Trevor Paglen, Blue #3 (Chelsea), detail. C-print, 2016
Stories about architect Louis Kahn‘s legendary tenacity and unwavering devotion to an idea fill the biography of his life by Wendy Lesser, You Say to Brick. Iconic and larger than life, complex while also doggedly singleminded, Kahn is an ongoing symbol of art that comes from relentless hard work and passion. Kahn was terrible with money, but many worked for him without a proper salary just because being around him was so stimulating. He pulled all nighters all the time, right up until his sudden death at the age of 73.
Kahn said a great building “must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.” He argued for a perpetual sense of wonder. When asked what he had learned from Kahn when he worked for him early in his career, Renzo Piano answered, “Magic. Or searching for magic…theres a little red line that connects the art of building, putting things together, with the art of creating marvel, stupor, amazement.”
Piano also described the fierceness of Kahn’s obstinancy and focus:
When you work together with someone like that you understand that sublime persistence is the only way to get to the center of things. For Kahn everything became architecture in some way. Even music. The entire experience of life becomes architecture.
I thought of this gift of being artistically singleminded—where everything flows into how you assemble a vision—twice over the last week while I was in Washington DC. The first was at the exhibit of work by Rachel Whiteread in the East Wing of the National Gallery. I have been a fan of her work for many years, but I had not had a chance to experience her sensibility in smaller efforts. No one brings the invisible into form quite like Whiteread, and her ambitious and iconic large efforts have always captured me with their quiet power, like hearing the undertones in a score once the melody is removed. The political implications regarding poverty and inequality that are embedded in her work are understated but real. To see her give form to that domain of the unseen in these smaller statements was a revelation. She is, like Kahn, relentless in her visionary explorations.
My second Kahnian moment came at the American Art Museum. Trevor Paglen is both an artist and a scientist with a PhD in geography. The exhibit Sites Unseen blends the visual, scientific data and the political into a questioning of the nature of seeing and surveillance. Rather than creating an exhibit exploring conspiratorial chem trail-ish proclivities, Paglen walks a delicate line between the visually compelling and the harsh reality of our world. Exquisite images are created just using repeatedly layered code. One of my favorites, Blue #3 (detail is above,) was derived from the court room artist’s drawings of the trial of Chelsea Manning. Paglen photographed the drawings repeatedly using a microscopic lens, then stitched the images into one large abstraction of color washes and paper fibers.
From the show:
Paglen’s photographs show something we are not meant to see, whose concealment he regards as symptomatic of the historical moment we inhabit. His objects act in opposition to what his images have exposed, imagining another and potentially different world. Paglen is a conceptual artist with activist intentions. Helping to better see the particular moment we live in and producing spaces in which to envision alternative futures are among his chief concerns.
Both Whiteread and Paglen have found that rare place where meaning and form find confluence. They both hold to Kahn’s admonition to begin with the unmeasurable, move through to the measurable and then end with an experience that eventually moves back into a new kind of unmeasurable. Closer to that moment of marvel, stupor, amazement.