Postmodern on Paper

Princeton University Art Museum acquires 5,000 drawings by Michael Graves

Denver Central Library, South Facade, 1993. Graphite and colored pencil on tracing paper, 40.6 × 68.6 cm. (Courtesy the Estate of Michael Graves)

The Princeton University Art Museum has acquired nearly 5,000 drawings from the estate of renowned American architect Michael Graves. A massive player in the postmodern movement, Graves famously wrote, “Architecture cannot divorce itself from drawing, no matter how impressive the technology gets. Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes, and hands.” The university gift from the estate is emblematic of his interest in and mastery of draftsmanship, including all types of media from ink and pencil to watercolor washes.

Drawing of a multifaceted facade in brown wash

San Pietro in Frascati, 1961. Brown ink and wash on paper, 69.2 × 104.8 cm. (Courtesy the Estate of Michael Graves)

Graves began his career at Princeton in 1964, embarking on a nearly 40-year teaching career that led to his becoming a member of the New York Five—his early work was marked by the modernist style of anti-historicist theory and white, geometric form. Graves was witness to the “countercultural” architecture style that emerged as modernism became more and more criticized for its blandness, a movement that encouraged historical reference, color and heft. Graves went on to design the poster child of the postmodern, the Portland Building, in 1982.



The donated drawings by Graves include pieces in all three categories he identified as part of the design process: the “referential sketch,” the “preparatory study” and the “definitive drawing.” In the wake of technology overtaking the architectural drafting process—when programs like AutoCAD, Revit, and Rhino became ubiquitous—Graves continuously argued for the importance of the sketch as a building block for brainstorming, process and concept connection between mind, and hand.

Graves’ drawings aren’t only of buildings or for architect’s, though. As a member of the Memphis Group, he designed products and furniture still renowned today, like the Alessi “whistling bird” kettle, that were conceived on paper. His designs, unlike many of his contemporaries, maintained an affordable price tag. When he collaborated with retail giant Target, the tagline associated with his household products became “good design should be affordable to all.”

Black-and-white line drawing of a triangular teakettle

Drawing for the Alessi “Whistling Bird” Teakettle, n.d. Pen on paper, 27.9 × 21.6 cm. (Courtesy the Estate of Michael Graves)

For new generations of art, design and architecture students at Princeton, access to these drawings by a modern master will be invaluable. The drawings are expected to be a great tool for faculty at the university, making the museum even more of a relevant venue for students to observe and research this not-so lost art in the profession. The museum is also free and open to the public, allowing for greater access to the body of work beyond its previous home in the Graves estate, or even just the student population.

The Princeton University Art Museum has a rich history, collecting art objects since 1755, and Princeton is one of the oldest collecting institutions in the country. Graves’ nearly half-century connection with the university and its arts institutions makes the gift a fitting one, allowing the drawings to energize students and scholars for years to come.

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