Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tinkering with "Finished" Work

Nicolai Ouroussoff asks an interesting question in today's NYTimes that picks up, to my mind, where we left off in discussing Richard Prince's decision to respond to the fact that he hadn't literally destroyed all his early work, as implied in a 1988 interview, by refusing to permit photos of what could be found from that period to be included in an exhibition catalog for a show of that work. In question in Ouroussoff's article is the decision by the Brazilian master modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer to "tinker" with his own masterpieces:

In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s [Niemeyer, who celebrated his 100th birthday this month] established himself as one of Modernism’s greatest luminaries, infusing stark abstract forms with a beguiling tropical hedonism that reshaped Brazil’s identity in the popular imagination and mesmerized architects around the globe.

In Brasilía, a city that rose out of a jungle in the span of four years, he created at least a half dozen architectural masterpieces — a mind-boggling accomplishment by today’s standards. Today Mr. Niemeyer is held up as one of Brazil’s greatest national treasures, and he seems as spry as ever. He is at work on a cultural center in Aviles, Spain, and another in Niteroi, just south of Rio de Janeiro. He recently unveiled a new line of furniture at the Art Basel Miami fair. And last year he married his longtime secretary, Vera Lúcia Cabreira.

In recognition of the heroic scale of his accomplishments, Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, recently proposed legislation that would confer special landmark status on all of his buildings.

But the greatest threat to Mr. Niemeyer’s remarkable legacy may not be the developer’s bulldozer or insensitive city planners, but Mr. Niemeyer himself.

It is not simply that his latest buildings have a careless, tossed-off quality. It’s that some of his most revered buildings — from the Brasilía Cathedral to the grand ceremonial axis of the city itself — have been marred by the architect’s own hand. And this poses an uncomfortable dilemma: At what point do we — that is, the public that idolizes him, his government and private clients — have an obligation to intervene? Or is posing the question an act of spectacularly bad taste?
It's this last question that I want to begin with: whether it's bad taste to question the motives and/or actions of an artist who's trying to revise/improve upon their part of art history. I mean, unless otherwise agreed to, an artist retains the copyright to the work he/she creates. But does that mean he/she retains the right to alter the work indefinitely? Or is there a point at which, after presenting something as "finished" to the public, let alone selling it and accepting critique/accolades for it as such, that an artist has a societal obligation to leave it alone?

In Niemeyer's case, Ouroussoff offers the following specific complaints:

In the mid-1980s Mr. Niemeyer altered the shape of the arches that frame the main facade of his Ministry of Justice building, sacrificing the elegance of their symmetry in favor of something more whimsical. Around the same time he renovated Brasilía Cathedral, considered one of his greatest works. Designed as a series of parabolic arches that splay open at the top, its form added an exuberant touch to the ceremonial axis. Mr. Niemeyer painted its exposed concrete structure white, and he replaced its towering windows with stained-glass panels designed by Marianne Peretti: changes that detract from the raw force of the building’s upward thrust.

Perhaps most damaging, however, was the completion last year of Mr. Niemeyer’s National Museum [seen above] and National Library along the ceremonial axis. The museum’s white dome, pierced at one end by a long ramp, rests on its concrete plaza with the grace of an army bunker. The interior’s curved walls and lack of natural light — a shame in a climate like Brazil’s — make it an uncomfortable place to view art.
There's a difference between Prince and Neimeyer, in that the implication in the legendary architect's case is that no one is disrespectful enough to tell him to his face that they fear he's no longer at the top of his game. It's an awful dilemma, IMHO, actually. I recognize the fact that Niemeyer might indeed be making choices far more sophisticated than we can appreciate at the moment, that he has actually superceded his youthful genius and is making work that will only be appreciated in the future, perhaps. I also recognize that at 100 years old, he'd be a very rare case indeed if that were true.

Nicholai's other question is even tougher: "At what point do we — that is, the public that idolizes him, his government and private clients — have an obligation to intervene?" There's no way to do that that isn't hideous. A competency hearing might be the conclusion of any attempts to intervene, and a genius like Niemeyer deserves better than that. Then again, what about the public's feelings? Are they to stand by silently watching their prized buildings "tinkered" with by someone who's possibly started believing his own press? Someone whose latest work, as Ouroussoff puts it, is missing that "lightness of touch that could draw you deeper into the work"?

Labels: architecture


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may be naive, but as the architect, he doesn't actually own any of these buildings, right? So, I'm presuming the current owner(s), whether private or government, are giving him permission to "tinker" with them. Perhaps Ourossoff is posing a philosophical problem rather than a practical one, in which case, ignore my question.

I also wonder about the agenda inherent in this question. Who gets to decide the historical relevance of art?

12/26/2007 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

Welcome back

in a few years, after Niemeyer passes on the debate will be whether to keep the changes or restore the buildings to his original beloved design.

I get a sense of an aesthetic bias from Ouroussoff in this article, it is hard to draw conclusions to the result of his changes without side by side comparisons, what could be occurring is something akin to Jimmi Hendrix playing the national anthem, an exciting contemporary interpretation, that appalled patriots, but became a classic, and eventually pedantic.

There must be more to how these changes are occurring, such construction cannot be done without resources, its not like he can strap on a tool belt and go do it himself in the middle of the night (especially at 100). There is some enabling force allowing him to make the changes, providing the resources.

What if Brazil declares his buildings landmarks would that prevent him from making changes it seems to be part of his process to tinker as it was put.

I see Ouroussoff's article to be an example of the kind of academic dogma that is symptomatic with for lack of a better term fundamentalists (although it is grammatically the correct word its context has been hijacked so to speak).

I have just been having an exchange with another artist about the tinkering process, which I'm in the middle of, how at some point as it is said a piece of art is never finished just abandoned, and I have been thinking would a gallery let me change an installation? the change being a solution that solved a dissatisfaction, a kind of that's what it's lacking, that also took it too the next level. I actually did this in grad school with an installation in one of the galleries during a show.

again it goes back to the public nature of architecture, compared to a private piece by an artist, In architecture changes during construction are always made by the architect, and at some point the building is occupied, not all building by esteemed architects are great, case in point the Gehry building in Chelsea, not even close to his best buildings, just a branded product, so again without seeing a side by side comparison before and after it is hard to say whether the changes are improvements met with dogmatic resistance by Ouroussoff, or if the maestro is off his rocker, either way Niemeyer is privileged to have that kind of opportunity.

Ultimately I am more concerned with the landmark status being stripped from NY buildings so they can be tore down, stopping the kind of insanity that made NYU a so called academic institution which sells itself as a pillar of culture, tear down the last building in Manhattan where Edgar Allen Poe lived to build dorms, while i'm sure Graceland will last forever.

12/26/2007 12:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So, I'm presuming the current owner(s), whether private or government, are giving him permission to "tinker" with them. Perhaps Ourossoff is posing a philosophical problem rather than a practical one, in which case, ignore my question.

I'm certainly assuming this is all philosophical in nature on Nicholai's part (it is on mine).

I would presume as well that Oscar got permission, which would spread the blame for introducing weaknesses into what were once hailed as superior decisions. But denying that permission would cause quite a stir as well, I'm sure.

In addition, as with Prince, who no longer legally owned/posessed his early work, but was able to declare it no longer work by "Richard Prince" by asserting his right to authorship, Niemeyer could declare the Cathedral no longer an "Oscar Niemeyer" unless he got to replace the windows, for example. The stir that could cause would lead any government official to let him "tinker" I would think.

Bottom line here is that none of the changes are disastrous...they just (as reported) seem less brilliant than the original choices, which seems a shame.

Who gets to decide the historical relevance of art?

That is the central philosophical poser here, yes. For me, there is great value added to art's historical relevance by its wide celebration by contemporary critics and the public in general. If a building had been widely panned by its contemporaries, I don't think anyone would complain about it being tinkered with. It's the sense that books were written about them, people made pilgramages to view them, they influenced a wide range of subsequent buildings while the architect was still alive to see all that, etc. etc. that suggests to my mind that changing them afterward is something the public has a right to weigh in on (i.e., once the architect accepts the accolades without publicly refuting them he/she has willingly entered into a very public dialog on the merits of the work...and by later changing them calls into question the quality of those earlier critiques, which then gives the critics/public a right to respond to the changes with a bit of ownership of their own). Again, I'm allowing for the idea that the genius who created them later saw certain decisions as flawed and wanted to improve upon them is a valid course to take. I suspect if his tinkering had been widely seen as even more brilliant, though, we wouldn't be discussing it in these terms.

12/26/2007 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

I am torn with this one, Ed. I have to respect the wishes of an artist who wants to go back and revise or update work. Charles Burchfield did this often and it is a feature of several of his larger works. However, these may have been his own works, and not ones "owned" by the public.
Interesting topic.
The author should have the right to theory. This problem at hand seems almost like an ownership issue.

12/26/2007 04:31:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

This sounds like a symptom of the "starchitecture" phenomenon. The famous architect think of himself as an artist first. I don't quite buy it. I think if I owned an Oscar Neimeyer building (as if, I know) I might try to hold the old guy off legally until he was finally shipped off to a rest home, unless there was a drainage problem or something.

12/26/2007 11:17:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

There was the famous French artist who went back into his landscape paintings many years after they were done and inserted figures- he was the subject of a monograph and retrospective a few years ago...

Myself as a sculptor and someone who works slowly and changes their mind about a piece, esp if I get a different vision after it is done on how it make it better- I always say, if it comes back to me after the exhibition, I am going to re-work it which will mess up my slides and documentation of the piece but makes the piece better in my mind- to change it to my new vision of it but if it has been sold- I wouldnt be bothered by it whether it was right or wrong- it would be out of my hands and i wouldnt be looking at it and critiquing it once it left my studio- that is the issue for me- but I am talking one, two, three, four year or five year old pieces, I someimtes feel I havent got them right- but exhibit them for awhile and hope I'll get the right inspiration to fix or finish them eventually... I've also shown work with galleries and had dealers give them back to me to 'get it right' which means someitmes changing the form as well as the surface and/or color

12/27/2007 08:08:00 AM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot- the show was in 1997 and it reconsidered his work from being primarily the reputation of a landscape artist to one who meditated on the relationship between figures and the landscape

12/27/2007 08:17:00 AM  
Blogger Pedro Velez said...

NO, NO, NO, NO...once the work is out of the studio its done, touching or retouching allowed!

pedro velez

12/28/2007 08:22:00 PM  

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