Art of the Day: TURNING POINT by Philip Johnson

Submitted by Evelyn Kiefer on Mon, 06/26/2006 - 21:52.


You may know him better as the most famous architect to ever come out of Cleveland, but in the 90s he enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to create a sculpture for Cleveland and the Putnam Sculpture Collection of Case Western Reserve University. TURNING POINT has a great visual dialog going with the Peter B. Lewis Building by Frank Gehry (just a few hundred feet away). It is also an incredibly accessible sculpture. It is located in the center of Case campus, just south of CIA's Gund building, in a spot where paths intersect that has historically been called "the turning point." Whether you like abstract sculpture or not, this work has become an icon for Case and the Putnam Collection. If you have never walked through TURNING POINT put it on your "to-do-list" for this summer!

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Turning point is a very important installation

"Monuments differ in different periods. Each age has its own."

"Maybe, just maybe, we shall at last come to care for the most important, most challenging, surely the most satisfying of all architectural creations: building cities for people to live in."

Philip Cortelyou Johnson: July 8, 1906 - January 25, 2004

Cleveland-son Philip Johnson was controversial and important throughout his long, creative, productive life. Like Henry Ford and Lindbergh, Johnson had early intellectual and historic ties to Nazi-ism - like the Ford family and motor car company, and many other Nazi-tainted sympathizers, Johnson largely overlived those associations or more rightly built an "enigmatic" reality above those foundations. Still, Johnson's known association with the Nazi party before WWII was not overlooked in many communities, nor was that he was gay, and a self-ascribed "whore"... I'm confident that those associations impacted his ability to get major commissions in Cleveland, and I can't help but wonder if the selection of Johnson as architect for the Cleveland Playhouse isn't more interesting a topic than it may seem at the surface. All that makes "Turning Point" more than a globally important and highly impactful, unique and successful work of architectural installed art, which it is, but places it at a very different world-class level of social importance beyond any other works in NEO, save the Weathermen-embellished Thinker before the Cleveland Museum of Art.


I wrote a REALNEO obituary about Johnson with little regard to his early Nazi ties, explored more deeply in a Washington Post obituary posted below and found here - feel free to comment on all this. In brief, I love the work Turning Point and am glad Cleveland has Johnson's greatest and last statement to the world, and I wish we had further tapped into his unique genius during his long, controversial life. And thanks, Evelyn, for putting this in the context of your Art of the Day series on REALNEO and making me think more about the tension of NEO-not-nazi concerns, in the context of an artists life and work - today is the first time I've really thought about the relationship of the complete Philip Johnson, the "Turning Point" sculpture, this as his last expression of himself to the world, and the role of this artist in society. More exploration is needed so I encourage further insight on Turning Point, NEO, Philip Johnson, and the role of art in society.

"To have fun is the only dream I have in life."

Philip Cortelyou Johnson: July 8, 1906 - January 25, 2004

Other thoughts from the Washington Post:

'Remembering' Philip Johnson

By Anne Applebaum
Wednesday, February 2, 2005; Page A23

When Kurt Waldheim, a former U.N. secretary general, was found in 1986 to have served in a German military unit that may have committed wartime atrocities, his reputation was ruined. Although elected president of Austria, he was forbidden to visit the United States. Shunned by the international community, he eventually dropped out of politics.

History repeated itself as farce this month when Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, appeared at a costume party in Nazi uniform. The full wrath of the media -- and of everyone else -- came down on his boyish head. "Harry the Nazi," proclaimed the tabloid Sun in its largest typeface. Politicians called for his expulsion from college. Jewish groups -- along with his father, Prince Charles -- demanded that he visit Auschwitz.

In between the extremes of Waldheim, who actually fought for Nazi Germany, and Prince Harry, one of the British royal family's dimmer bulbs, lies a wide range of celebrities whose fascist sympathies have rightly brought them disgrace. Charles Lindbergh, at one time the most admired man in America, retired from public life after World War II because he had received a medal from the Nazi government. Ezra Pound, the poet who helped launch T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, spent 13 years in an asylum for the mentally ill, largely because he had made propaganda broadcasts for Benito Mussolini. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, was temporarily prohibited from teaching after the war because he had briefly joined the Nazi Party in the early 1930s. His work, like that of Pound, remains under a moral cloud.

It seems like a pattern -- but it isn't. Take, for example, Philip Johnson, who died last week just as the world was marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In its obituary, the New York Times described Johnson as "architecture's restless intellect." The Post proclaimed him a "towering figure." Both articles, like most of the other obituaries, described Johnson as the "elder statesman" of American architecture. Both also mentioned, more or less in passing, Johnson's "early admiration for fascism and anti-Semitism that he soon recanted."

But read a bit more and it turns out that this "early admiration" lasted for the better part of a decade. During that time, Johnson didn't merely sympathize, like Lindbergh, or make a juvenile joke, like Prince Harry. On the contrary, Johnson helped organize a U.S. fascist party. He worked on behalf of the Nazi sympathizer and radio broadcaster, Father Charles E. Coughlin. He attended one of Hitler's Nuremberg rallies in 1938, and in 1939 he followed the German army into Poland. "We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed," he wrote afterward. "It was a stirring spectacle."

In the week since his death, a few articles, including one in the New York Times, have examined Johnson's in fact elaborate and widely known fascist past in more depth. But in his lifetime -- as his obituaries reflect -- nobody was very interested. Johnson won every major architectural award, built dozens of buildings and received commissions from the likes of AT&T and the Lincoln Center. He occasionally apologized for his youthful politics, but with ambivalence. Asked in 1993 whether he would have built buildings for Adolf Hitler in 1936, he answered, "Who's to say? That would have tempted anyone." He frequently described himself as a "whore," a phrase that seems to have amused him -- he liked to shock -- and to have provided another sort of excuse for his past.

I leave it to others to determine whether Johnson's amorality bears a relationship to the chilly skyscrapers he built, or whether his politics influenced the celebrated glass-walled house he designed for himself, whose brick interior he once said had been inspired by the brick foundations of a "burned-out wooden village I saw," presumably in Poland. But his death makes me think that the rest of us should occasionally reflect a bit harder about why we find it so easy to condemn the likes of Prince Harry, a silly, thoughtless boy, and so hard to condemn Philip Johnson, a brilliant, witty aesthete. Or why it was thought scandalous when an allegedly anti-Semitic Ukrainian businessman was allowed to ride on Colin Powell's plane to Kiev last week, while Johnson, who once wrote a positive review of "Mein Kampf," lectured at Harvard University. Or why the Nuremberg tribunal didn't impose the death penalty on the urbane Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, or why the Academy Awards ceremony in 2004 solemnly noted the death of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's filmmaker, or why Herbert von Karajan, a Nazi Party member who never apologized at all -- party membership, he once said, "advanced my career" -- continued to conduct orchestras in all the great concert halls of Europe. We may think we believe any affiliation with Nazism is wrong, but as a society, our actual definition of "collaboration" is in fact quite slippery.

In the end, I suspect the explanation is simple: People whose gifts lie in esoteric fields get a pass that others don't. Or, to put it differently, if you use crude language and wear a swastika, you're a pariah. But if you make up a complex, witty persona, use irony and jokes to brush off hard questions, and construct an elaborate philosophy to obfuscate your past, then you're an elder statesman, a trendsetter, a provocateur and -- most tantalizingly -- an enigma.