We Bought The Seagram Building
Published October 16, 2011
By Matt Stromberg
In his new exhibition of ink drawings at Ever Gold Gallery,We Bought The Seagram Building, Canadian artist Lucas Soi explores the role of commerce in art. As the title of the exhibit suggests, Soi begins with the fictional premise that he was able to purchase the Seagram Building, an icon of corporate modernist architecture, in 2009, at the nadir of the current economic downturn. With the body of stark, black-and-white works related to this acquisition, Soi focuses attention on the network of money and patronage that is intertwined with the worlds of art and architecture.
In his dispassionately executed and precise drawings, Soi depicts the elevation and floor plan of the Seagram Building, alongside a rendering of the supposed bank draft and the presumably fictional, ultra-exclusive American Express Black Centurion card that he used to purchase it. The drawings all share the same size and rectangular format, emphasizing a correspondence between the financial and artistic; he gives architectural monument and transactional receipt equal weight.
Completed in 1958, the Seagram Building was commissioned by the Canadian beverage company to be their New York headquarters. They chose Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as the architect who, with Philip Johnson, designed a bronze and glass box. It immediately became a quintessential example of the International Style, which eschewed superfluous decoration in favor of a sleek and minimal expression of a building’s structure. The Seagram Building now exemplifies everything we have come to think of as modern—a cool, global style that signaled a break from the outdated ornamentality of previous eras.
Yet, as much as the Seagram Building expressed the ideals of mid-century progress, it also represents the authoritarianism of the moneyed elites for whom it was built. Mies’ “imagery conjured up efficiency, cleanliness, organization and standardization, and so fitted the bill for big-business America.”1 It is no coincidence, then, that it was the world’s most expensive skyscraper at the time of its completion.2Purchased by a French conglomerate in 2000, Soi now inserts himself into this narrative, “purchasing” it in 2009 for a mere million and a quarter euros and thereby cheekily repatriating it back to Canadian hands. By attaching a value amount to this supposedly priceless icon, Soi reflects his disillusionment with the dreams of modernism and globalization, making transparent the often-hidden history of finance underlying culture.
In exposing these unseen financial machinations, Soi’s work recalls earlier examples of conceptual institutional critique, such as those by Hans Haacke and Gordon Matta-Clark. In his landmark work, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971(1971), Haacke chronicles through photographs and documentation the real estate holdings of one of New York’s biggest slum lords. The Guggenheim canceled an exhibition that was to feature this work and fired the curator, apparently not wanting to sully their cultural institution with issues of commerce. For his Reality Properties: Fake Estatesproject of the early 1970s, Matta-Clark purchased ridiculously small parcels of land in Queens—spaces between buildings or curbs—and documented them, drawing attention to issues of land use and property ownership that are literally right in front of us.
And indeed, the tightest works in Soi’s exhibition are those that directly address the visual and conceptual links between architecture, art, and money. The least successful, however, albeit the one with the most interesting back story, references the murals that were commissioned to grace the Four Seasons restaurant in the lobby of the Seagram Building. Mark Rothko was originally chosen for the job. When he realized that his paintings, which embodied the search for the sublime, would be nothing more than decoration for a room full of “the richest bastards in New York”, his contempt was clear; stating that his goal was “to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” he promptly returned his payment and put the paintings in storage.3 Soi’s drawing, a rectangular grid of circles recalling Ben-Day dots, depicts what the mural would have looked like had it been painted by Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein instead. Pop Art, with its emphasis on surface and unapologetic commercialism, would appear to have been a better ideological fit for the luxury restaurant. However, Soi’s drawing does not tell us this story and it loses its power without this context. The more successful works in the exhibition clearly present art as commodity, like Soi’s Am Ex card, which echoes Warhol’s silk screens of dollar bills.
Ever Gold Gallery has created a spare, yet engaging installation by hanging Soi’s drawings below bright white neon lights, thereby unifying the space. With the floor painted white, entering the gallery is like stepping into a light box. Soi’s obsessive stippling technique builds up the drawings from thousands of black dots, similar to the illustrations in the Wall Street Journal. They are beautiful, delicate, ghostlike ciphers that dematerialize under the bright lights. The minute marks from which each drawing is composed compels viewers to repeatedly move in close and step back to ascertain the macro with the micro. His impressive technique is what transforms these works from simply pieces of documentation to seductive images that encourage extended gazing. But Soi’s work also combines Pop Art’s superficial aesthetic with Conceptual Art’s institutional critique to question the legacy of Modernism. The way each image is rendered with the same deadpan technique, with the same shape and size, makes all the more apparent this correlation between finance, architecture, and art. Considering recent events on Wall Street, the title of the exhibition has special relevance, as it suggests an upending of the economic status quo—that “We” may finally be able to share in something that previously had been available to only the richest one percent.