Book Review: Two Buell Center Books

Studio and Cube: On The Relationship Between Where Art is Made and Where Art is Displayed by Brian O'Doherty, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2008. (Amazon)
Architecture of the Off-Modern by Svetlana Boym, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2008. (Amazon)

The first two volumes in a series related to The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture's FORuM Project, dedicated to exploring relationships among form, politics, and contemporary/urban life, focus on artist's studios and gallery spaces (Studio and Cube) and the lasting impace of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (Off-Modern). Each essay is short (40 or fewer pages) and heavily illustrated, the exception rather than the rule with other books on theory. These traits, combined with clarity of writing and purpose, make for enjoyable and thought-provoking reads.

A sequel to his seminal essay Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, O'Doherty's book starts in 1964 in New York City, when artist Lucas Samaras moved the contents of his studio to a gallery on 57th Street, and ends in Paris with Constantin Brancusi's studio replicated recently as a museum designed by Renzo Piano. Within these two extremes -- the conflict of the messy act of creating art with the pristine setting of the white cube gallery and the transformation of the studio into a gallery space in its own right -- the author (also an artist) frames his look at art in the last 40 years with three forces that defined the studio and transformed the gallery: the myth of artistic creation, its transference to the studio itself, and the reduction of the studio as a place for seeing art. As a nearly ubiquitous container, the white cube, to the author's contention, is challenged by alternative media beyond painting, such as video, film, performance, and installations. The white cube can be seen as the art world's means for commodifying art, presenting it as something to be purchased for domestic white cubes. In this sense, the infiltration of other art forms complicates things, challenging the setting and the role of art in consumer society.

Svetlana Boym's essay looks at one of the most recognizable unbuilt monuments of the 20th Century, Tatlin's Tower, planned for St. Petersburg. The author takes the unbuilt condition as the Tower's defining trait, what has made it influential to this day, stemming from its malleability deriving from it never reaching a "final" form. Tapering as it rose in a spiral, the exposed steel frame that appears dynamic is an armature for three actually dynamic forms (cube, pyramid, cylinder) rotating at different rates (year, month, day). Boym looks at other works by Tatlin, including prototypes for flying machines and still lifes, and finds an emphasis on adventure over function. In her analysis of art influenced by Tatlin's Tower, the author reveals her theory of the Off-Modern, as an alternative approach to form and function that prizes adventure and passion, that between imaginary architecture and material experience.