Painting Gallery, 1965

Philip Johnson designed the Painting Gallery to house the collection of large-scale modern paintings that he and David Whitney collected throughout their lives. Works by Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Salle, Cindy Sherman, and Julian Schnabel are represented in the permanent collection housed in this building.

The exterior of the Gallery is a grass-covered mound, topped by a low parapet with a monumental stone entrance. The stone flanking the entrance is red sandstone. While certainly a reference to the antique, Johnson also designed similar bermed structures in 1965 including the Geier House in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The parapet traces the Painting Gallery’s interior plan of three circles in various diameters. In each of the circular rooms, there is a rotating “poster-rack” for displaying two paintings per spindle, operated manually. Although Johnson preferred to view six works at a given time, this device allowed for the storage of 42 paintings.

Walking Tour with Philip Johnson, 1991

“When we come to the Painting Gallery, across the bridge, that nice experience of looking down into a miniature castle, when you get to the other side which is where the gallery is placed, the gallery is not so visible as it might be had it been built higher out of the ground. But there were about six reasons for that and in any work of architecture there isn’t a single reason, like copying the tempietto from Hadrian’s villa or something like that. There are other reasons. For instance, the main reason for the Painting Gallery being semi-sunk into the ground was the fact I didn’t want another building from the point of view of landscape architecture too near the Glass House. I wanted to keep the rural field effect. So the least visible was, of course, just a mound. All I did was to push up a little earth around it and made the entrance, very much like, of course, from Greek entrances to tombs and the Treasury of Atreus.

Now, in a painting gallery today it’s a common feeling, or at least it was in the 1950s, that you do not want daylight for about sixteen reasons. You don’t want the temperature change; you don’t want the sun – the sun comes in the wrong place, no matter what you do with a skylight or a window. And it takes up wall space. I didn’t want any of that. The Museum of Modem Art has no windows in its main galleries. I think the temperature has changed a little bit recently on that, but when we built it in the early 1960s, it was clear that we didn’t want any daylight.

So we go in semi-underground. It isn’t underground, people think it’s an underground gallery, it isn’t. It’s a berm house. People don’t know that splendid English word, berm. But a berm is out of dirt. It’s usually used on the side of a road where you build up the earth works. But it’s a berm building. And then the roof is the roof; it’s a built up roof. In fact, it’s kind of fun too, if you’re young enough, to run up the slope, which is gentle enough, to the roof and walk around up there. There are some very beautiful carved sandstone edges there, parapets, that are worth examining. And you get a nice view of the rest of the property. I can urge you to do that.

As you enter the gallery you’ll notice there are lots of features that are not usual in a painting gallery, like putting it underground in the first place. But beyond that, there’s no gallery in the world that I know that has movable walls from like a postal card rack, that turn around so you can look at individual pictures one at a time. That is an experiment that worked, not much copied but it did work, of hanging pictures, for several reasons.

For one thing, if you stand in the middle of the gallery you’ll notice that there are only six paintings to look at. That’s as much as you can take in in a coup d’oeil, in a first glance, it’s all you can register. The sense of going through the Metropolitan or some big museum, of museum fatigue, that starts before you look down the enfilade of rooms, because you say, oh my God, I have to see 62 more paintings. In our gallery you don’t have to see anything, just the six that you’re faced with. One’s a good one, one you don’t understand why anybody would paint a thing like that, the other one is a beautiful one, another one you wonder how much that cost.

The other possibility is just to move the screens, which is very easily done. I say easily, I can do it, even now. But it’s not that easy. You can move it to another six paintings or another six paintings. Or you can just move them one at a time and get a very strange juxtaposition if you want to. The light is perfect every time because I only had to make one set of lights for all these paintings, and it’s a delightful change for a person as easily bored as I am. To go to the same pictures every time I visit the gallery – what a dullness. So I change it around and I get surprised and pleased and angry at the different things that come up. So I claim that’s the right way to do museums. Now I find out that because of controls and security and many reasons, it isn’t of general use for public galleries. But for private galleries, it is the way to see paintings. And I have yet to hear a successful argument against it.”

Interview conducted on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation by Eleanor Devens, Franz Schultz, Jeffrey Shaw, and Frank Sanchis.

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