Home. Everyday. Ordinary. These words describe what binds the three summer exhibitions at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (PAF) in St. Louis: 4562 Enright Avenue, Exquisite Everyday: 18th Century Decorative Arts Objects from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and The Ordinary Must Not Be Dull: Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Sculptures. But they raise as many questions as they answer. Whose home? What routines? Which physical structures/objects are used?
The prospect is ripe with dichotomies: fluidity/stasis, divisions/confluence, asset/liability, thought/action, open space/occupied territory, vacant/inhabited, continuity/disruption, utopian/dystopian, creation/devastation, fade/appear.
raumlaborberlin, the German architecture collective, is behind 4562 Enright Avenue, which transposes elements of this long-abandoned house—windows, beams, doors, staircases—into a nearly identical-sized gallery at the Pulitzer’s Tadao Ando-designed building 1.7 miles and lights years away. (Like Duchamp’s Fountain [urinal], it’s all about context.) Meanwhile, on site, the brick shell remains. At the museum, one turns the corner to encounter a facade of two stories with arched windows and a door crowned with a glass door light featuring the number 4562. You enter the first room, a living room with stately, upholstered chairs and a mantle. On the floor there are chalk outlines, like police evidence at a crime scene, of more furniture, that constitute the formal room from the house’s heyday—and that Jan Liesegang of raumlaborberlin imagines was barely used. The next room is filled with debris and stacks of materials precisely as found in the abandoned house in 2015. The third and last room on the ground floor imagines what could be for St. Louis housing going forward, displayed in a workshop setting with drafting table, photographs (Saarinen’s Gateway Arch), drawings (Pruitt-Igoe), and books (including Mapping Decline by Colin Gordon), all of which can be handled by visitors.
Two staircases—one front-of-house and one for service—lead to a second floor that sports a suspended sink, wooden slat backboards, and, in contrast to the found objects and materials, a new pod-alike intervention. The pod is wrapped in white-painted newsprint in a neatly folded, scale-like pattern, around a translucent rectangular oculus lit from within. This belongs to Liesegang’s fanciful occupant of the house, an imaginary scientist. Since visitors cannot climb the stairs, this apparition remains mysterious.
Shelves and tables outside the house are workstations and a video display showcases interviews with residents and neighbors of Enright Avenue.
The process of creating this display was nearly a year in the making. raumlaborberlin, whose name means “space” + “laboratory,” is known for projects in transitional urban spaces that combine architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, and art (See Spacebuster at Storefront for Art & Architecture and the New Museum’s Festival of Ideas for the New City, 2008 & 2011).
St. Louis was described to me as a fetishized Detroit, a city where, in certain neighborhoods, lots are vacant and houses are abandoned like missing teeth, directly alongside occupied homes. The description painted a hollow urban center—the City of St. Louis—ringed by a suburban collar and the County of St. Louis (Ferguson is in the County). St. Louis is recovering from a long slide of white flight coupled with the decline of manufacturing and Mississippi River traffic. It’s a long way from the city’s role as Gateway to the West, the start of Lewis and Clark’s journey.
The city is also bisected by Delmar Avenue; Enright Avenue is one block north (where 98% of residents identify as black, median home value is $73,000, and median annual income is $18,000), whereas Washington Avenue, where the Pulitzer is located, is one block south (where 73% of residents identify as white, median home value is $335,000, and median annual income is $50,000). To raumlaborberlin, this urban divide was familiar from the Berlin Wall in their home city and seen as hopeful since that barrier is now a memory after the wall’s demise 27 years ago.
Asked to address the ways that we inhabit the urban landscape, and specifically engaging St. Louis and its residents, the collective zeroed in on the Lewis Place/Vanderventer neighborhood and its contemporary ruins. (Interestingly, A.E. Hotchner’s coming of age book, King of the Hill, was written about his childhood in a seedy hotel at Delmar & Kingshighway, a few short blocks away.) Together with neighbors and the City of St. Louis Building Commissioner, this uninhabited, structurally unsound Romanesque/French Renaissance Revival house built in 1890 (and slated for demolition) was selected. To shine a light on issues, they decided to move the building to the museum in order to reimagine the structure and what might replace it. It is meant to pose questions, rather than answers. A key one Liesegang asked is “How much can you take away from a house and it’s still a home?”
Exquisite Everyday: 18th-Century Decorative Art Objects from the J. Paul Getty Museum at first seems to be the antithesis of 4562 Enright. But it signifies someone else’s “everyday,” in this case upper class French and Italians. These objects—sauceboat, armchair, wall sconce, carpet, basin and ewer, chamber pot—are beautiful, ornate, and highly crafted, yet represent changing styles and practices. The sauceboat, for example, shows a more casual buffet style where diners helped themselves, rather than relying entirely on footmen. The objects for personal hygiene were used for ablution, rather than bathing by submersion, which was considered unhealthy. One can imagine their equivalents at 4562 Enright Avenue, when it was first inhabited by middle-class Germans, and then by black residents in the 20th century.
Claes Oldenberg’s soft sculptures in The Ordinary Must Not Be Dull depict household objects including light switches, key, tires, 3-way electric plug, clothespin, ice bag, folding chair, and an array of food that includes french fries, baked potato, and green beans. Oldenburg shines a light on the everyday, making us look at the familiar in unfamiliar ways. In addition to exaggerating their size by inflating them to a vast scale, he also questions the traditional notion of sculpture’s substance by making them soft and pliable, rather than of more conventional hard, solid materials.
The Pulitzer has a tradition of engaging the city, starting with The Light Project (2008), a series of public art commissions; Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark (2010) by Theaster Gates, Robert Longer, and Jenny Murphy; and Crossing the Delmar Divide (2012-14), a 2-year project with the Missouri Historical Society and the Anti-Defamation League addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities. PAF’s work will continue with PXSTL, a collaboration with Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, that has commissioned a site-specific temporary structure for community-based programs and events by architect Amanda Williams and artist/educator Andres Hernandez to open in May 2017. Director Cara Starke, who previously served as Director of Exhibitions at Creative Time, spearheaded the raumlaborberlin commission when she assumed the position one year ago, so we can look forward to continued inquiry into the built environment from the Pulitzer.
Pulitzer Arts Foundation
3716 Washington Boulevard
St. Louis MO 63108
raumlaborberlin: 4562 Enright Avenue
Exquisite Everyday: 18th-Century Decorative Arts from the J. Paul Getty Museum
The Ordinary Must Not Be Dull: Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Sculptures
All exhibits on view through October 15, 2016.