Robert Irwin, Mies, Jasper Johns, and the flag

Robert Irwin (from the recent exhibition in San Diego.)

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 1942
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (American, born Germany. 1886-1969).
Concert Hall Project, Interior perspective.
Graphite, cut-and-pasted photoreproduction, cut-and-pasted papers, cut-and-pasted painted paper, and gouache on gelatin silver photograph mounted on board, 29 1/2 x 62″ (75 x 157.5 cm). Mies van der Rohe Archive, gift of Mrs. Mary Callery.
© 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The comparison is not so far-fetched. We know Mies, like Robert Irwin, was above all avant-garde. Mies’ use of collage to present his architecture, in 1942 and earlier, is radical. Mies was friends with Dada artists and worked with the progressive design magazine “G” whose contributors included El Lissitzky, Walter Benjamin, Man Ray, Georg Grosz, Kurt Schwitters, Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi and Fernand Léger.

And, as Architecture Historian Neil Levine tells us about another famous Mies collage, the one for a convention hall,

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe 1954
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. (American, born Germany. 1886-1969).
Convention Hall, project, Chicago, Illinois,
Preliminary version: interior perspective. 1954. Collage of cut-and-pasted reproductions, photograph, and paper on composition board. Mies van der Rohe Archive, gift of the architect. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

….The design is a montage of sepia prints made from a Life magazine color photograph of the 1952 Republican Convention… (Notice) the signs for (Republicans) Ike and Taft. Somewhat more ominous are the posters, like the one in the foreground just to the left of center, that say “Impeach Earl Warren,” the nemesis of conservatives in the McCarthy era.

The most prominent, and perhaps most curious, element of the design is the lone vertical one to the left. It is an applique of a small American flag, made of fabric and hanging from the roof truss between two of the state seals. It is the kind of miniature flag attached to tiny sticks that are waved by children in July Fourth parades and bought in five-and-dime stores. The readymade, pop imagery recalls Jasper Johns’ series of painted Flags, begun the same year the collage was finished

Jasper Johns, 1954-55
Jasper Johns. (American, born 1930).
Flag. 1954-55 (dated on reverse 1954).
Encaustic, oil, and collage on fabric mounted on plywood, three panels,
42 1/4 x 60 5/8″ (107.3 x 153.8 cm).
Gift of Philip Johnson in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.
© 2008 Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York

and which, as much as anything else, returned the question of representation to the forefront of contemporary critical discourse while seemingly leaving the issue of politics up in the air.

The choice of a Republican imagery for a city controlled by Democrats, for a project sponsored by a municipal authority, in the same year that the Democratic party itself nominated Illinois’s own governor Adlai Stevenson as its party’s presidential candidate – for whom Mies, a naturalized American citizen since 1944, himself voted – renders the issue of interpretation complicated indeed. For sure, Mies did not intend the work to have a specific, literal meaning in the context of contemporary affairs.

It is neither pro-Republican nor anti-Republican, on the surface of things. But there is, as (Franz) Schulze noted, a “poetically representational” layer of meaning, one that Arthur Drexler earlier on described as “bring[ing] architecture into the realm of heroic enterprise” to create “the most monumental image twentieth-century architecture has yet produced.”” Clearly signifying something beyond mere space or structure, the collaged imagery of the Chicago Convention Hall condenses, into what is arguably the most powerful political statement of architecture conceived in the Cold War era, a visual representation of the core symbolic moment of the American democratic political process, at the scale of modern technology and in the terms of modern mass culture. Neither explicitly celebratory nor overtly critical, the collage blurs the boundaries between those two poles – as it submerges the crowd of people beneath the deep walls and roof structure – to work across the entire spectrum as a stringent diagnostic.

The frontispiece of the catalog that the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego published for their Robert Irwin exhibition shows two quotes

Less is more.
-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Less is more when less is the sum total of more.
-Robert Irwin

In 2006 Robert Irwin gave a talk called “Less is More Only When Less Is the Sum Total of More.” In April of that year he gave the talk in Crown Hall – the Architecture school that Mies van der Rohe designed at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Mies standing over a model of Crown Hall.


2 Responses to “Robert Irwin, Mies, Jasper Johns, and the flag”

  1. Anonymous Says:


  2. Edward Lifson Says:

    What makes you say what? “What is only what when what is huh?”

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