Hermès X The Glass House

Q&A | Apr 2017 | BY Tali Jaffe

A new partnership between two houses—one made from glass, the other from silk—is realized this week with Hermès’ limited edition release of Centered Rhyme, a silk twill scarf based on the painting by the late American artist Elaine Lustig Cohen. In 2015, Hermès artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas, met with the artist, who passed away last year, to develop this project in collaboration with The Glass House. Debuting this week, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each scarf will be donated to the preservation of The Glass House. Here, we speak to Cole Akers, curator at The Glass House, who is organizing a retrospective of Lustig Cohen’s work with Prem Krishnamurthy in New York next year.

Almost two years ago, The Glass House mounted a show of work by Elaine Lustig Cohen in the Philip Johnson-designed Painting Gallery. Can you tell us about your role in that exhibition?

I had known Elaine’s design work — the landmark Primary Structures catalogue, the lettering for the iconic Seagram Building — and learned about her paintings at Prem Krishnamurthy’s Lower East Side gallery P!  Afterward I wanted to organize an exhibition at the Glass House that put her paintings in conversation with her design work, the earliest of which was commissioned by Philip Johnson. Elaine has been under-recognized for her contributions to the history of abstraction and, as art historian Andrianna Campbell has written, her work points to new narratives of hard-edge painting that cross-fertilize art and design at midcentury more than is generally acknowledged. Her paintings looked gorgeous in the Painting Gallery — it was as if Johnson designed the space just for her.

That show was instrumental in leading to the creation of “Centered Rhyme,” a limited-edition silk scarf being released this spring, of which a portion of proceeds will be donated to The Glass House. It’s a beautiful full-circle story.

It felt right to highlight Lustig Cohen’s early work in what was her first client’s private viewing gallery, especially since her abstraction was informed in part by architecture. She also had a deep love of fashion and was incredibly stylish herself — she had a particular fondness for the sartorial work of her friend Sonia Delaunay. The Glass House is very honored to celebrate Lustig Cohen’s work across art and design in partnership with Hermes.

Is there a personal connection you have with the work this scarf was based on that you’d care to share?

Centered Rhyme remains one of my favorite paintings from that period. As with everything Lustig Cohen made, I am reminded by the way that she elegantly embraced a wide range of creative activity. She once told me that in life one was tremendously lucky to be creative and have the ability to make work, so regardless of the medium, you just had to embrace those fertile energies because they are so rarely tended.

Hermes’ Centered Rhyme silk scarf, based on Lustig Cohen’s painting of the same name.

Cohen and Johnson had worked together on design projects. Can you expand upon their relationship for us?

Lustig Cohen began her design career without any formal training in 1955, at the age of 28, when Johnson commissioned her to create the lettering and signage for the Seagram Building. She designed the 375 address on the facade of the building, the Brasserie sign, the switches, the firehose connections, even things that wouldn’t be seen by the public. Seagram was one of the first to establish a complete identity program throughout the entire building.

Lustig Cohen and Johnson forged an important bond at Seagram that led to further projects with Johnson at Yale University, Lincoln Center, and the Sheldon Museum of Art, among others, as well as commissions from Johnson’s clients, including John de Menil and the Schlumbeger oil company. Lustig Cohen recalled that although Johnson would come up with three ideas for every one she presented him, he always followed her instincts in the end.

Lustig Cohen’s integration of European modernist aesthetics within an American visual idiom attracted an impressive array of additional clients, including the Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and architects Eero Saarinen and Richard Meier, among many others.

The Glass House has hosted some spectacular collaborations and artist interventions. When did these first begin?

The Glass House began its public life as house museum in 2007 and, for the opening festivities, invited the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to restage a work that was first performed at the house in 1967. Since then, we’ve engaged artists, architects, and others in an intimate talks program, and in 2012 we began presenting exhibitions and performances on the site. For example, in 2014, Fujiko Nakaya wrapped the Glass House in a dense layer of fog that came and went throughout each day; in 2016, Modern Living, a performance project by Gerard & Kelly with L.A. Dance Project, explored themes of queer intimacy and domestic space within legacies of modernist architecture; and, this year, Robert Indiana’s sculptures One to Zero will dot the site’s pastoral landscape.

Artist Elaine Lustig Cohen, in front of her painting at The Glass House

Why is it vital to create a contemporary art dialogue via The Glass House?

The Glass House of Philip Johnson and David Whitney was a curatorial project from the start, a place to experiment with architecture and landscape, display a rapidly evolving art collection (most of which they donated to MoMA), and act as a gathering place for conversation and social exchange. Today, as a site of the National Trust of Historic Preservation, our stewardship of this special place is as much about the physical conservation of the buildings and collections as it is the preservation of intangible qualities like experimentation, discovery, and camaraderie. Our exhibitions and programs invite audiences to experience the Glass House in new and unexpected ways.

Where is your favorite spot on the property?

Aside from the house itself, I’m very fond of the pavilion on the pond (1962), located in the lower meadow just below the Glass House. The pavilion can be thought of as a maquette for later buildings by Johnson, including Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater (1964). It was built at 2/3 scale, which makes it appear larger than it is from the Glass House and provides a wonderful intimacy when occupied. It was used mostly for entertaining and had, at one time, its own gurgling fountains and a ceiling finished in gold leaf that reflected the light from the surrounding water. Much like the sumptuous bedroom inside the Brick House, the pavilion also marked a decisive turn from Johnson’s commitment to international style Modernism toward the postmodern historicism that came to characterize much of his later work. Johnson said that he built the pavilion to make small men feel tall and tall men feel playful.

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