June 1, 2010
Through a New Lens
For the photographer James Welling, Philip Johnson’s Glass House is both subject and instrument.
Philip Johnson’s masterwork, the Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, has provided inspiration to many since 1949. But no one has ever approached it in quite the same way as the conceptual artist James Welling, whose photographic exhibition, Glass House, ran at David Zwirner Gallery, in New York, this spring. “This big glass box, plunked down in the Connecticut landscape, seems like a conceptual sculpture, a gigantic lens,” Welling writes in his artist statement. Indeed, he treats the icon like just another tool in his camera bag.
Welling is not known for shooting architecture. The 59-year-old has spent his career questioning photography, wandering between abstraction and representation. His first brush with the International Style came in 2006, when he photographed the Farnsworth House. After that, he set his sights on the Glass House, and the resulting images reveal a deep relationship with modern design.
Over the course of a dozen visits between 2006 and 2009, Welling digitally photographed the house and its grounds. “Initially, I just used green and blue filters,” he says. “And then I started bringing a filter called a diffraction grating, and then I brought pieces of glass.” The glass adds extra reflections to the already complex compositions. “What was exciting about bringing another piece of glass was that I could reflect something that was behind me and off to the side,” he says.
Viewing these photos can be disorienting. Are we inside or outside the house? What is reflection, and what is real? Is the landscape behind us or on the other side of the glass? That’s exactly what Johnson’s design is like as an architectural experience. Welling likes to recall an anecdote about Frank Lloyd Wright, who, while visiting Johnson in his house, said: “Here I am, Philip, am I indoors or am I out? Do I take my hat off or keep it on?” By adding reflections and color, Welling further blurs those boundaries.