I was raised in and around New York City. From childhood I was drawn to art and architecture. I decided to be an architect and prepared accordingly. When I was ready for college I knew enough to attend the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago where Mies van der Rohe had organized the architecture program. In graduate school I studied with the architect Myron Goldsmith and the structural engineer Fazlur Khan. I received scholarship grants from The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and The American Iron and Steel Institute and an anonymous grant. My thesis has appeared often in publications and exhibits. After graduation I spent a year at Skidmore Owings and Merrill working with Myron Goldsmith on a city plan for Columbus, Indiana. The structure developed for my Masters thesis was used by SOM as the basis for two projects — a submission (unbuilt) for the US Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair (1967) and the Central Facilities Building for Baxter Laboratories in Deerfield Illinois (1975).
In 1970 John Vinci and I formed the office of Vinci/Kenny. Our practice included many art installations and remodelings for museums, galleries and collectors, among them The Art Institute of Chicago, The Renaissance Society at the U of C. and the Smart museum. We worked on many preservation and adaptive reuse projects such as H. H. Richardson's Glessner House, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. We were the architects for the reconstruction of the Louis Sullivan Stock Exchange Room at the Art Institute of Chicago. Our residential work included the Freeark House in Riverside Illinois and many remodelings and interiors.
In 1974 I spent a year in New York working as an artist. I was able to show the resulting work (drawings on paper) to Martha Beck, then an assistant curator at MOMA and later founder of the Drawing Center. She wrote out a short list of galleries I should contact, including Bykert, Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper and John Weber. Encouraged by my reception, art became my preoccupation. I returned to Chicago for three years before moving permanently to New York in 1977. There I continued to practice architecture, working at art when I could.
In New York I worked at Marcel Breuer Associates for a time as a project architect. From 1980 I practiced independently or in collaboration with other architects on residential and institutional projects including the renovation of the Beaumont and Newhouse Theaters at Lincoln Center and a museum store for the Yale University Art Gallery. I worked on art installation designs for the Neue Galerie New York, two with John Vinci: the inaugural exhibition (2001) and the Dagobert Peche exhibition (2002). And two on my own: “Viennese Silver, Modern Design 1780-1918” (2003) and “Comic Grotesque: Wit and mockery in German art 1870 to 1940” (2004). In 2005 I scaled back my architectural practice and in 2008 closed it. Art became my sole occupation.
My interest in art paralleled that of architecture. In my teens I attended several painting and drawing studios, once over a summer at the Art Student’s League, all very traditional. But it was the museums of New York that were my true school. My interest was polymorphic — unchanneled, undifferentiated, steeped in the pure pleasure of it all. The Museum of Modern Art was the most visited where I went not so much to learn as to be nourished. I grew into my time through its art as much as anything else.
In 1974 I rented a space in New York at 84th and Broadway where I worked as an artist for a year. That space — with asides to museums and galleries — was my art world. I started with no agenda, no theory and no specific influences. Eventually I evolved a technique on paper using mostly dry media applied in layers, each layer fixed with a clear spray, altering the physical and visual ground of succeeding layers. What emerged were mostly abstract all-over fields which looking back seem inevitable, working as I was in the isolation of my uptown studio.
Some retrospective comments: It was the process of making an artwork, and the physical qualities of its materials that fascinated me — not their expressiveness. I worked using simple tasks requiring judgement but no artistic touch. Each work was something of a discovery. A desire to depersonalize the work came naturally and has been a constant throughout my career.
The last weeks in the studio, using the same materials and techniques I had developed earlier, I made drawings with flat monochromatic fields, most with a vertical and/or a horizontal line bisecting them. It was not until 1988 that I again concentrated on art.
Two events clarified my art practice: First, a 1977 show at the Art Institute of Chicago organized by the then curator Anne Rorimer of recent European art, little known to me at the time. Among others, it included work by Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Gerhard Richter and Mario Merz. It was a revelation. Much of this work seemed in and of the world in a way that I understood, but transposed to a different register. I realized that I could do as an artist what I did best, but freely, in a way and to a purpose that was not architecture. Second, in 1983 having many long conversations with the Los Angeles artist Michael Asher. We met when I was asked to make drawings for a book by Asher, edited by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. We hit it off immediately. We were of the same generation with a history in related professions, he an artist interested in architecture, me an architect interested in art. We both understood the essential difference between them: one open the other circumscribed. This made our exchanges easy. It was a fortuitous meeting for me. I did not attend art school and consequently had no acculturation in the field and few contacts. As an artist I was not completely formed, but whether by instinct or experience, my thoughts aligned with Michael’s in important ways. I came away from our conversations more secure as an artist. We continued our talks over several years whenever he happened to be in New York.
From 1988 to 1992 I worked primarily as an artist, generating an enormous number of ideas which I recorded in drawings, models, photographs and texts. Few were developed into finished works at the time (or ever would be), but this work became a trove that I still refer to. In 1988 I began an association with the non-profit Lower East Side gallery ONETWENTYEIGHT where I have shown numerous works over the years. For the past ten years I have leased a large studio in Brooklyn which has allowed me to develop and produce work at a scale not possible before. Some of this work was exhibited in the 2012 show Figures and Grounds: Approaches to Abstraction, at The Arts Club of Chicago.
My work has broad connections to its time. Particular connections can become explicit during its development. I wish to originate ideas not mediate them. Genre and presentation are conditional to each project. Some things are discoveries more than inventions; examples, not assertions. Things can come easily or take years to develop. It is rarely programmatic, almost always non-objective, often serial, and can use text. Geometry has no intrinsic meaning for me but is something I am proficient at. What I say about what I do goes to means not meaning.
The autonomy of architectural vis-à-vis artistic practice, something I had always understood reflexively, was manifest at IIT. At the core of the curriculum was the art of construction: tectonics. First the basics were taught — delineation, visualization, materials, detailing, construction, structure, planning — and not until the last two years of a five year curriculum did anything resembling what is usually thought of as design enter the studio. These skills were used to encourage the development of an open, egalitarian architecture with a craft-like anonymity and inherent aesthetic merit. The auratic presence of a self-regarding designer would thus, it was hoped, be forestalled, freeing the work for the uncontested use of others. In profound contrast, art, unconstrained by the desires of the social commons and the demands of utility, by presenting the possibility of freedom itself, all but compels it.
Mies was once asked by a student why his buildings were better than those of other architects whose work was similar. He said: "Because I have a good eye." How should this be understood? Was he being self-effacing, saying that it was the fitness of the practical and necessary choices an architect makes that is the primary determinant of the success of a building, the eye being secondary; or was it that despite all the similarities between one building and another, a good eye can make a very important difference? I would be tempted to say that the eye matters most when it matters least, for the architect and the artist.
I had an intense and unrepeatable encounter with the work of Gerhard Richter when for the first time I walked into a museum filled with it. My response was instant and unmediated. The following has been edited from a 1988 attempt to capture that feeling:
On entering the gallery the temperature seemed to drop to zero. The paintings appeared distant, many with paint drawn across them like a membrane as if sealing them off from human contact. Images were often the last in a series—an obscuring of a painting of a projection of a reproduction of a photograph of a person, place or thing, at each stage the image being collapsed further until it verged on dissolution. Light itself seemed weakened by its effort to escape, the atoms of paint like minute beacons signaled from a vast remove. Richter has shown the intolerable otherness of the external world.
Until very recently I have not shown at a commercial gallery. My associations have been entirely within the non-profit and institutional art world. This has given me the time and space to quietly develop a practice unconcerned with the vicissitudes of the market — but at a price. Most of my work remains in nascent form, unseen, requiring patronage to be realized.
My work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1975; NYU’s Square East Galleries, 1993; 55 Mercer Gallery, 1999; Arts Club of Chicago 2012; the Schelfhaudt Gallery at the University of Bridgeport 2015, and in many group shows at the Onetwentyeight Rivington Gallery, 1988—2019, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 2019. A piece was purchased for the Sol LeWitt collection in 1990. My architectural work has appeared in many publications.
I have unusual visual and spatial aptitudes which seem to have been inherited from my mother. She came from a family of carpenters, builders and architects who were active around the turn of the last century. Her father, Rollin Schellenger, made an uncertain living designing and building vacation houses and resorts in New England and the Adirondacks. He had a much older half-brother, Gilbert A. Schellenger, who became a successful architect in New York City designing mostly generic residential and commercial buildings. What little my mother knew of him was all I knew. But as I learned more of his life, it seemed to anticipate mine a century before I lived it.
We both went to Chicago to learn our craft, he from Ogdensburg in northern New York State to apprentice in it after the great fire of 1871, me from New York City to study it in school. He settled permanently in New York around 1882: I returned in 1977.
I live in an ordinary brownstone that my sister had once owned and where for several years three generations of us had apartments. To our collective amazement we discovered that it was designed by our great uncle! It was the only building by him that I knew of at the time, but as I eventually learned, he was the architect of many more both in the neighborhood and in other areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn developed in the last decades of the 19th century.
I learned from a 1992 article in The New York Times that he was the architect of 80 Wooster Street which, long after it was built, became notable for its occupant, the Fluxus artist and “Father of SoHo”, George Maciunas, who converted it in 1967 to the first artist co-op. He, with Jonas Mekas whose Cinematheque occupied the ground floor, made it an epicenter of the contemporary art scene. 80 Wooster Street, an unremarkable building but for a brief art world significance, marked the time and place of my transition from architect to artist.
AN AFTER THOUGHT
There’s a day I remember well from the time I worked on the drawings for Michael Asher's book. In 1976 Michael did an installation (or de-installation) at the Clocktower Gallery on lower Broadway which consisted in the removal of its windows and doors. The gallery had three levels. I had started a drawing using material that documented only the interiors of the bottom two levels, but it became clear that more context was needed. The drawing grew to include all three floors of the gallery and their contiguous exterior spaces, plus the clock room and the bell loft.
Michael and I met there at least twice to document these. On the last day, we arrived at the building and found the gallery closed, a problem because there were crucial dimensions I had expected to get from inside. This was the last unfinished drawing and a deadline loomed. I wanted to leave with all the information I needed to complete it. What to do? I noticed that there was a cornice that ran along the outside of the building which seemed structurally sound and wide enough to allow access to a gallery window from where I could get the needed measurements. But it would require climbing down from the roof to the cornice, skirting a projecting corner pilaster, and crawling to the window, this in an unprotected space between a wall and a two hundred foot drop (I’m not free from acrophobia)… and returning.
Expedience overcame fear. As I was busy measuring I heard something above me. I looked up to see my camera hovering overhead at the end of an arm which was extended through a balustrade. Michael was photographing me! I continued measuring and when done made my way back to the roof where Michael was ready, camera in hand, to record that hoped for event.
What's fair is fair. Gaining possession of the camera, I asked Michael to show me where he took the first picture from and took one of him, and another a little later which caught him by surprise.
It would have been an unremarkable day had the gallery been open: no suppressed panic, no call and response, no pictures recording it. In retrospect that day seems a suitable finality not only to what we did then but to all our give-and-takes — a closing down, a mixing of past and present, presence and absence, a confounding of time.
We had many long conversations then, mostly about art and architecture. These continued for several years whenever he happened to be in New York, usually at a coffee shop somewhere. Then we kept in touch by phone for a while but the calls became fewer and eventually ended. He died in 2012.
Theory precedes practice: practice informs theory.
When architecture imitates art it becomes oppressive.
In a time when there is no usable architectural tradition the choice is between subjective formalism and objectivity.
At Reims Cathedral one is amazed by what can be done with stone: at Vézelay Abbey one is amazed by the stone.
A formal or technical analysis could describe a building, but a deeper understanding would require not just a consideration of the building itself but of its relation to the society to which it bears witness both in resistance and acceptance.
Demanding that art serve an instrumental or functional purpose can diminish the freedom it requires to do its work. Architecture, on the other hand, exists precisely in order to satisfy a practical need. Whatever aesthetic charge architecture may at present be capable of will result directly from the way this need is satisfied.
With the will to do so it is easier to make good architecture than good art: let the needs of the project guide the solution, work impersonally and clearly, and build well. Resist making a statement. Then, whatever else the building may be, it will possess clarity and conviction which are usually not only enough but in this age often a great relief.
Wittgenstein, whose architectural work I admire, is reported to have said that the people who built the Georgian houses of Dublin, which he admired, had the good sense to know that they had nothing important to say and didn’t try to. The innumerable constraints on architecture have always made it an intractable medium. At the moment it is an unusable one, often devolving into spectacle and solipsism when used as such. The result is work that is numb to the feel of things, deaf to the bass-tone of existence. Its most annihilating criticism comes from a position of social and cultural enlightenment that judges it by what it is, not by what it wishes to be.
A project should be approached with alertness to its possibilities and limitations and with humility before the facts. Architecture is an art of opportunity. The most fruitful ideas come from an immersion in practical work. By paying close attention to the task at hand, a building will record in its substance the events, means and circumstances of its realization which, by a sort of calculus of the real, sums up a state of affairs and fixes it as a material fact. Whatever authentic values beyond the practical that may still be expressible in architecture will be circumstantial and result from subtle, specific, objective solutions that are an unfolding of emergent architectural qualities that are real, not superimposed. In this way, a building can point beyond the occasion of its making to become an object of interest and perhaps, indirectly and fortuitously, a model of resistance, a place where each part would be entirely itself yet confirming the whole.