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Bruce Goff: Compositions

at the Art Institute, through September 4

Two floors below the crowds trooping in and out of the Art Institute’s Monet show, in a narrow room off the photography galleries, are 30 of Bruce Goff’s “compositions,” as he called them. These watercolor, tempera, and ink images on paper explode with radiant abstract forms, often obliterating the conventions of up and down, gravity and weightlessness, foreground and background frequently preserved to some degree even in abstract art. If Monet’s lovely colors tend to confirm what we already know, because the ethos of impressionism has been so widely absorbed by the culture, Goff’s images are truly original.

Goff, best known as an architect, was a genuine visionary. His buildings not only ignore convention, they don’t look much like one another either. Early on Goff worried that his work didn’t have a “style,” but then he decided that his style should vary according to the character and needs of the client–that an architect should invent a new architecture for each building. He loved to use unconventional building materials like coal and ceramic tiles, and many of his homes simultaneously hug the ground and soar outward or upward. His buildings and compositions alike show a love for the sensuousness of colors, shapes, and materials. And the way he juxtaposes different, often discordant forms, leading the eye from one to the next, frees the viewer from all that is fixed, expected, static, known.

Born in 1904 in Alton, Kansas, to an economically marginal family who had to move frequently, Goff lived in seven different midwestern towns before settling in Tulsa when he was 12 (he died in Texas in 1982). Seeing his interest in drawing, his father apprenticed him to an architectural firm at that young age, and Goff was soon designing his own buildings. By then he’d also written admiring letters to Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. Sullivan wrote back commending his enthusiasm and hoping that he would “never outgrow it.” Goff asked Wright whether he should seek formal architecture training, and recalled that Wright responded: “If you want to lose Bruce Goff go to school.” Encouraged by the greatest architects of his day to pursue his own passions, and perhaps feeling marginalized by his fairly rootless childhood and by the fact that he was homosexual, Goff discarded his many architectural influences to design buildings whose shapes look like nothing seen before.

He used the compositions, created between 1921 and 1940, to “free his mind and unleash his creative energies,” according to an exhibit wall text. I could describe their effect on me in similar terms. Especially stunning is the way most of the compositions combine apparently incongruous, even opposing forms. When a viewer fully engages with an abstract work, the image briefly seems to define one’s world, and different visual patterns can become metaphors for different modes of perception. In No. 23 (Goff’s untitled works are not numbered in this exhibit, so I’ve given them numbers proceeding clockwise from the left of the entrance), two large quarter circles made of colored arcs grow more transparent toward their centers, suggesting that nothing is solid, that an inner, almost mystic glow lies behind ordinary shapes. But shooting out from each white center is a band of quiltlike patterns that’s more palpable, almost like fabric. By enjambing them, Goff puts the viewer between two different worlds, on edge.

Some of these compositions recall Kandinsky, with their strange groupings of thin lines, circles, bands of color, and other wildly diverse forms. But Kandinsky seeks to bring such shapes together, creating an underlying unity; his images seem to reach beyond what is shown, melding opposites. The various elements in Goff’s work never resolve into a unified picture. In No. 1, the viewer is never quite sure what–if anything–the tiny dotted lines at the bottom have to do with the great circle at the top. One feels each shape’s physicality; because no shape dominates any other, the work has an almost chaotic egalitarianism. Rather than being asked to understand an artist’s perfected vision, as in Kandinsky, the viewer is engaged in a dialogue with images that remain alive. In fact, these markings on flat paper seem almost three-dimensional beasts, actively projecting themselves into the viewer’s space.

By eschewing traditional ways of organizing abstract art, Goff places the viewer in an ecstatic state of first discovery. The same might be said of his approach to building (drawings and models of his architecture are displayed in Gallery 227). Where Wright’s homes follow an implied rectilinear grid and generally seem to hug the ground, Goff’s seem to follow no predetermined form at all. Some are modestly rectangular and low; some offer elaborate, almost whimsical facades; some spurt out in all directions; some soar. Many of his works do several of these things at once. Goff’s most famous residential design, Bavinger House, is organized around a wall that spirals as it ascends; the house looks radically different from different perspectives. A dramatic interior space reflects the circular exterior walls, and the exterior grows narrower as it soars almost to a point. This peak leads the eye upward, connecting sky and ground, just as the home’s unconventionally placed windows link inside and out. Goff’s effacement of traditional architectural distinctions recalls the way he presents the parts of his compositions as coequal, challenging preconceptions about hierarchies of “importance.”

In 1931 Goff and a friend published a hectographed magazine called Tulsart that included two essays by Goff. In “Pure and Representative Art” he makes the familiar utopian argument for abstraction. The representational function of art is primitive, a kind of “slavery,” but soon “art will cease to be a bastard form polluted…with literary expression” and in its new freedom will make us “more aware and sensitive to all the nuances of life…with purity and clearness of vision we will live better.” An ascension motif in many of his compositions and some of his buildings perhaps literalizes Goff’s striving for higher ideals. Various arcs in No. 4 lead to a curved band above that soars upward and out of the image. A series of vertical lines in No. 9 have clear starting points near the picture’s center but trail off above, inviting the mind’s eye to continue up. Just as these gestures point beyond the visible, so Goff’s extreme formal diversity prevents the eye from slipping into a particular way of seeing. Each composition seems to be leaping out of itself–sometimes almost exploding. In No. 16, a large black shape is covered at its center with a huge mass of textured white tapered at the top and pointing upward–extravagantly sensuous, almost touchable, it made me think of fur, and also of male orgasm.

Goff often quoted Debussy, whose compositions he loved: Debussy wrote that music cannot “be forced into strict traditional forms.” He also cited as an influence Gertrude Stein’s “sense of not being in the past, present, or future tense, but in the ‘continuous present.'” Goff said of the Bavinger House spiral design: “I wanted to do something that had no beginning and no ending.” His artistic struggle was to destroy all givens, to approach each new project as if starting over.

Every part of No. 21 seems a new beginning. Each group of diverse shapes inhabits its own world; two diagonal black lines point upward but in opposite directions. Fuzzy circles are cut off by the edges of the polyhedron that contains them, suggesting a never-ending expanse of such shapes beyond this geometric “window.” Yet a tan field to the polyhedron’s right that continues into it, crossing its border, undermines that convention of seeing. Goff’s only rule is no rules–his only goal to break each element out of its apparent confines.

The Goff catalog includes a helpful list of his surviving buildings; one of two in Chicago is the Bachman House at 1244 W. Carmen, whose exterior he redesigned. A single-story ground-level facade follows the street line and the flatness of our prairie, heightening the effect of an upper level whose complex cluster of lines, triangles, and diamonds soars toward a pointed peak. If the things we see every day are a subtext that informs our emotional and intellectual lives, then this flowering of an unknown bloom, this small explosion, is a precious gift, conveying a pleasure that’s part of what it means to “live better.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.