The Velvet Underground at the Glass House

This summer the Phillip Johnson Glass House opens to the public, and to celebrate this there's a Gala opening on Saturday June 23. Amy Grabowski, the Glass House's director of external affairs describes what's planned: "We are specifically restaging a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from a 1967 benefit at the Glass House that we unearthed in our archives. At that event, the Velvet Underground performed later in the evening."


I originally came across this seemingly obscure moment researching a piece for Volume - 'The Exploding Concrete Inevitable' on Rem Koolhass/OMA's Casa da Musica. Volume set me up an interview with Lou Reed after he'd been the first to perform at the new concert hall.


And somewhere between Lou Reed, Electricity, Marshal McLuhan, and Andy Warhol - I forget exactly the circumstances - I drew a comparison between the translucent walls of the Johnson Glass House, and the metallic-reflective walls of Warhol's silver Factory. They seemed like related opposites: spaces that were very similar, famous for the material surface of their walls that were both materials which both fascinated modern architecture. Both had qualities that embody modernity - transparency, reflection, flat and smooth, seamless, almost textureless, technological, industrialised, cold-to-the-touch and factory-formed into sheets from molten state. The Glass House and the Factory are like opposing twins.


Here's the relevant passage:

"The Exploding Plastic Inevitable involved the Velvet Underground, projections of Andy's films on top of each other and over the band, light shows, and dancers with whips. Sometimes it involved super confrontation. Sometimes the band performed behind the screen. They played art galleries and universities; they played an old gymnasium complete with equipment. It was a pop art happening.

The EPI is legendary. It's credited with inventing the light show - which quickly became a psycadelic staple, eventually evolving into the sound and light theatrics of Mark Fisher designed stadium spectaculars. It was a crashing together of performance art, rock, and film. Just as the Velvets themselves were a crashing together of Rock and Roll and avant guarde music: primitive and challenging and shot through with crystalline beauty.

The EPI features in Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiores 'The Medium is the Massage'. The book is a linguistic and graphical tour de force (echoed perhaps in S,M,L,XL in its scope, ambition and high concept graphic design). Published in 1967, it captures the boundless revolutionary energy of the period. "Everything is changing - you, your family, your neighbourhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to 'others'. And they're changing dramatically." wrote McLuhan. He argued that 'Media was reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life'.

Reed put it like this in the Velvets song 'Temptation inside your Heart': 'Electricity comes from another planet!' It's a yelp expressing the totally transforming and alien power of the electric revolution.

One of McLuhan's key points is how electronic media has changed the nature of space:

'"Time" has ceased, 'Space' has vanished. We now live in a global village ... a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space. We have begun again to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us."

Again, a Reed lyric, this time from 'Rock and Roll', expresses a similar sentiment:

"Then one fine mornin' she puts on a New York station
You know, she don't believe what she heard at all
She started singin' to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock 'n' roll
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
And dance to the rock 'n' roll station".


You can understand why McLuhan used an image of the EPI. With the primitive-electric sound of the Velvets, the overlaying of performance and film, it is an extreme example of 'media working us over completely'.

Describing the change in perception of space, he writes: "The Renaissance legacy:
The Vanishing Point = Self - Effacement,
The Detached Observer.
No Involvement!
The viewer of Renaissance art is systematically placed outside the frame of experience. A piazza for everything and everything in its piazza. The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible."

In comparison, he describes how "primitive - or pre-alphabet people integrate time and space as one and live in acoustic horizon less, boundless, olfactory space, rather than in visual space. " He argues that electronic communication dissolves perspectival space and revives this primitive conception.

The EPI serves him as an example of this electric space. The open, fluid, interconnected qualities make it sound like Modernisms open plan, but its actually very different.


In July 1967, these two kinds of space collided when the Velvet Underground played a benefit for the Merce Cunningham Dance Troupe at the Philip Johnson Glass House. According to Martha Morrison (Stirling Morrison's wife) " the band had a great time. They were treated royally which was rare." Here, the two kinds of free plan collide: the immersive sound of the Velvets and the Mies derived open plan of the Glass House. You could imagine the Velvets drones and shrieks vibrating the glazing until it warped into the curved glass of the Casa da Musica.


The Velvets/EPI scene had their own seminal open plan space - Warhol's Factory. The Modernist open plan of the Glass House was derived by abstracting industrial spaces. The Factory appropriated an existing industrial building (an old hat manufacturing company) and re-tasked it. Warhol described it like this: "The Factory was about 50 feet by 100, and it had windows all along 47th street looking south. It was basically crumbling - the walls especially were in bad shape. I kept most of the light blocked out - that's the way I like it". While the Glass House looks outwards, the Factory was introverted. Billy Name moved into the Factory and created the "silver look" as an "installation for Andy to have a fabulous place to work in". He covered the walls and pipes with silver foil, and sprayed everything silver "right down to the toilet bowl". In different ways both buildings aspire to some kind of immateriality - the Glass House through transparency, the Factory through reflection. The meaning of the Factories silver-ness might be, as Nico sung, to 'Reflect what you are, in case you don't know'. Billy furnished the Factory with stuff he found on the street including 'the huge curved couch that would be photographed so much in the next few years - the hairy red one that we used in so many of our movies"

While the Glass House edits the programme of house to a stylized minimalism, the Factory was accumulative. A space made as a kind of collage of objects and juxtapositions of events: A couch, a camera, Billy Name living as a recluse in the darkroom, movies being shot, Andy and Gerald Malanga silk screening, the Velvets rehearsing, magazines being assembled, people drifting in off the street and hanging out. The Factory was a kind of extension of street life, which I guess reached an extreme climax when Valerie Solanas walked in and shot Andy Warhol."

If you buy any of this you'll agree that a recreation of the Merce Cunningham event is an interesting way of celebrating the Glass House. It's an attitude that suggests an ambiguous reading of the building when clich├ęs of minimalism, elegance and so on must have been sorely tempting.

And some Warhol-Glass House moments are archived at Warhol Stars.

Warhol was a regular visitor, and there are shots by David McCabe of Warhol partially obscured by reflections in the eponymous glass of the house - his face obscured by layers a little like his Camouflage series.

"Johnson was the architect who commissioned Warhol's Most Wanted Men series for the New York State pavilion that Johnson designed for the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadow. The work consisted of 25 panels, each measuring 48" by 48", of images from mugshots taken from a 1962 poster of NYPD's "Most Wanted" criminals. When Robert Moses objected to the work, Warhol had the panels painted over with silver paint. British artist Mark Lancaster, who helped Warhol stretch the later canvas versions of the Most Wanted Men, remembers going to the World's Fair with Warhol to see the silver panels and that the "ghostlike images" of the mug shots were still "showing through" the silver."


"And so, on a chilly Sunday afternoon in the winter of 1964-65, we - David McCabe, my sister Sarah, and I - go to Connecticut to see Philip the Brazen in his famous glass slipper... Early in the morning, we get to the Glass House. It is a cold, gray day... Plus we don't see Andy in the Glass House, and you can see everybody inside quite clearly, like figurines under a bell jar... We creep around the estate looking for Andy. 'I bet he'll be in there,' says David, pointing to a low-lying white guest house. The windows are in the shape of portholes. We peek in. There is Andy in bed. In shades! I knew it. He never takes them off these days, even in bed. The room has a shrine-like quality to it... The bedspread is black leather, and above the head of the bed is a filigree wire sculpture by Richard Lippold.. When Andy saw us looking through the window, he motioned for us to go around to the door. Oh, that was a door?... A claw-like hand reaches up from the corner of the porthole. Then an impish, close-cropped head. 'Oh' says Sarah, 'isn't that David Whitney?' It is... As we walk back toward the Glass House, Andy says, 'People always ask me, 'How does he go to the bathroom in that place?'"

Posted by sam at May 29, 2007 12:41 PM

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