Robert Slutzky

PaintingRobert Slutzky is best known for his essay ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’ written with Colin Rowe written in 1955-56 and published in 1964. My reflection here is personal having studied and worked (briefly) with Slutzky in the 1990s. His influence was significant but then again I was trained by and then worked with many of his former students or alumni of the Cooper Union and the University of Kentucky, School of Architecture. In retrospect, one of the fascinating things about Slutzky was that while he was a painter and architectural thinker (I think theorist is too loaded a word and his written output was not minimal) he was very careful about the differences between the two disciplines. Yes, he constantly drew parallels between the two and often compared the kind of spaces (phenomenal and literal) that each makes, but I think he always spoke as a painter about architecture. By this I mean what I think Le Corbusier meant when he said ‘everything is architecture’. This doesn’t mean that chairs, poetry, mountains, pencil sharpeners, and pictures are architecture, but that anything can inform architecture. Thinking about what film can make one rethink about architecture is different than making architecture-as-film. In this day of the tyranny of inter- and multi-disciplinarity, I think the distinction is an important one. Slutzky could often look at architecture as a painterly composition but this was never meant to be understood that architecture and painting are the same thing. He was careful to say in his lectures that what he was reading in architecture, specifically in the work of Le Corbusier, were a recurrent set of visual and spatial themes that were worth looking at, BUT that architecture, of course, included social, political and economic aspects. It was simply that he wasn’t talking about those things. We have been too quick to dismiss formal, compositional, and other ways of thinking about architecture-as-architecture because of the theoretical blackmail of postmodernist mind sets. Yes, social relations, representations of architecture, political and ideological undercurrents, are all highly significant in understanding a work of architecture but this doesn’t make the formal go away. I have, since the 1990s, become quite vocal about our neglect of the social and political aspects of architecture, but I believe that these have a stake in the formal conditions of architectural space. I never felt the need to renounce my understanding of how architecture works spatially, compositionally and formally in order to probe into its other ephemeral aspects. I can’t say that Slutzky was directly responsible for me thinking in this way but his care with words made me think deeply about what they meant and what his ideas were about.

Another ‘lesson’ I took from Slutzky was the relationship between thinking about something (analysing it) and making or creating work. After completing my studio project with Slutzky, he asked me to help him with a commission for a sculpture he was asked to do (something he had never taken on before). He sent me away with a ‘brief’ – the site, material, and general idea of what the sculpture could be. I came back a few weeks later with a model and some drawings. I based these on some of the many theoretical insights he had about his paintings compositions. Colour oppositions, mathematical relationships, progressions, permutations and so on. He looked at my model and said ‘what if we just move that wall from here to here?’ I said that that would mess up all the various relationships I had carefully set up. He said that it wouldn’t matter and that it would make it better and we’d worry about the arguments later. I was extremely confused and it took me a while to realise he was an artist after all. Making comes first. Theories were a way of trying to make sense of what you made. I later came to a more philosophical understanding of this idea via Hubert Damisch and the idea that works of art challenge the capacity of thought and language and this is what generates theory. This ‘lesson’ must have been behind my discomfort with the way that a lot of published architecture was self-conscious illustration of theory. It also made me suspicious of design processes that simply generated work, that is, where the process was the think designed and the output was simply a result.

Like the best teachers, Slutzky didn’t teach me to think what he thought. He taught me that seeing is a discipline. What he could see in an elevation, section or photograph of a building always astounded me – how was it that I didn’t see that first? This gave me a respect for what is there, the thing, the physical object and its space. Academics would balk at this, but Slutzky’s insights reminded me of Roland Barthes.

“To begin with, we have to look at things very closely, at the ends of our noses, as materially as possible, because only this slight nearsightedness frees us at the outset from the myth of depth. The real flavor is found in the grain, on the surface of things.”

Yve-Alain Bois on Roland Barthes method from ‘Writer, Artisan, Narrator’

Painting 2

So I’ve written all of this and I haven’t said anything about his work. They are beautiful but you have to see them in the flesh and be willing to work with them. In the tradition of Newman, Reinhardt and others, his work will elude you if you expect to ‘get it’ all in a glance. Slutzky was able to explain his paintings with layer upon layer of meanings and organisational or structural guiding principles. But, because he simply painted, there is never, in the end, anything mathematical about them. In his late paintings he became fascinated by what he called ‘the liquidity of paint’. Slutzky has, perhaps a greater reputation as a painter amongst architects, but it’s important to remember he was a painter first and foremost. We should look at his paintings as paintings and not architectural diagrams or demonstrations of architectural theory. To do so is to misunderstand all that he was about.

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Texts by Robert Slutzky

  • Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal (with Colin Rowe), Perspecta 8, 1964
  • Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal, Part II, Perspecta, Vol. 13, 1971
  • Apres le Purisme, Assemblage, 1987
  • Aqueous Humor, Oppositions 19-20, 1980
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