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Constructing Circles

The father of skyscrapers, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) led the way to twentieth century modern architecture. He is known for coining the phrase “form ever follows function,” and for advocating that a building’s exterior should reflect its purpose and interior environment. Unlike his modern followers who practiced clean clarity, Sullivan developed a style of ornamentation that introduced nature through symmetrical use of stylized foliage and organic geometric forms. Versed in the poetry of Walt Whitman and the writing of Thoreau, Sullivan designed a new American architecture that was based on the nature of plants. In particular, he observed the seed germ, the seedpod, and flowering, relating the process to the creation of a building. His work included bold geometric facades with arched openings, walls with sculptural elements of terra cotta, vertical alignment of windows, highly decorated friezes, and a passionate use of ornamental vines and foliage.
In 1894, the construction of Sullivan’s thirteen-story Chicago Stock Exchange building was completed and became an early masterpiece of the skyscraper. Sullivan and his engineer partner Dankmar Adler dressed the exterior walls in eggshell white terracotta, and covered the base, two floors of storefronts, with exquisite, abstract floral ornament. Sullivan capped the building with a squat colonnade, and a bold projecting cornice. Inside the building, he designed openwork elevator cages using a seed motif to respond to the building’s trade function. The elevator screens showed abstract vegetal ornamentation, a grid of stylized seedpods that brightened the severity of the iron. In 1972, the city demolished the historical building, and the trading room that was salvaged has been on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago. The building’s distinctive arched entrance stands outside the Art Institute at the corner of Columbus Drive and Monroe Street. Other fragments of the demolished building’s interior are in various museum collections nationally and internationally, and the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art is currently showing two elevator screens in the lobby.
Architecture engages in forming answers while fine art explores questions. Chicago- based artist Judy Ledgerwood (b. 1959) creates abstract compositions that resonate renewal through color and form. On creating new space Ledgerwood reflects: “I decided that the most interesting thing I could do would be to work flat and to make paintings that were extremely flat but that would project out into the space and to try to address the architectural space, because the space in front of the wall seemed to be the only space that hadn’t been addressed sufficiently in painting... I think that there’s a lot of room left to really address the viewer. I think that's probably one thing that the Renaissance really did well, but they did it narratively and they did it through the formal construction of the painting. And I’m trying to address the viewer not through some narrative hook, but to address the viewer because the paintings envelop the space” (from an interview in Painters’ Table Online Magazine, April, 2012).
Ledgerwood’s Chromatic Patterns are wall paintings with repeating patterns in rich colors and irregular edges. The wall paintings appear to hang on imaginary support, and the patterns seem to be draping the walls. On December 23, The Smart Museum is opening a new, site-specific wall painting, entitled “Judy Ledgerwood: Chromatic Patterns” that will be comprised of horizontal bands of boldly colored patterns that run across the large central wall in the museum’s reception hall. The work responds to the symmetrical architecture of the space and, through repeating patterns, the artist reflects on the design of Louis Sullivan’s elevator screens for the Chicago Stock Exchange building that are on view in the lobby. While Chromatic Patterns will be hand-painted in tempera directly on the wall, it will, in the artist’s words, “hang tapestry-like” with drooping and irregular edges that assert the primacy of the painting over the clean lines and modernist architecture of the space. The exhibition runs through July 20, 2014.

Published: December 07, 2013
Issue: 2013 Philanthropy Guide