“Exciting things happen when a variety of overlapping activities designed for all people—the old and the young, the blue and white collar, the local inhabitant and the visitor, different activities for different occasions—meet in a flexible environment, opening up the possibility of interaction outside the confines of institutional limits. When this takes place, deprived areas welcome dynamic places for those who live, work and visit; places where all can participate, rather than less or more beautiful ghettos.”
– Richard Rogers
The Centre Pompidou is a bold monument to contemporary art and architecture. The soaring metallic crystalline structure laden with color-coded architectural elements dominates its traditional neighborhood in the heart of Paris. Its sizable permanent and temporary collections feature seminal works from across the arts and together represent a comprehensive snapshot of Modern and contemporary theory and practice. In Paris for a family vacation, I ventured alone to the Centre Pompidou and immediately found my understanding of architecture and art transformed, making it my favorite Parisian destination.
Finished in 1977, the project was led by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers. The pair had won the commission after competing with hundreds of other architects and designers from all over the world, and soon found great notoriety and success as a result. Although initially panned as ostentatious and unseemly, the cultural center today is heavily visited and widely prized. A description from the Centre Pompidou’s website:
The building is considered a prime example of the “High Tech” (or “Structural Expressionism”) movement spearheaded by Piano, Rogers, and architect Normal Foster beginning in the 1970’s. The movement championed the Modernist ambition to expose both function and structure in the aesthetic design of a building. Developed in partnership with Peter Rice at Ove Arup & Partners, the Centre Pompidou’s structural system dominates the facade of the rectangular building: thick white hollow steel tubes form a monolithic lattice which supports both the various loft-like concrete levels and the color-coded logistical elements such as the principle circulation escalators and the HVAC ducts. The escalator is especially prominent, soaring over the public square below and providing visitors with incredible views of the city beyond.
Another tenant of the movement was functional flexibility, encouraging forward-thinking architects to design buildings that could be manipulated according to the changing needs of the occupants. Piano and Rogers appreciated the dynamic nature of both contemporary art and the corresponding institutional response. As a result, the Centre Pompidou’s structural system allows for the rearrangement of the interior concrete floor plates and steel+glass curtain walls, as well as the logistical elements “clipped” to its facade. An illustrated section from the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners website, en excellent resource for more information about the building:
Although many critics criticized the building’s facade as an exaggerated caricature of the building’s structure and function, the Centre Pompidou is undoubtedly a sensational example of futuristic architecture grounded in the theories and utopian ideals espoused by many architects since the inception of Modernism. It proves incredibly relevant to contemporary and future architectural innovation.
As mentioned, I found the regular collection expansive, significant, and stunning. Here I introduce a selection of works I found particularly interesting. I also delve deeper into a particular exhibition Danser Sa Vie in another post in the Archive.
All of the pieces comment on their construction and suggest at the incredible potential that materiality has in creating or responding to an artist’s intention. The works, from 1964 until today, feature industrial and found materials manipulated into phantasmagorical forms via innovative processes outside the realm of traditional artistic disciplines. I found it very difficult to stave off my urge to touch each piece, let alone disassemble it to more intimately understand the artist’s method.
Sasa is the largest metallic “textile” piece created to date by Ghanian artist El Anatsui. Anatsui stitched together hundreds of found and recycled liquor bottle screw tops with copper wire. Each screw top, flattened and punched, features colorful brand names and advertising, referencing the industrial use of manufactured colors and materials. “The process was subverting the stereotype of metal as a stiff, rigid medium and rather showing it as a soft, pliable, almost sensuous material capable of attaining immense dimensions and being adapted to specific spaces” (Anatsui). The UK October Gallery published a small pamphlet discussing Anatsui’s work in which it expands on his subtle reference to the textile and liquor industries in Africa and their historical ties to slavery and Africa’s imperial past. The work’s textural sensuality and its principally golden hue nod to Gustav Klimt’s paintings and similarly evoke a warm and all-encompassing embrace.
Piccolo Film Decomposto (1986) [Little Decomposed Film] is a striking study in the development of cinema and film technology. According to the artist Paolo Gioli, “this extremely short film is dedicated to chronophotography, which—as is well known—is the prelude to cinema.” It evokes both antique technological innovation and the severe subject matter that characterizes avante-garde film. [artist’s website]
Tutto, a later example of Alighiero Boetti’s embroideries, is a collage of colorful abstract and representative forms stitched together by Afghan artisans according to Boetti’s instruction. This collaborative work alludes to the complexities of Boetti’s fascinating career, especially his use of plain materials, evocative and sometimes political form, map-like collage, and collaborative production processes (elements which tie him to the Italian Arte Provera movement). As discussed in a New York Times review of his MOMA retrospective, Boetti’s work arose from both his deeply conceptual artistic research practice and his political proclivities. Tutto‘s visual density highlight its rigorous design and production method and offer an immersive experience for the viewer.
This striking piece was created by French artist Christian Jaccard by igniting cords laid across the white backdrop; the flames leave dark stains that vary in intensity and reach, forming a dynamic composition that evokes both movement and dimensionality.
I was thrilled to encounter a piece by an artist (and studio) that had worked with one of my instructors at MIT, the illustrious computational designer Skylar Tibbits (of SJET). This construction is part of a larger collection of installations developed by architect Marc Fornes at his studio THEVERYMANY using computational modeling and recursive design systems; essentially, the designer writes a computational script that then generates a three dimensional design that can be built from industrial materials using digital fabrication tools. THEVERYMANY’s website features detailed photographs of each piece, with small tidbits of explanatory text buried within; here’s the description for a similar piece:
Although apparently complex, these installations represent innovative research in the use of computational logic in generating structures, research that might one day give rise to new methods of construction and design. The installation at Centre Pompidou features colorful flourishes that accentuate its form. It also creates a mini-network of human scale passages that can be traversed (when not roped off by the institution).
Allan McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates have become a ubiquitous presence in my artistic education. Seemingly, almost every contemporary institution I’ve visited features a set of them; and I think that frequency has amplified their meaning. Apparently black canvases framed by white matting and colored frames are actually entirely cast plaster units that are hand painted to resemble frames. They vary in dimensions, and are shown amongst similarly colored units; at the Centre Pompidou they have warm earth tone frames whereas at other institutions I’ve seen all black frames or shades of grey. McCollum’s Surrogates represent an unabashed self-referential critique of both the institution and art in general. For, as McCollum describes, they are almost props in a theatrical rendition of the gallery, as opposed to art pieces:
As a result, onlookers question the very nature of art and the institution while trying to discern what exactly is presented before them. They’re hung according to the artist’s intention in an almost haphazard array reminiscent of the Parisian Salons that dominated the art world at the end of the 19th century. These Salons foreshadowed a prominent debate that would characterize the artistic community even until today, questioning the role of tastemakers (originally the French Saloniers) as arbiters of opinion and reception of artworks. Who’s been appointed the official authority on what makes art art? Why should the opinion of some critic discount the work of an abstract artist that might be emphatically received by another?
The article by Trevor Starke which quotes McCullom also points to the production process as a significant element of that critique. The pieces are cast from molds that are kept from the public; once cast, they are painted and finished by hand in an assembly-line-like fashion, yielding a sizable number that have since been distributed across the globe. This reach and generic production method are juxtaposed against their hand-painted quality, further deepening their conceptual significance.
Swiss sculptor Zoltan Kemeny’s beautiful relief sculpture Tronc continued this trend of remarkable workmanship. This piece features myriad rectangular copper and brass tubes that are molded into organic serpentine sinews of a larger composition, exhibiting material characteristics not usually associated with metals. The complexity and depth of the sculpture attest to Kemeny’s great technical skill and determination to push materials in innovative directions.
Hopefully this brief introduction to the Centre Pompidou and some members of its collection sufficiently corroborate my praise for this incredible institution. Any fan of innovation would be remiss if he did not pay the Centre a visit next time he passed through Paris.