September 10 – October 25, 2020
The irony of a lot of architecture is that it’s meant to be looked at but not physically interacted with. We, the viewers, are expected to take in the symmetries, shadows, and rhythms of the structure from a privileged viewpoint. Lauretta Vinciarelli’s watercolors depict spaces created from this curated perspective. Her work is a conversation with, but ultimately a concession to, the frozen requirements of the architect’s eye—yet this is not necessarily a pejorative trait. Within the nuance of the viewer’s fixed position, her works are packed with a host of philosophical ideals, including the “tragic city” and the “comic city,” Renaissance principles of architecture that experienced a renaissance themselves in the 1980s (when many of these drawings were made). Vinciarelli was a practicing architect, part of the Postmodern movement that included John Hedjuk, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, Diana Agrest and Mario Gandelsonas, Michael Graves, and Charles Moore, but it was her long professional partnership with Donald Judd that seems to have tempered and diminished her need to pin her ideas of light and space to a literal architectural structure. Many of the projects built by her colleagues fell into a historical trap at the intersection of a classical decorative vocabulary and minimalist/modernist simplicity: the buildings bring to mind the neoclassicism of early/mid 20th-century fascist regimes. Vinciarelli’s sculptural meditations, however, slowly morph into completely ethereal studies, subsequently skirting any negative political associations.
Vinciarelli moves from the specific to the general throughout the selection of works exhibited in Intimate Distances. Initially her drawings describe semi-recognizable spaces that could or do exist, but she comes to ground with works that are concerned solely with light and volume as exploration of perception becomes the paramount motivation in her rendering of space. Among the earlier works, Subway Series and Texas Remembered (both 1988) are two sets of three watercolors and are stoic meditations on symmetry, rendered with a touch of dry humor. The buildings depicted in Texas Remembered have arches, columns, and windows, some obscured with bars in a sinister touch. These details summon references to the light, airy, and ominous modernism of Terragni and particularly his unbuilt memorial to Dante, the Danteum (ca. 1938), one of the great poetic and creepy architectural proposals of the 20th century—and seemingly a stylistic influence on Vinciarelli’s watercolors. Her Subway Series again constructs a convincing location, one with platforms that resemble a waiting area in which we have all stood at one time or another. The wit of the works resides in the fact that she insists on instigating an artificially precise symmetry through a strangely reflective mirroring device on the floor. If this subway has a delightful watery reflective pool, where are the train tracks? And where is this train going, as the perspective ends in a small window? The mirroring of the top half of the image in the bottom half is more than a reflection in water, it’s a forced and inevitable symmetry in the world, such as between heaven and earth, or even heaven and hell. The later works on view seem to have shed their false sense of practicality and need for human interaction (beyond looking). In the intense Atrium II (4 of 4) (1991), a nexus of three monumental doorways converge on a square rotunda which descends into a well of blinding luminescence. Piranesi-like, Vinciarelli playfully highlights the fact that this is an architect making architecture that doesn’t work.
Vinciarelli’s light drawings are simultaneously spontaneous and meticulously planned. The series Suspended in Blue (2007) and Intimate Distances (2002) depict ghostly rectangular volumes affecting the illusion of movement: rising and falling. These watercolors catch the perpetual motion of one of those old Paternoster elevators in Prague—boxes that never stop moving up or down (you just have to hold your breath and jump on). Vinciarelli, the investigator, is sizing up these transitions in volume; sensing how the eye and heart respond to the shifting bands of light and hue that appear to crawl up the down page. Similarly in Orange Silence (2000), Orange Sound (1999) and Wings (triptych) (1998) she settles on the portrayal of space in the abstract. This is for the best: while Texas Remembered and Subway Series exude a beauty of perfection in detail, they are quite intimidating. There is a bleak display of cold sharp edges, blank expanses of wall, and pointy angles that assert themselves despite the warm earth tones. They recall the dehumanizing monuments of control like Terragni’s or those by Ricardo Bofill, whose extreme Postmodern architecture culminated in Les Espaces d’Abraxas (1982), outside of Paris, which drew criticism for its embrace of a fascist aesthetic. A drawing by Vinciarelli, Vineyard (1984), expresses a precise layout of vines rounding the base of a mountain and, punctuated by neat little neoclassical huts, takes on an eerie carceral sensation. The huts become guard houses and the innocent green trellises become threatening concentric fences. Vinciarelli’s transition to the abstract acknowledges that the intersection of minimalism and architecture (sometimes with a dash of classicism) is too heavily coded with dark implications. Her aims were much better served by retreating to pure volume as subject matter.