Museum Watch: "Looking After Louis Sullivan" at the Art Institute of Chicago

Posted by David Ozanich — 7 Oct 2010

There’s a show on right now called “Looking After Louis Sullivan” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Louis Sullivan, often called the “Father of the Modern Skyscraper,” was terribly influential in the Chicago School that came to define much of the architectural taste in the late 1800s. The bright kids at MIT describe his architectural style and influence:

He replaced the standard classical ornamentation of the day with highly original, organic architectural details inspired by nature. One of Sullivan's most notable contributions was the creation of a form appropriate to the tall commercial office building. Rather than stressing the horizontal layers of each story, he emphasized the vertical rise of these buildings. Verticality was made possible by steel frame construction and the use of light materials such as terra cotta, which had a malleability appropriate for carrying out his ornament.

Here’s an example, the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, New York:


I’ve always admired Sullivan’s work. There’s a landmark one in New York City at 65 Bleecker Street called the Bayard-Condict Building:


So that’s a little taste of Louis Sullivan is in case you weren’t aware. Meanwhile, the curators describe the show “Looking after Louis Sullivan: Photographs, Drawings, and Fragments” at the Art Institute:

In the 1950s, the photographers John Szarkowski, Aaron Siskind, and Richard Nickel embarked on in-depth photographic explorations of structures designed by the renowned architect Louis Sullivan, whose commercial buildings and theaters of the 1880s and early 1890s broke with historical precedents, displaying a radical, organic fusion of formal and functional elements. Attracted to Sullivan’s renegade American spirit and uncompromising values, Szarkowski, Siskind, and Nickel also found inspiration in the play of light over his ornamented facades and the dynamism of his buildings within the bustling city of Chicago.

“Looking after Louis Sullivan” explores how these photographers employed the camera to document and interpret Sullivan’s architecture and, in the process, helped shape his legacy.

Chicagoist went and checked out the show, though didn’t seem to like the placement, thought the overall show was a winner.

The Art Institute has relegated a gem of an exhibit to the basement, sandwiched between offices and long, dim hallways, but “Looking After Louis Sullivan: Photographs, Drawings, and Fragments is worth leaving the airy Modern Wing for. ...

The exhibit is organized by photographer, making it easy to see how Nickel’s close studies of geometry and form contrast to Szarkowksi’s more epic views. ...

Together, the three photographers’ works are an excellent primer for those uninitiated to Sullivan’s architecture, and will give Sullivan enthusiasts plenty to salivate about.

All in all it sounds nifty to me. I’ve always liked architectural photography and this sounds like a thoughtful and appealing show. Go check it out. It’s on view until December 12th.


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