I was raised in and around New York City. From childhood I was drawn to art and architecture, eventually studying architecture in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology in a program developed by Mies van der Rohe. While a student I worked for a brief time at Mies's office and after graduation at Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Chicago. In 1970 architect John Vinci and I started a practice. We became especially known for our work in two areas: art related, such as exhibition designs and renovations for museums, galleries and collectors; and historic preservation, including significant buildings by Chicago School architects. In 1977 I returned to New York, where I continued to practice architecture.
In 1974 I spent a year in New York working as an artist. The work was well received, but as planned I returned to Chicago not concentrating on art again until 1988. Between 1974 and then, two events clarified my practice: First, a 1977 show at the Art Institute of Chicago of new European art, little known to me at the time, organized by the then curator Anne Rorimer. Among others, it included work by Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Gerhard Richter and Mario Merz. Second, in 1983 encountering the work of the Los Angeles artist Michael Asher when I was asked to do drawings for a book by Asher, edited and co-written by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. Much of this work was in and of the world in a way that was familiar to me — but redirected. I understood that I could do as an artist what I did best, freely, in a way and to a purpose that was distinct from architecture.
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. As for geometry, it has no intrinsic meaning for me but is something I am proficient at: I use the tools I have. What I say about what I do goes to means not meaning.
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.
My mother 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. My mother knew little of him and what she told me was all I knew. As I learned more of his life, it seemed to suggest an outline for mine of 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 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.
In 1974 through a friend I was able to show my work from that year 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, most in Soho, including Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper and John Weber, and encouraged by my reception, my preoccupation turned from architecture to art. A distant remnant of family history, then unknown to me, 80 Wooster Street in that time and place mirrored my past and present.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an architect. I inherited unusual spacial and geometric aptitudes which I suspect, like my ancestors before me, inclined me to such work. With the encouragement of an older sister with similar interests, I began very early to study the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. But Sigfried Giedion's Space, Time and Architecture, weighty and black as a bible, eventually became my go-to reference. There I discovered Mies van der Rohe, and learning that he had organized the architecture department at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, it was the only school I applied to. There I earned Bachelor and Master of Architecture degrees. In graduate school I studied with Myron Goldsmith (his Kitt Peak solar telescope is a touchstone) and the structural engineer Fazlur Khan. I was the recipient of fellowships from The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, The American Iron and Steel Institute and an anonymous scholarship grant.
As an undergraduate I worked in Mies van der Rohe’s office on the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin, and after graduation spent a year at Skidmore Owings and Merrill working with Myron Goldsmith on a city plan for Columbus, Indiana. My Masters thesis was used by SOM as the basis for two projects — the US Pavilion at the Osaka World’s Fair (unbuilt) and the Central Facilities Building for Baxter Laboratories in Deerfield Illinois.
In 1970 John Vinci and I formed the office of Vinci/Kenny. Our practice included art installations and remodelings for museums, galleries and collectors, among them The Art Institute of Chicago and The Renaissance Society at the U of C. We worked on many preservation and adaptive reuse projects such as H. H. Richardson's Glessner House, John Root's Rookery Building 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.
On my return to New York in 1977, I worked for a time at Marcel Breuer Associates as a project architect, after which I practiced independently or in collaboration with other architects on numerous residential and institutional projects. Among these were a renovation of the Beaumont and Newhouse Theaters at Lincoln Center and the design of a museum store in Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery. I designed several art installations at the Neue Galerie New York: the inaugural exhibition 2001 and the Dagobert Peche exhibition 2002 (both with John Vinci), the Viennese Silver exhibition 2003 and the Grotesque show 2004.
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 and visual qualities of its materials that fascinated me, not their expressive possibilities. 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.
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 withdrawing them from human access. 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 us the intolerable otherness of the external world.
Below are some remarks selected and edited from others written over the years:
I sense that geometry and language have deep connections as if they shared aspects of the same mental structures.
The inevitable formal similarities that new geometric art will have with its antecedents can obscure crucial differences and complicate interpretation.
An object can from some vantage points be made to seem a conventional work of art, but from others inconsistencies and instabilities can be sensed.
An art object can be the idea itself, not a medium for ideas: an intelligent object.
The object can be a game piece: No matter its manifestation, the rules are the same.
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 diminishes 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.