Philip Johnson's Brilliant Career
His wit all see-saw, between that and this, Now high, now low, now master up, now miss. And he himself one vile antithesis.
“Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot”
There are certain figures in the arts who, although minor in accomplishment and equivocal in their aesthetic influence, are so completely representative of the spirit of their age that they come to occupy a historical position far greater than the intrinsic merits of their work could ever justify. Their function in cultural life is not so much to create as to incite and impersonate.
Such figures tend therefore to commence their careers as epigones of talents more radical than their own. Often they are drawn to extreme positions that promise deliverance from the conventionality of their origins, but they are not equipped by sensibility or conviction to distinguish between the appearance and the reality of the idols and ideals they choose to emulate. When they feel called upon at opportune moments to attempt originality or innovation—as they inevitably do—they lapse into parody and pastiche, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not.
The métier of such figures is not, in any case, either ideas or artistic creation. It is publicity, showmanship, and the exercise of power. Once they have captured the limelight, they become addicted to it, for the withdrawal of attention is tantamount to oblivion. Their careers thus become a succession of feints and assaults designed to command the public stage and add luster to their visibility—even at the price of obloquy and scandal. In our time this usually means pleasing important people while pretending to offend established taste.
The American architect Philip Johnson is a particularly vexing example of this type. For more than 60 years—he was born in 1906—he has been a formidable presence on the American cultural scene. No other figure of his time—no other architect, certainly—has so successfully combined so many roles in the arts and their institutions. In addition to his work as an architect and architectural publicist, Johnson has been an eminent museum curator (at the Museum of Modern Art), an influential university professor (at Yale), a leading collector and promoter of contemporary art, and a tastemaker and reputation-broker on a huge scale. He has also been an immensely successful businessman, and equally successful, too, as an adviser and mentor to people who are even richer and more powerful than he.
Yet Johnson’s career, though undeniably brilliant, encompasses no single accomplishment that can be cited as a quintessential example of his ideas or his vision. In lieu of a personal aesthetic or a recognizable style or a definitive philosophy—or even, alas, a coherent development—what characterizes his work is a series of brilliantly performed charades in which other people’s ideas, other people’s tastes, and other people’s styles have been appropriated, exploited, deconstructed, and repackaged to advance the prosperity of his own reputation and influence.
One consequence of that influence and the enormous power of patronage and preferment that it commands has been a notable reluctance among architectural critics and others to undertake the kind of frank and comprehensive assessment that is normally devoted to the work of famous figures on the cultural scene. Compared, for example, with the attacks that have been mounted in recent years on the accomplishments of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art who launched Johnson’s career as an architectural expert and art collector, or on the work of Mies van der Rohe, whose ideas exerted the single greatest influence on Johnson’s early architectural thought, Johnson himself has remained remarkably exempt from searching criticism. It is indeed a measure of Johnson’s power that despite the many really bad buildings he has created over the last 30 years or more, and the many ideological hostages to fortune he has given his enemies over the course of his career, he remains in nearly total control of his own reputation. Although he is widely recognized as the bad boy of contemporary architecture—he once proudly proclaimed himself to be an architectural “whore”—an aura of artistic distinction and superior taste has nonetheless insulated Johnson from serious attack.
How is one to explain this odd situation? It is certainly not a question of his being a beloved figure; he is not. No doubt, fear of reprisal accounts for a good deal of the reluctance to challenge the basis of Johnson’s artistic celebrity, but there are other reasons, too. One of them is that he has played an important role in launching the careers of many of those who would now be in a position to write the requisite critiques of his work, and who may well be hesitant to seem lacking in gratitude. Another is that Johnson has proved to be very adept at anticipating such critiques in his own frequent utterances about his work, making effective use of a combination of campy self-mockery and swaggering self-aggrandizement as a means of trivializing the case against him before others have had the opportunity to state it more cogently.
But a more fundamental reason than any of these has been the sweeping destruction of architectural standards which Johnson himself—both as an architect and as an architectural thinker—has made fashionable both within the profession and in the public perception of current architectural practice. This destruction of standards has advanced for a couple of decades now under the rubric of “postmodernism,” which is less a movement than a collective agreement to reduce architecture to the level of kitsch and elevate kitsch to the status of art.
Johnson did not himself create the postmodernist phenomenon—creation, even of this sort, has never been his forte—but he was quick to identify himself with its fortunes and soon became its most prestigious representative. What made the move especially piquant for a sensibility as perverse as Johnson’s was the contradiction it embraced. For in the first phase—the Miesian phase—of his architectural career, Johnson was an ardent champion of the very modernism which the postmodernists were busily maligning. But it is entirely characteristic of Johnson that the second half of his career should have been devoted to destroying the standards that served as a touchstone of quality in the first. Infidelity has long been a distinguishing feature of Johnson’s character, and in this respect the promiscuous shifts of attachment and betrayal in his artistic tastes are an accurate reflection of the way he has lived his life in both the private and public realms.
Owing to the checkered character of that life, it was not to be expected that Johnson would ever authorize a frank, full-scale biography. Indeed, the original agreement that obtained between him and Franz Schulze, the author of Philip Johnson: Life and Work,1 stipulated that the book would not be published in its subject’s lifetime. It was on this assumption that Johnson enthusiastically cooperated in the preparation of the book and encouraged intimate friends and professional associates to do likewise. Yet as the book approached completion and Johnson, despite the frailties of age, continued to command the limelight, he changed his mind about delaying publication. His appetite for publicity undiminished, Johnson gave Schulze the go-ahead, thereby assuring himself of what was likely to be his last sensational fling in the public eye.
Always a shrewd connoisseur of the Zeitgeist, Johnson understood very well that in the debased cultural climate of the 1990′s, even the most scandalous revelations in Schulze’s biography would not only have lost their power to cause him public embarrassment but would, on the contrary, contribute to the glamor of an invincibly chic reputation. And in this hard-headed assessment Johnson has been proved largely correct. For what emerges from Schulze’s biography is, among much else, a portrait of the architect as an immoralist—precisely the kind of immoralist in whose mind a deep-rooted aestheticism combines with a remorseless nihilism to render everything but personal gratification and public approbation utterly meaningless. And that, rather than the admired or despised architect, is the figure who is now being celebrated as he approaches his ninetieth birthday.
Philip Johnson was born to wealth, privilege, and propriety in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a successful, Harvard-educated lawyer and a reclusive, Wellesley-educated mother whose primary interests, according to Schulze, were “good manners and lofty ideas appropriate to her concept of [the Johnson family's] station and mission in life”—“a mother of majesty rather than intimacy.” After the death of his older brother when Philip was two years old, he was subjected to what Schulze describes as “an uncommonly protected upbringing.” Neither of his parents was young. When they married in 1901, his father was thirty-nine and already twice widowed; his mother, then thirty-two, had been, in keeping with the conventions of the day, well on her way to spinsterhood. Philip and his sister Theodate, the only member of the family to whom he was ever close, later believed their mother had had a lesbian attachment before her marriage—but this was pure speculation and may have been, on Philip’s part at least, a self-justifying belief.
Homer Johnson was remarkably generous to all of his children, and in the case of his single surviving son he lavished so much wealth upon him that by the time Philip graduated from Harvard he was richer than his father. Still, the father seems never to have known what to make of his brilliant, troubled son, and was fairly obtuse about what he could not avoid knowing. When, for example, he discovered that Philip, while at Harvard, had consulted a Boston neurologist about his homosexuality, he simply declared that “Boys don’t fall in love with boys” and advised his son to forget about it. Many years after Homer Johnson died, in his ninety-eighth year, the son’s judgment on him was characteristically cold and dismissive: “He wasn’t any use in the world.”
His mother, however, was more interested in things of the mind, and although no more adept than her husband at understanding their son, she exerted a far greater influence on his development. “Since she understood more of the mind than of the heart,” Schulze writes, “she looked upon Philip’s special place in the family as an excuse, indeed an inspiration, to design his intellect first and worry over his psyche later, if at all.” It was a recipe for disaster, and the disasters promptly manifested themselves in the form of violent tantrums, abysmal loneliness, and mental breakdown.
Yet however much he may have disliked his mother, she remained Johnson’s principal intellectual confidante until well after his student years. “Their mutuality endured,” Schulze writes, “and she became his favorite correspondent throughout his school years away from home and his early professional life.” At Harvard one of his major concentrations was in Greek, which his mother had taught him as a boy, and her notion of the Johnson family’s “station” in life, which placed them well beyond the mundane standards of ordinary folk, was one that the adult Johnson adopted as a personal credo.
This sense of a special station was greatly abetted by Johnson’s enthusiastic discovery of Nietzsche while he was studying philosophy—his other academic interest—at Harvard. According to Schulze, it was Nietzsche who turned Johnson in the direction of art and politics, and whose ideas can be seen in retrospect to have shaped the immoralist impulses that governed the rest of his life and work.
During most of his undergraduate career at Harvard (protracted to seven years because of episodes of mental breakdown), Johnson seems not to have been much interested in either art or architecture, and indeed he had no very specific notion of what he wanted to do. Except for study at Harvard and travel abroad, his life remained closely tethered to that of his family. (On one of his trips he took to wearing Arab dress and enjoyed what Schulze describes as “his first full-fledged, ‘consummated’ sexual experience” with a guard in the Cairo Museum.) The fortune that Johnson’s father had already settled upon him did not make the choice of a vocation a pressing one, and his father’s predictable suggestion that he study law was easily rejected. So was the offer to teach Greek at Oberlin, where his father was a trustee.
What chanced to give Johnson his first sense of a commanding purpose to which he could harness his considerable intellectual energies was a meeting in 1929 with the twenty-seven-year-old Alfred Barr, who later that year would be named director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barr had given a series of five widely-noticed lectures at Wellesley on the entire history of modernism, from Post-Impressionism to the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism, and he was on the lookout for recruits to the cause. Johnson had only lately acquired a curiosity about modernist buildings in Europe, but at their first encounter at Wellesley, where Johnson’s sister was a student, Barr appears to have converted him on the spot. Schulze helpfully illuminates the psychological process at work. Johnson, he writes,
had a habit of seeking out authority figures . . . who, as if reenacting [his mother's] role in his younger life, could take command of his emotional loyalties at the same time they nurtured his intellectual ambitions—could dominate him, that is, as they aggrandized him.
As discussions for the new museum in New York were already in progress, Barr apparently hinted that there might be a place for Johnson on its staff, and gave his eager recruit detailed instructions on what he should see on the European trip he was planning for the summer of 1929. Thus began Johnson’s initiation into the modernist movement that was to dominate the whole first phase of his professional career.
While Johnson was abroad that summer, the announcement of Barr’s appointment was duly made. Johnson could not immediately join the museum staff, however, because he had not yet completed the course requirements for his Harvard degree. This he did in the spring of 1930, meanwhile commuting to New York where he quickly became a member of Barr’s inner circle. By that time he had also teamed up with the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr., and together they planned a book that in 1932 was published under the title, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922. This, as Schulze correctly observes, “went on to exert a tremendous impact on architecture worldwide.”
Johnson was distinctly the junior partner in this collaboration, but it nonetheless established him as an authority on a subject that, three years earlier, he had barely been acquainted with. Even more important to his new career was the show, “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition,” which he organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932. This was a major event in the campaign to establish modernist architecture on the American scene, and it launched Johnson as a tastemaker in a field which was still highly controversial and in which he was himself still something of an amateur, neither a trained scholar nor a professional practitioner. He proved, however, to be a great showman, and this was an immense advantage in the new museology which Barr introduced to the public with the Museum of Modern Art—a museology in which installation, presentation, and propaganda were to be as important in shaping public response as the objects on display.
Johnson was clearly one of the rising stars in the constellation of talents that Barr was counting on to run the museum in the first decade of its activities. In Barr and his wife Marga, moreover, Johnson found a friendship unlike any he had ever known. They were more than mentors to him; they were “family”—the kind of cosmopolitan, uncensorious family Johnson preferred to his own. In Marga Barr, especially, he found a worldly confidante with whom he could frankly discuss anything, including the vagaries of his now very active sex life. Although more or less contemporaries—Barr was one year older than Johnson—Johnson became, in effect, the Barrs’ adopted “son.” They traveled together, they rented Manhattan apartments in the same building, and they were closely bound to the same mission—the museum and the modernism it espoused. Or so it seemed, anyway, to the Barrs and their circle.
Yet the museum, as it turned out, did not really satisfy Johnson’s inchoate and unappeased Nietzschean ambitions for himself and the world. To fulfill those ambitions, art was deemed to be insufficient. Only politics would do—and politics, as it happened, of a particularly loathsome character.
The turning point came in 1933 with Adolf Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany. Johnson adored Germany. He was fluent in the German language, and well-versed in the avant-garde cultural life that marked the last years of the Weimar Republic. He had taken full advantage, too, of the sexual opportunities it offered to a man of his tastes. That Hitler was the sworn enemy of everything Johnson seemed most to admire in Weimar Germany hardly seemed to matter. There is no other way to put it: Johnson fell in love with the Nazi regime.
The Barrs, who were in Germany when Hitler came to power, were horrified. When they met with Johnson in Europe shortly thereafter, their disagreement was total and intense.
Alfred deplored the takeover [Schulze writes]; Philip was exhilarated by it. Alfred foresaw a brutal repression of freedoms in all walks of German life, leading to an atrophy of national culture as a whole. Philip, remembering the Potsdam rally at which he found himself transfixed by the Nazi spectacle and transported by the charisma of Hitler, saw a “nationale Erhebung” (national resurgence), an amazing restoration of confidence among the German people, who only shortly before had seemed defeated by the Depression.
For Johnson, as Schulze shrewdly observes, “Hitler and the Nazis had color. . . . There was dash to these Nazis: the way they dressed and sang and marched and fought; their impudence, their bravado, the sexuality Philip could not help but project on them.” And the Nazis also met the requisite Nietzschean standard. “He concentrated his attention on the Nietzschean text in Der Wille zur Macht and its thesis that ‘the will to power’ constitutes man’s fundamental motivating force”—a doctrine, as Schulze also points out, that “must have appealed to the elitist view in which Philip had been nurtured since birth.”
In the face of these attractions, which were as much aesthetic and erotic as they were political, the arts were no longer a top priority for Johnson. “If in the arts [Germany] sets the clock back now, it will run all the faster in the future,” he wrote at the time. Even the Bauhaus, which Johnson had acclaimed four years earlier as a new architectural ideal, he now condemned for bearing “irretrievably the stamp of Communism and Marxism.” As for Hitler’s racial doctrines, Johnson never allowed them to interfere with his sex life. In that respect, at least, he remained a follower of the Weimar ethos rather than the Nazi. Thus, writes Schulze, “he took his first serious lover [in New York] in 1934”—at the very moment when he was committing himself to the fascist cause, to which racial theories were central. “Jimmy Daniels was a black cafe singer whom Philip later called the first Mrs. Johnson.”
Still, as a consequence of Johnson’s political conversion, when he returned to New York from Germany he resigned his post at the Museum of Modern Art to devote himself to politics. Then he did something really bizarre for a white homosexual with a black male lover. With a school friend who was working at the museum, Johnson attempted to join up with the Southern political machine led by the demagogic governor of Louisiana, Huey Long.
It was a move widely reported in the New York press at the time. The headline of a story written by Joseph Alsop in the Herald-Tribune read: “Two Quit Modern Art Museum for Sur-Realist Political Venture.” The New York Times reported of Johnson and his colleague that “Recently they became convinced that, after all, abstract art left some major political and economic problems unsolved. Consequently both have turned in their resignations [from the Museum of Modern Art] and will leave as soon as practicable for Louisiana to study the methods of Huey Long.” Once again Alfred Barr was horrified, tried to change Johnson’s mind, and failed.
Needless to say, Huey Long was not interested in Johnson’s services. But Johnson’s next attempt to attach himself to a homegrown version of a Nazi-type movement met with a more enthusiastic response. He discovered the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, the Roman Catholic priest whose Sunday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, commanded an audience of 30 million listeners. By February 1936, Johnson was in direct contact with Coughlin, and though he found the man himself a “crashing bore,” he nonetheless enlisted in his political cause, which at that moment aimed to challenge President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 election. Johnson went to work for Coughlin’s weekly paper, Social Justice, and was much involved in the single biggest rally of the priest’s political campaign. Schulze writes:
At Riverview Park [in Chicago], an enormous amusement complex on the city’s North Side, a throng estimated by the Chicago Tribune at between 80,000 and 100,000 heard Coughlin speak from a huge platform that Philip had taken special pains to design. It was modeled after the one he had seen used so effectively at the 1932 Nazi rally: “A special stand, bordering on the moderne,” the Tribune reported, “had been created at one end of the field. It provided a glaring white background 50-feet wide and 20-feet high for the solitary figure of the priest.”
Even though the campaign of Coughlin’s Union party flopped, Johnson labored on, attempting to stimulate some kind of political youth movement along the same lines. That, too, flopped.
It was in the aftermath of the Coughlin debacle that Johnson returned to Germany. The highlight of his 1938 journey was the Nazi Parteitag in Nuremberg, marking the fifth year of Hitler’s ascension to power. Johnson characteristically described the Nuremberg rally as “even more staggering” than Wagner’s Ring. He remained unbothered, moreover, by the fact that Hitler had officially declared war on Entartete Kunst—“degenerate art” of precisely the kind he had so recently championed as a member of Alfred Barr’s inner circle at the Museum of Modern Art. As Schulze observes, “the romance of the thing overpowered him.”
When he returned to New York in the winter of 1938-39, Johnson tried to buy the American Mercury, the monthly magazine founded by H.L. Mencken, complaining that “the Jews” had ruined it, and when that, too, fell through, he traveled once again to Europe—this time venturing as far as Poland. “The Polish tour,” writes Schulze, “only reinforced Philip’s preconceptions of the backwardness among the Poles and the Jews, while reminding him of the superiority of German society and the German military force.” When the war started with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, he therefore headed straight for Berlin in order “to prepare for the most exciting episode of his summer: the German Propaganda Ministry had formally invited him to follow the Wehrmacht to the front.”
He owed this opportunity to Father Coughlin’s Social Justice, for which he wrote five articles in the summer and fall of 1939, condemning England, praising the Germans, and dismissing the United States as “the best misinformed nation in the world.” From Johnson’s FBI file, which the Bureau began assembling during the war, Schulze has retrieved a letter, believed to have been written to a friend in December 1939 when Johnson was back in the U.S. This is the key passage:
I was lucky enough to get to be a correspondent so that I could go to the front when I wanted to and so it was that I came again to the country that we had motored through, the towns north of Warsaw. . . . The German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.
This is almost too much even for Schulze’s studied detachment. While he makes a feeble attempt at a psychological analysis of Johnson’s behavior—based on some ill-digested ideas out of William James—he is clearly both appalled and bewildered by his own account of this crucial period in Johnson’s life, which is the most complete we have been given so far.
In 1939, Philip Johnson’s romance with Hitler and the Nazis had begun to attract the interest of a journalist named Dale Kramer—no relation to the present writer—who in the October 1940 issue of Harper’s gave an account of Johnson’s political affiliations in an article on “The American Fascists.” The magazine was on the newsstands in September when, according to Johnson’s FBI file, he had arranged a meeting at the German embassy in Washington. It may have been pure coincidence, but, writes Schulze, “three days after the alleged appointment at the embassy in Washington Philip was back in Harvard, enrolled as a student in the school of architecture.” His affair with Nazism was over.
On his return to Harvard, Johnson, at age thirty-three, was no ordinary student. He was older, richer, and more knowledgeable than other students. Moreover, in the decade since he had received his undergraduate degree, the university—or its Graduate School of Design, anyway—had abandoned its traditional curriculum to embrace the modernism which Johnson had championed in the early 1930′s. The book which Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock had published in 1932, The International Style, was now a required text.
This gave him an immense advantage, to say the least. And so did his wealth, which enabled him to design and build for himself a Miesian house in Cambridge while he was still enrolled as a student. To be sure, Johnson could not entirely escape the consequences of his political past, but in the end his fascist involvements proved to be more of a temporary inconvenience and occasional embarrassment than a permanent bar to advancement. This was all the more remarkable in that the new Harvard design faculty was dominated by three refugees from Nazi Germany—Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus; his Bauhaus colleague Marcel Breuer; and Martin Wagner, the former director of planning for the city of Berlin. But the bad blood that existed between Gropius and Johnson, for example, had much more to do with the latter’s loyalty to Mies van der Rohe than with the former’s love affair with the Nazis. (Years later, when he was in a position to do so with impunity, Johnson dismissively characterized Gropius as “the Warren G. Harding of architecture.”) Breuer, on the other hand, treated Johnson with cordiality and respect.
Meanwhile, Johnson was making some proforma attempts at his own political rehabilitation. When he joined a Harvard Defense Group (a civil-defense organization) in 1941, it fell to the young Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. to dismiss him from the organization on political grounds. An attempt to take a wartime job at the Office of Facts and Figures in Washington likewise failed as soon as the agency got a look at his FBI file. Still, Johnson weathered these and other travails—including a brief stint in the U.S. Army, into which he was drafted in 1943—with remarkable ease, given the strong anti-Nazi sentiments at the time.
When he got out of the army in 1945, with the country still waging war against Japan, he promptly set about mapping the course of his new career. Toward this end, he opened his own architectural office in Manhattan (though he was unlicensed to practice in New York State); and, with the help of Alfred Barr, he insinuated himself into his old position in the architectural department of the Museum of Modern Art. The renewed MOMA connection proved indispensable to his new career as a practicing architect, restoring Johnson to a position of authority in the field even before he had built enough to earn it.
Then, as always, Johnson was not a man—or artist—to allow principle to interfere with opportunity. He straightaway designed a prefabricated house for a Ladies’ Home Journal competition, and arranged for the house to be exhibited at the Modern. “Remarkably,” writes Schulze, “it was a deep bow to the functionalism Philip had so long abhorred.” Even his renewed campaign on behalf of Mies concealed a growing private doubt about the value of the Miesian aesthetic—which did not prevent Johnson from mounting an exhibition devoted to Mies at the Modern or from designing for himself the famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, a house that is itself little more than a pastiche of the Miesian style.
That house promptly proved to be so egregiously uninhabitable even for an aesthete like Johnson that he at once undertook to build an alternative, anti-Miesian retreat on the same property that would afford him the privacy and amenity which the doctrinaire transparency of the Glass House precluded. In this regard, I recall a lecture Johnson delivered at Harvard in the spring of 1951 (when I was a student there). Asked by a member of the audience if the Glass House was not fundamentally incompatible with the needs of family life, Johnson declared with his customary hauteur that the family should be abolished.
For Johnson, the Glass House of 1949 served a purpose far more important than domestic amenity. More than anything else he had done or would ever do, it established Philip Johnson the architect as a reputed master of the same modernist style upon which Philip Johnson the museum curator and author had conferred a renewed legitimacy and glamor. Whatever his doubts about the failings of the Miesian ideal, and despite the inevitable jokes about “Mies van der Johnson,” the Glass House was a brilliant gambit that completely succeeded in its purpose. To this day, it continues to be regarded as a classic of American modernist architecture, despite the fact that architects as eminent and as different as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies himself dismissed it with contempt.
The payoffs came right on schedule. In 1950, Johnson was commissioned to design the MOMA annex on West 53rd Street—another exercise in Miesian pastiche—and in 1953 the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. (It was the elder Mrs. Rockefeller who, when told something of Johnson’s Nazi connections, reportedly said that “every young man should be allowed to make one large mistake.” But it is doubtful that Mrs. Rockefeller ever knew the full extent of Johnson’s involvement.) The sculpture garden may be the single most beautiful thing Johnson ever designed, but it is an essay in museum installation, not building design, and serves a strictly aesthetic function. In any case, these MOMA commissions set the stage from which Johnson’s subsequent architectural career was launched.
Not everyone could be expected to be as forgiving as Mrs. Rockefeller, however. The experience of World War II and the impact of the Holocaust remained powerful moral and emotional issues, especially in the intellectual, cultural, and business worlds of New York. This obliged Johnson to ponder, as Schulze writes, “the need . . . to be free of public perception of his kind of political taint.” Success, in other words, required some public gesture of atonement if the stain of anti-Semitism were to be effectively neutralized.
When, therefore, Johnson learned that a Jewish congregation in the suburb of Port Chester, New York, was looking for an architect to design a new synagogue, he seized the opportunity with his characteristic bravado. “His proposal to design [the building] without fee,” writes Schulze, “was hard for the potential clients to resist, coming as it did from an architect, and a New Canaan neighbor, whose professional reputation was growing at about the same rate his political past seemed to be receding in most people’s minds.” The building that Johnson designed was an architectural hodgepodge devoid of aesthetic distinction, but for the architect it served its purpose well enough. It was another brilliantly cynical move, and there was no way for his clients to know that the sculpture he selected for the interior—an abstract metal relief by Ibram Lassaw—was virtually identical with the one that already adorned his secluded New Canaan bedroom, the scene of rituals of a very different sort. Whether or not Johnson intended this as a private joke cannot be known; but it is not the kind of aesthetic irony that would have been lost on him.
It is worth reflecting, in this connection, upon the remarkably large number of prominent Jews who, in the course of Johnson’s architectural career, have made major contributions to his reputation and success. Conspicuous on this roster of art patrons, intellectuals, businessmen, museum trustees, critics, and architects are such luminaries as Lincoln Kirstein, Edward M.M. Warburg, Ronald Lauder, Samuel Bronfman, I.S. Brochstein, Rosamond Bernier, Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger, Robert A.M. Stern, and Peter Eisenman. To them should also be added Shimon Peres, who in 1960 arranged for Johnson to design the nuclear reactor at Rehovot in Israel, and Meyer Lansky—“one of the panjandrums of organized crime in America,” as Schulze writes—for whom Johnson was planning to design a huge gambling-casino hotel in Havana when Fidel Castro’s revolution altered their respective schedules.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is sufficient to underline the extraordinary success Johnson achieved in his programmatic effort to induce a kind of collective amnesia or suspension of curiosity about his Nazi past, even among people who had every reason to be alert to such matters. It was not until 1988, when Johnson was eighty-two and, as Schulze says, “probably the most famous figure in the American architectural world,” that the critic Michael Sorkin attempted to awaken a new generation with a scathing article in Spy magazine. But the venue of Sorkin’s attack was itself too disreputable for the article to have much of an impact. At the altitude of eminence which Johnson now occupied, with the press in his pocket, the beau monde at his feet, and the profession lavishing hosannas upon him, he was for all practical purposes beyond the reach of criticism or exposure.
What in retrospect is especially remarkable about these adroit historical maneuvers is that the man who effected them remained at best a very mediocre architect and at times a disgracefully bad one. The art museums he designed for Lincoln, Nebraska; Utica, New York; and both Corpus Christi and Fort Worth, Texas are among the worst such buildings erected in this country in his lifetime—and all the less to be forgiven as coming from a connoisseur canonized by the Museum of Modern Art. None of these buildings is in the same league with a contemporary masterpiece like Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth or the building Edward Larrabee Barnes designed for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The New York State Theater, which Johnson designed for New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, is so undistinguished that many people find it hard to believe it was done by a reputable architect at all; it looks like pure developer’s boilerplate.
These failed buildings, moreover, date from before the time when Johnson developed a conscious policy of socking it to his corporate clients with aggressive displays of imperious bad taste—before, that is, he perpetrated postmodern monstrosities like the AT & T Building and the so-called “Lipstick” tower in New York. For some two decades now, Johnson has been functioning—with what degree of deliberateness, one can only surmise—as the Andy Warhol of American architecture, “quoting” a bit of Gothic here, a bit of Chippendale there, and sporting a display of self-aggrandizing kitsch everywhere, in more or less the same manner in which Warhol famously “quoted” the Campbell Soup label.
Some of this has proved to be too much even for Johnson’s most loyal admirers. The critic Ada Louise Huxtable spoke for many when, in an address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1980, she condemned buildings like AT & T and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass headquarters in Pittsburgh as “shallow, cerebral design,” “bad pieces of architecture,” and “clever cannibalism.” But the most devastating judgment came in 1976 from an even more surprising quarter, the Museum of Modern Art, which rejected Johnson’s bid to design the most ambitious expansion in its history. Johnson had been, in effect, MOMA’s house architect for a quarter-century, and its principal architectural authority for longer than that; he was now passed over for the commission that would give the museum its architectural identity for many decades to come. (The job went to Cesar Pelli.)
It was tantamount to a divorce, and Johnson suffered what may have been the single biggest disappointment of his career. “Hence his reaction,” Schulze writes, “which was to reverse the intentions he had earlier had for the disposal of his estate and not to leave the museum his collection of painting and sculpture or even his country property in New Canaan.” Still, even this has not quite ended Johnson’s association with the museum, for MOMA is planning to mark his ninetieth birthday in 1996 with a publication and exhibition devoted to the paintings, sculptures, and design objects he has already given the museum since its founding.
What audacities Johnson may be preparing for that occasion is anyone’s guess, but it is a mercy that neither Alfred nor Marga Barr will be around to witness them. On the last pages of Philip Johnson: Life and Work, Schulze brings us up to date on his subject’s current views with an account of an address Johnson delivered last year (1994) at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna:
The subject was Stalinist architecture, and Philip used the occasion not only to demonstrate again that his basic view of the world was as consistent as the styles of his architecture were not, but to affirm an opinion he had seldom had the opportunity to express: his admiration for a boulevard in the former East Berlin that had been the object of almost unanimous scorn among Western critics. It was the notorious Stalinallee, later renamed the Karl-Marx-Allee, still later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Frankfurter Allee. Philip had long found a grandeur in it that others had dismissed as totalitarian pomposity. Now he called it “the new Champs-Elysees,” a product of “romantic daring” and “the dream of the East for monumentality.”
Schulze may well be correct in his observation that “At eighty-eight, [Johnson] was where he was always most comfortable, at the head of the parade of contemporary taste.” But given his history, there are other ways of reading his remarks in Vienna. Coming upon them in his biography, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Marga Barr in the last year of her life. I was then working with her on the preparation of a “Chronicle” of Alfred Barr’s career for publication in the New Criterion. (It was published under the title, “Our Campaigns,” in a special issue of the magazine in the summer of 1987.)
On one of the mornings we had set for a meeting in her apartment, the New York Times published Johnson’s proposed designs for the rehabilitation of the Times Square-42nd Street area. I found them even more wretched than some of the awful things he had already built, and I was eager to know what Marga thought of them. In recounting to me the story of Alfred’s career, she had had frequent occasion to speak of Johnson, and she always did so with fond affection—for the record, so to speak. That morning I asked if she had seen the paper, and she rather glumly acknowledged that she had. I then asked what she thought of the kind of buildings Johnson had lately been designing—and hastened to add that she was under no obligation to discuss the subject if she preferred not to.
In responding to difficult questions, Marga had a way of turning away for a few moments while she composed her thoughts and then facing her interlocutor with a very determined look. This is what she did that morning as she said to me: “I feel about Philip today the way I would feel about a beloved son who had gone into a life of crime.”
It was a hard thing for her to say, but Marga Barr was not in the habit of shirking the truth. After reading Franz Schulze’s life of Philip Johnson, I would say that she had gotten the matter exactly right.
1 Knopf, 465 pp., $30.00.