Friday, September 9, 2011

Art, Architecture and Affluence on Park Avenue

By Teresa Rende, Education and Community Engagement Associate

Red, which opens the Albert season next Saturday, September 17, chronicles a two-year period in the life of artist Mark Rothko, as he labors on a series of murals commissioned for the opulent Four Seasons restaurant in the newly built Seagram Building. Today, Education and Community Engagement Associate Teresa Rende explores the elaborate design concept of this restaurant, and what led the planners to Mark Rothko.

In 1954 the Seagram Building was commissioned for the corporate headquarters of Seagram distillers. It was the perfect time for such a building, towering in its opulence, to make its way on to Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. The 1950s brought the corporate American lifestyle into the spotlight, laden with money to spend and affluence to flaunt, and buildings like the Seagram offered physical manifestations of economic prowess. Phyllis Lamber, the daughter of the Seagram’s director, Samuel Bronfman, became the director of planning after seeing her father’s initial architectural direction. Lambert, an architect herself, knew precisely where to turn for cutting-edge elegance. She commissioned Mies van der Rohe, a high-profile, modern architect and recent immigrant to the United States, to design the building with Philip Johnson. Van der Rohe’s pioneering style, paired with extremely fine construction materials, made the Seagram Building not only a marvel on opening day but also an icon of modern American architecture.

Upon completion in 1958, the Seagram Building was one of the most expensive American buildings erected to date. Not only was it an enormous structure of steel, concrete and glass, but the exterior showcased many tons of bronze I beams, in addition to an interior featuring bronze, travertine and marble elements. It makes sense that such a lavish building required not only lavish structure but an opulent design throughout. The interior of the upper crust restaurant, the Four Seasons, which was housed within the Seagram Building, was not to be an exception.

Of the restaurant’s two dining rooms, the aptly named “Pool Room,” sets diners’ tables around a large marble pool, bubbling quietly under its canopy of seasonally changing indoor trees. At the front bar, a hanging sculpture by Richard Lippold pulls hundreds of brass rods out of thin air and into the sunlight of the restaurant’s 52nd Street-facing windows. A series of Mies van der Rohe’s signature Brno chairs were adapted for dining room seating, while American designer and architect Charles Eames created the private party room chairs. The Finnish American industrial designer Eero Saarinen created hassocks and taboret tables for the bar, while Philip Johnson created the banquettes for the main dining room. The Four Seasons explains, “Every element, from the chairs and shimmering chain curtains to the glassware and utensils, was created to celebrate the ultimate in International Style.”

With splendor in each detail, small and large alike, there was no question as to what could hang on the walls of the Four Seasons. Fine art was obvious, but the type of fine art had to reflect what the rest of the building achieved—opulence within the framework of international style. As such, the art chosen had to be from modern master artists whose work would not only complement the space but also enhance the experience of dining for the Four Seasons’ patrons. To encapsulate this moment in the fast-paced, booming American economy, modern masters whose work had spurred artistic movements were chosen. They were trendsetters in a building that was about to set trends.

Catalan painter Joan MirĂ³, who is often cited with AndrĂ© Breton as a founder of the Surrealist movement, was selected. Picasso, already saddled with international acclaim and the creation of Cubism, was selected. Works from American Abstract Expressionists like Ronnie Landfield and Jackson Pollock found homes at the Four Seasons. It was fitting, in this building celebrating the mega rich and mega successful, that the most elite and exciting artists were to hang on the walls. It was the perfect location for a high profile commission, drawing the attention of the art and business communities alike.

The buzz happened when the increasingly successful, Russian-born American artist Mark Rothko was commissioned, but his artwork never made it to the Four Seasons. After eating at the swankiest restaurant in America himself, the artist returned the commission advance and held the paintings. One meal and it was clear to Rothko—his murals were not to be a thread in the fabric of privilege. And while the Seagram Building and the Four Seasons displayed the ultimate in luxury and success, Rothko’s deeply emotional art was to be experienced in a space built for it, not the other way around.

Top: The Seagram Building. Middle: The Pool Room at the Four Seasons. Photo by Jennifer Calais Smith.

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