A Man for Four Seasons: Mark Wigley on Philip Johnson

Article excerpt

PHILIP JOHNSON is not gone. The "godfather" of American architecture keeps producing the same excesses of praise and criticism that he attracted his whole life. It was his special gift always to be able to elicit this intense yet ambivalent reaction. From the moment in January 1931 that he was asked to direct an exhibition at MOMA at the precocious age of twenty-four until his recent death not quite four months after he retired at the daunting age of ninety-eight, Johnson rattled institutions and ideas. To his credit, he is unlikely to be treated kindly in official memory.

There was always as much to criticize as to praise in Johnson. Yet most of the inflated reaction says more about the people reacting than about him. One of his key roles was to act as a highly visible screen onto which people could project their fantasies--a role he seemed to enjoy because it paradoxically granted him a kind of privacy. The most public figure in architecture--who literally lived in a glass house and was endlessly explicit about his ambitions, tactics, and limits (and eventually his sexuality)--was finally elusive. His smooth speed of mind and word only served to create a seamless shelter for ever-present vulnerabilities.

From the beginning, Johnson constructed himself as a public personality, a media figure, with a combination of boyish enthusiasm, relentless intelligence, and strategic brilliance. Every act was calculated for effect, and before long he was an institution in his own right. Immediately after curating the pivotal 1932 "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition" at MOMA in partnership with the historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, he was appointed the inaugural director of the museum's Department of Architecture. The relationship between architecture, its collection, and its exhibition immediately changed with the innovative launch of the first such department in the world. Architecture could now be positioned and promoted differently. Johnson quickly turned the department into the arbiter of quality, operating like the editor of a polemical magazine: The museum would serve as an activist medium rather than as a mausoleum. Exhibitions were launched like salvos in a battle. Circles of practitioners, critics, collectors, clients, and a newly cultivated public hovered around this new scene, created by a rich, young aesthete from Cleveland who had no formal training in the field he now presided over.

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Johnson is unthinkable outside of this role at MOMA, and the museum is unthinkable outside of him. He curated so many of its pivotal exhibitions, designed some of its most admired spaces, and was the donor of thousands of key paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, posters, and books. Johnson was usually ahead of the museum, and he remains so. His influence is so great that we still need him to enter the building: The image on our member's card is a detail of Warhol's Gold Marilyn Monroe of 1962, donated by Johnson the same year. The gift woke the museum up to the contemporary American art it had been ignoring, and Johnson's massive 1969-72 donation of Pop and Minimalist works established the core of the museum's holdings in those areas with pivotal works like Rauschenberg's combine-painting First Landing Jump, of 1961. Having started with a Paul Klee painting he bought from the artist when visiting the Bauhaus in 1929, Johnson's collecting kept gathering momentum, particularly with the collaboration of David Whitney, his life partner from 1960 on. If one were to reassemble all the gifts to MOMA alongside all the remarkable works that will now go on public display at his house in New Canaan, Connecticut, Johnson's collection would rival any in the world and attest to his knack for presciently identifying key figures, works, and tendencies.

In the architecture world, Johnson's keen feel for the pulse is equally admired, but the reviews of his own work are mixed. …