by the architect William Lescaze. Source: William Lescaze Papers via http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/arts/design/mahoganys-history-in-slavery-in-the-caribbean.html.
  2. William Lescaze, 711 Third Avenue, New York City, 1956 and view of the lobby entrance with Jose de Rivera’s Continuum just visible on the left exterior wall and Hans Hofmann’s elevator mosaic peeking out from the interior back left. Source: UNC VRL Collection.
  3. William Lescaze, 711 Third Avenue, New York City, 1956 and view of the lobby entrance with Jose de Rivera’s Continuum just visible on the left exterior wall and Hans Hofmann’s elevator mosaic peeking out from the interior back left. Source: https://www.honestbuildings.com/project/#!/view/68017/711-third-avenue-lobby-renovation.
  4. Architectural proposal for General George W. Wingate High School, Hugh Kelly and Barney Gruzen, Brooklyn, NY, 1952-1955. Source: http://www.brooklynvisualheritage.org/general-george-w-wingate-high-school
  5. Yearbook cover for the Wingate High School, 1958. Source: http://www.classmates.com/places/school/Wingate-High-School/267
  6. Yearbook cover for the Wingate High School, 1964. Source: http://www.classmates.com/places/school/Wingate-High-School/2676
  7. Detail of Hans Hofmann’s mosaic mural at the New York School of Printing, 1958. Source: Kenneth E. Silver, Walls of Color: The Murals of Hans Hofmann, Bruce Museum (Greenwich, 2015), p. 59.

[1] William Lescaze as quoted in Eleanor Bittermann, Art in Modern Architecture, Reinhold Publishing Corp. (New York, 1952), p. 58. In an interview with the NY Times about her book Long Island Modernism 1930-1980, Caroline Rob Zaleski confirms that Max Spivak’s murals are still intact in situ, even though the building is now used as a church. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/arts/design/mahoganys-history-in-slavery-in-the-caribbean.html

[2] Aline B. Louchheim, “An Ancient Medium in Modern Use: Mosaic Craft Adds Color To Our Architecture And Ocean Liners,” New York Times, Oct 5, 1952, p. X9. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[3] Melvyn Kaufman as quoted in Pamela Hanlon, Manhattan’s Turtle Bay: Story of a Midtown Neighborhood, Arcadia Publishing (Charleston, 2008), p. 30.

[4] Jose de Rivera as quoted in Henry Hope Reed, The Golden City, W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. (New York, 1970), p. 29.

[5] Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, David Fishman. New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism Between the Second World War and the Bicentennial, Monacelli Press (New York, 1995), p. 921.

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