A Brutal Celebration

Carpenter Center Turns 50

For a first-time visitor to Harvard, it is a bit of a shock to see to a concrete, spaceship-like building wedged between the traditional Barker Center and Fogg Museum. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, might be a disappointment—at least a surprise—for those who think that “Harvard” and “red brick” are synonymous. As Harvard’s stronghold for artistic experimentation and innovation since 1963, the Carpenter Center still carries out its mission of helping to reconcile Harvard and artistic modernity—most recently, through its new exhibition “Brute,” which is on display in the Carpenter Center through April 7.

Harvard is fortunate to have the Carpenter Center, modernist architect Le Corbusier’s only building in North America, on its campus. To celebrate the building’s half-century-long presence at Harvard, visual and environmental studies faculty members Katarina Burin and Amie Siegel have devised “Brute.” They have called upon a select group of internationally acclaimed artists, namely Nairy Baghramian, Anna Barriball, Barbara Bloom, and Alexandra Leykauf, to join them in responding to the architecture of Carpenter Center and Le Corbusier’s artistic legacy.

What brings together all the artists featured in “Brute” is, in Burin’s words, an interest in the reflection of space in architecture. “Brute” aims to reactivate the whole building, not simply the parts of it normally used for exhibition, as a site of display by means of a mélange of the factual and fictional.

To this end, one of the most intriguing components of “Brute” is its fabricated double, an imaginary exhibit only present in model form in the Main Gallery. The models show loans that were never actually made from the Harvard Art Museums collections, ranging from Josef Albers’s “square” paintings to a Jean Prouvé “chaise-longue,” on display on all five floors of the Carpenter Center. A perceptive visitor might note that only these “borrowed” works, and none physically present in the exhibit, are featured with photographs in the exhibition brochure; others might enthusiastically venture out to climb three flights of stairs in expectation of seeing a Trockel porcelain sculpture strangely exhibited next to a fragment of concrete from Chur, Switzerland, dated 200 B.C.E.-300 C.E., only to realize that the models are, in fact, fictional.

In her contributions to the exhibition Katarina Burin emphasizes the presence of the modernist architectural and design heritage of Cambridge. Her displays and installations of documents and artifacts concentrate on the lives of architect-designers Fran Hosken, Eleanor Raymond, and Petra Andrejova-Molnár—the first two of whom received their design education in the Boston area, and the last of whom is entirely fabricated.

Among more direct responses to the architecture of the Carpenter Center are the works of Alexandra Leykauf and those of Anna Barriball. Professing an interest in the building’s mixture of serial production and organic forms, Leykauf considers space to be more than a medium. She has been inspired by the “ondulatoires” (undulating glass surfaces) of the second-floor studios to create “Untitled (open book),” an enlarged black and white photograph of an open book mounted on a convex wood screen. Seen from afar, “Untitled (open book)” deceives the eye and makes it seem as if the gigantic book is physically present, suggesting a depth and an irregular rhythm that echoes Le Corbusier’s “ondulatoires.”

Anna Barriball’s video pieces negotiate space through the juxtaposition of representations of surfaces in photographic form. In “Screen (night photographs),” she loops the negatives of the photographs she has taken of every single window of the Carpenter Center from outside at night. Taken with a digital auto-focus flash camera, these photographs are almost aleatory shots of shining metal details or exit signs of the building. Along with her “Untitled,” a set of leaves cut out of curtain fabric scattered on the floor in the Main Gallery for the opening reception and subsequently removed, “Screen (night photographs)” simulates one’s consciousness while walking: Barriball calls the infinitesimal blackout between two photographs a “blink” between two locations.

Whether or not she specifically addresses the Carpenter Center itself, each artist builds upon her reaction to the revolutionary aesthetic ideals of its architect. Siegel, whose film “Provenance” focuses on the circulation of Brutalist furniture from auction houses to a luxurious yacht, Parisian apartments, and a Punjabi library, succinctly replies with a smile on her face when asked about what the exhibition is really about. “‘Brute’ is the performance of a place,” she says.

—Staff writer Gökcan Demirkazik can be reached at demirkazik@college.harvard.edu.

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