Commentary Magazine


Louis Sullivan-Artist in America

Louis Sullivan as He Lived1 is necessarily a valuable book, for it is the first attempt at a proper biography of the “founder of modern architecture.” Here, in conditions approximating our own times—Sullivan died in 1924—is the “American fate” of a gifted man, his meteoric early immense success ending in alcoholism and abandonment, wasted by the world and himself.

Willard Connely explains the arc of it as follows:

It is often said that the Panic of 1893, causing the severance of Adler and Sullivan as partners, was the main factor in Louis Sullivan’s fall. But the thwarting of his leadership in American architecture had by that time already been accomplished. . . . The disasters were rather the inclusion of the Eastern architects in the Chicago Fair [imposing a frigid Roman revival] . . . and the failure of the Fraternity Templars to build from Sullivan’s design the first set-back skyscraper. These blows befell Sullivan in the same year, 1891, when he was only thirty-five. Young though he was, and great, the tide against him in America suffered only momentary check thereafter.

I do not think it is a sufficient explanation. Certainly bad luck and ruthless artistic reaction are powerful forces, as economic depression is a powerful force; but the gripping question in the biography of genius must always be: how does one man, e.g. Sullivan’s disciple Frank Lloyd Wright, survive the inevitable adversity of originality, while another man succumbs? It is a poignant question especially in architecture which is, classically, an old man’s art, for it takes seasoned experience and solid reputation to be safely daring and win the confidence of great clients for huge outlays of social capital. A man survives by “character,” and character is a reflex of society and its mores at a more profound level than the events of 1891 or 1893. What gives the spirit support, and what betrays it? This, a typical failure of American society to fulfill itself in human flowers, ought to be the subject of the biography of Louis Sullivan. He was a much more important artist than, say, Scott Fitzgerald; he was more influential than Gershwin; and he put up a better drawn-out losing fight.

In gist, here is the story Connely tells us: Louis is a gifted and self-confident son of immigrants. He is truant at school but taught by a talented mother for whom he has the deepest affection. His father is a disciplinarian but the boy is often away with relatives. He is strongly attached to his older brother, Albert, a fine athlete. Already at twelve, he determines to be an architect. He gets a little academic training but quits it to work in some pretty good architectural offices, soon following his parents out to Chicago. It is a fresh America, with still irregular channels and plenty of opportunity, whether we read of the immigrant papa pioneering as a dancing master in genteel Boston and crude Chicago, or of the sons finding their first jobs. At eighteen Louis is off to Paris, but in one successful term he has gotten what he needs from the Beaux Arts system and returns home. He has fine older friends who teach and help him, and he gets a place in the important office of Dankmar Adler who is really an engineer and needs as a partner an architect like Louis. From the first his decorations and design win public acclaim. He chooses brilliant assistants, like Frank Lloyd Wright. Designing the Auditorium in Chicago and other masterpieces, by thirty-five he is the acknowledged leader of the profession and, with his friend John Root, another modernist, he is the logical choice to build the World’s Fair in the new American style. He makes a fabulous rose garden for himself in the South; he is a socialite and an important art collector. He has no sexual problems because he and his brother need only their mother, for whom they build a fine house. Then come the above-mentioned reverses: John Root dies, the American style is thwarted, jobs go to conventional and reactionary designers. There is a great and lasting business depression. He fires Wright. Adler, to fend for his own family, quits the firm. Louis alienates clients by his integrity and excessive pride. As soon as their mother dies, Albert, now forty-two, marries; and the new wife jealously severs him from Louis. Abandoned and beginning to be unemployed, Louis is now drinking. At forty-two, he himself marries, but before long this marriage goes on the rocks. He loses his rose garden, moves to ever cheaper hotels, has to quit the exclusive Club, loses his office and staff, and eventually undermines his powerful health with coffee (?) and liquor. The bright spots in his declining years are his European reputation, the loyal affection of Wright and other disciples, and his championing of the new functional architecture in his books and essays.

This tale is simply and not unfeelingly told, but it is thin. It does not explain the defeat of an artist and the genesis of a solitary drinker, because it lacks imagination both of the historical climate and of the facts of life. My aim in this article, therefore, is to cross-examine the story and point to details that the author omits or passes over too lightly.

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Start with what might seem a small point, yet it is crucial. Did nineteen-year-old Louis really get what he needed in five months in Paris? The question is not, as the biographer handles it, whether he could dispense with more traditional grounding; for Louis was bright and picked that up all around. But here was a young artist of an unmistakably advance-guard disposition. What was the relevant situation in Paris 1875? Manet was still embattled, Monet had painted his “Impression” and was working on “Gare St. Lazare” and heading into hot water, Cézanne was making his hard choice. These our author does not mention nor, in the entire book, does he allude to any modern artist except for a passing reference to the Barbizon painters who flourished in 1850. The case of the biographer, and seemingly of the youthful Sullivan, is exactly like that of Henry James who speaks of his Americans of “exquisite sensibility” abroad, but never presents them in any milieu of live sensibility. This makes the novelist merely absurd, but the youth suffers a disastrous isolation, for it is impossible to bear the burden of the advance-guard without heroic colleagues as teachers, exemplars, and accomplices. An American, e.g. Whistler, could find them in Paris. Wright had the advantage of, precisely, Adler and Sullivan. But indeed, between the lines of Connely’s Paris story we can read a different story: Louis was homesick and terrified in that wicked city. He writes, “The can-can is simply disgusting”; and many years later he relates to his disciple the absolutely groundless fantasy that in five months in Paris he had wrecked his health for life, which I suppose we must take as a syphilophobia. With such anxieties, one does not have much inner strength for the attack on convention; but one is likely to be irascible and hypersensitive with smug clients.

Consider the “individual” ornamentation and the remarkable drawing that were Louis Sullivan’s forte. Our author makes no effort to locate them culturally but attributes them, finally, to the “gifted hand of his mother.” Perhaps so (her German Romantic flower-studies), but there was surely a strong dose of the pre-Raphaelite naturists, manifesto 1848, and also of Ruskin and Morris. Now this already conventional advance-guard decoration, boldly colored, often works wonders for Sullivan—in interiors, in small monuments, as a band or badge on a big unadorned surface, or, most importantly, in high-lighting and enlivening the great constructivist lines given to him by his “engineer” Adler. Yet it remains applied decoration; its relation to the architecture is problematical—sometimes exquisitely problematical, like a surprising smile. It is not an integral part of the building and the material, like the structural and strongly textured decoration of Wright; and certainly it has no relation to the functionalist theory. One has the impression that Sullivan never struggled through the radical problem of architecture, the relation of the designer and the builder; he still had a genteel prejudice that a “designer” was not a “carpenter.”

The contrast with Wright is again instructive. Wright’s “maternal influence,” he tells us somewhere, was his mother’s colored Froebel blocks and geometrical shapes, which at once sweeps us through the 19th century to the modern style of Mondrian or Albers; the “Aztec” manner that he hit on was architectural through and through; and his study of the Japanese taught him simplicity and void and the relation of inside and outside. Louis Sullivan was not thus entrenched in the influences relevant to modern architecture; he was caught in the transition from Victorianism.

Nevertheless Sullivan’s miraculous effects—he was better than any pre-Raphaelite—do not come from nothing. They come from empathy with his flowers and snowflakes. Connely beautifully convinces us how deeply Sullivan studied his books of botany; he had a right to his organic theory of growth, even if it eventuated mostly in fantasy; whereas Frank Lloyd Wright’s adaptation of it is strictly moralizing for the public. Correspondingly, Sullivan’s literary style, though sentimental and overblown, is usually graceful and psychological, and often hits the nerve; whereas Wright’s is hardly readable, pompously self-important. Although he ran a school, Wright had no proper disciples, because he was authoritarian; whereas Sullivan was a great teacher. Naturally Wright’s hardness and wholeness had more capacity to survive. Sullivan was an inhibited lover, a fantasist.

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Louis always needed older brothers to lean on. Connely importantly shows how brother Albert, who was in railroads, was essential for the Transportation Building at the Fair. But he strangely underestimates Dankmar Adler who was, in Sullivan’s career, the chief of these strong males. He regards him as a business wheel-horse and superb acoustical engineer—he was both. (Sullivan himself said the same, after the partnership broke up: “Adler was essentially a technician, an engineer, a conscientious administrator.” But Wright’s opinion, in A Testament, was: “A great protestant, gray army engineer, Dankmar Adler, builder and philosopher.”) But Adler was a formidable architect. In the Auditorium, for instance, though we admire Sullivan’s fine Romanesque, it is the delicacy of the attenuated handling of the masonry that is the real professional triumph and makes the big total effect; the problems of the foundation are solved with great originality. And we can see in the early Ryerson Building (1884), where Sullivan is floundering in Egyptian “design,” that the tremendous invention of the celebration of the steel skeleton framework, the posts in their glass shell, has already sprung from the engineer. That is, to their mutual advantage, and our advantage, Sullivan leaned on Adler as an architect-engineer as well as a businessman and a man with a normal family; and their break-up was a disaster for Louis.

I wonder whether these partnerships in architecture—the businessman, and perhaps engineer, and the more aesthetic and brilliant designer—are not, for better or worse, endemic in our American civilization, given its commercialism, its genteel tradition, its ambiguous attitude toward the arts, and its psychosexual dilemmas. The “practical” man cannot do anything worthy; the “artistic” man cannot cope with the clients or the technology, but he is prestigious and socially charming. (At present in architecture, of course, this dilemma has been solved in the giant offices by turning out canned products of corporate staffs, promoted by organized public relations.)

The bother with the immense early success of an artist is that it is grounded on a false relation and establishes a false expectation; it is a combination of judicious appraisal and superficial fad. An excellent work always fulfills a profound social need, but it may also satisfy what the public wants and thinks it needs. In America, of course, the false relation is peculiarly virulent because of the promotion and selling. The immense first success of Sullivan, the Auditorium, was such a promotion scheme through and through, under the impresario “Commodore” Peck; the President and the Governor attended the opening and Adelina Patti sang; probably it was incidental that the building was a masterpiece, so long as it was sumptuous. The Golden Doorway of the Transportation Building, similarly, was allowed to come into existence because of the ballyhoo atmosphere of the Fair. And from the beginning, the height and the boldness of the American skyscrapers were esteemed by their clients solely in terms of competing and packaging.

Such success is a very labile support for an artist. The fad blows elsewhere, the promoter turns to another gimmick, the captains of commerce and industry compete in other ways that have nothing to do with the advancement of the art of architecture. If the artist is an opportunist, he follows the fad and tries to repeat the miracle; if he is serious, like Sullivan, he becomes disappointed and bitterly gripes that the revolution has been betrayed. (Louis did this for thirty years—and indeed, there never had been a revolution.) Further, in a country of uninformed taste like America, the collapse of support is still more drastic, for people don’t know a good thing when they have it. In Europe Louis Sullivan’s reputation, once established, persisted, and European visitors were astonished at his neglect here. What baffles me, however, is that perceptive American critics esteemed him so highly and nevertheless nothing came of it: this complacency of our people in throwing away excellence is to me simply baffling.

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Naturally the Irish immigrant’s son fell to the temptations of his immense success in true American fashion, style of 1890. His garden in the South employed nearly two dozen servants; he became a member of the exclusive Chicago Club (we do not read that the Jew Adler was elected to this club); he lived high and was a connoisseur. A certain part of this façade of affluence was no doubt proper to Sullivan’s emotionally starved nature (a man has got to have something) : the dandyism fitted his narcissism, the rose garden his need for loneliness and his love of flowers; and he was a connoisseur. The trap was that he overcapitalized himself. At first his front paid off in valuable clients and connections (conceivably, it put the germ in his mind that he could do without his business wheel-horse, but this is speculation). Then suddenly, of course, the entire structure of American capitalism plunged into a long depression, and its upstart enterprises, including Louis Sullivan, went down first. I suppose that the more aristocratic Henry Richardson, for instance, would not, had he lived, have been so subject to either boom or bust.

Connely’s narrative of Louis’s sexual life is calamitously inept. Let me now quote a passage:

So essentially, with regard to women, were these brothers fond of their mother above all, spirit of her spirit, talent of her talent, that now, as late as their middle thirties, they evidently took no serious interest in anyone else of womankind. Men among men, they were thus far unmarriageable.

(I hasten to assure the reader that the style of this Irish sentence, let stand by a malicious editor, is not frequent in Connely’s book.) In another passage he says, “The family entire had remained united in affection, an affection which the bachelorhood of the sons had kept remarkably undivided”—Papa was, at this time, eight years dead.

The facts speak for themselves. Immediately on Mama’s death, Albert married, age forty-two. Fighting hard, his new wife made him choose between her and Louis (as well as his other male friends); the marriage was not pleasant but proved stable. Louis, a lonely drinker, waited a couple of years and then, at a similar age, married; but this childless marriage could not withstand its drunken scenes and deepening poverty, and his wife left him. Louis got some happiness from various “little milliners.”

So the formidable Mama. What about Papa? At his father’s death, in 1884, Louis began, but did not finish, a kind of prose poem called “The Master,” drawn from his father the dancing-master and from his ideal of himself as master of disciples. Fifteen years later, on his wedding day in 1899, he suddenly took this unfinished document from the closet and completed it! I submit this as an astonishing bit of empirical evidence for the Freudian theory.

The biographer cites remarks to show that Papa was a martinet, but that this gave good work habits to the two talented boys. Perhaps so. What he fails to call attention to is the father’s way of carelessly leaving at least Louis behind in his migrations, so that the boy had not only too much father but often no father at all.

About the Sullivans’ religion and mores we are left quite blank.

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I have tried to show some ways in which a period of American society that has many features similar to our own offered a poor support for its original men, who have, at best, risky careers. The institutions, the mores, the characters interact to crack-up and waste.

I have mentioned the parochialism of the American, isolated not so much from classical tradition as from the international advance-guard tradition; the irregular channels that open opportunity but that also put an inordinate emphasis on luck; gentility, and the separation of artist and craftsman; the ambiguous estimation of the creative artist as impractical and special, making him both powerless and arrogant; the abuse of excellence by the public’s need for novel sensation, the promoter’s need for gimmicks, and the businessman’s need to compete; the deceptiveness of immense success, with its temptations to high life and overcapitalizing oneself; the low level of popular taste and knowledge; the economy of boom and bust; Puritanism and momism. In these circumstances, very many “make good,” while some good men are not able to get going at all; very few can stay good and some crack up miserably; and almost no one is put to full use. (For instance, even Wright, who had the character to survive and grow continually and be the typical architect great in old age, was never made use of for the community design that was his chief ambition, perhaps his chief talent, and certainly our chief need.)

Against this background, finally, let us notice Louis Sullivan’s theory of functionalism. This is one of the key concepts of modern times and of the American contribution, along with pragmatism, progressive education, the American kind of democracy. Sullivan can be mentioned honorably with James, Dewey, Veblen, Beard, Mead; he himself talked a lot about Whitman.

Yet our contemporary theory of functionalism does not come from Louis Sullivan. It comes mainly from Europe, e.g. from the International Style (of Le Corbusier and others) where it follows from the analysis of machine technology, of the facts of urbanism and industrial economics, constructivist aesthetics and the ideas of abstract painting; or from the Bauhaus, where it follows from technology, scientism, studies in biological minimal standards, and the politically radical critique of social relations. And somewhat from Wright’s craftsmanlike and progressive-educational feeling for materials and shapes. Sullivan’s “organic” natural growth seems desperately sentimental. His notion of appropriateness—“A bank must look like a Bank, a church like a Church”—is lacking in social criticism of the programs that society offers, and it plays right into the hands of packagers. One is often hard put to see how the eclecticism he rejects is different in principle from his own combinations of Richardson-Romanesque structure and pre-Raphaelite applied decoration. And his Americanism could not be more politically blind to the real surroundings that had unmanned him and were destroying him.

Even so! the functionalist theory of Louis Sullivan is the keystone of the arch, because only he attends to the whole man, as the end and the agent. He muffs the politics and science, but not the art of architecture, which must be, in the end, informed feeling and an act of invention. He is erotic; like his master Taine, he has a feeling for concrete place and history; he is musical; and he is a psychologist. “The Kindergarten Chats,” said Sullivan,

will strike deeper than you are inclined to imagine. As a psychological study they will be beyond anything I have hitherto attempted. The key to them [is] the development of the character and artistic nature of the young man from within. It will be the first serious attempt ever made to test architecture by human nature and democracy.

He wrote that in 1901, when he was well on his way down as a practicing builder. Like a true poet, he devoted himself to the considered fantasy of what is not, but ought to be.

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Footnotes

1 Louis Sullivan as He Lived, by Willard Connely (Horizon Press, 322 pp., $6.50).

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