Wednesday, October 02, 2013

New School colors

In our New School history course today we talked about the modern arts - dance, music, architecture - as forms of "social research": efforts less to be beautiful or useful than to better frame and seek ways of addressing the questions of the modern age. I got to talk about my old flame, the Thomas Hart Benton murals, but also about the building as part of which they were painted - Joseph Urban's modernist building at 66 West 12th Street. Nowadays it's rather dark and unremarkable, but in its time it was electric - literally and figuratively. Looking at Urban's plans and early representations we find not a dark building in serious black and white (but for the crazily out of place orange and grey of the auditorium) - that would be international style - but a facade nearly white and an interior (which would spill out through the unbroken horizontal bars of windows, especially at night) full of boldest colors. An article about the new building by Rita Susswein (you can find it in the third of the New School scrapbooks, page 72)makes clear that the walls and even the ceilings of classrooms were painted in reds, oranges, yellows and greens. In Urban's words, the colors made the spaces dynamic, "contrasting filled spaces and void space" exploding the "monotony" of "box-like" rooms with imagination and emotion. I can't find any representations of these rooms, or of the sight of the New School at night, but at least a few students are joining my quixotic quest to find out what colors were used - and who decided to paint them over in the current white. Only one image have I been able to find, but it confirms the marvel which was Urban's multi-color palace of modernity - the dance studio built beneath the auditorium. Spectacular, no? And guess what - the box in the Joseph Urban collection in Columbia's rare books room from whence this came appears to contain eighteen more color sketches and watercolors. Since some of the interested students are in Parsons, we might end up with a beautiful way of sharing or even recreating these spaces! (I'm dancing already.)

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