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White Gray Black

Michael Graves (American, 1934–2015)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American architect, teacher, painter and designer. He studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati, OH (1954–8), and Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (MA 1959), and was a scholar at the American Academy in Rome (1960–62). He began a long teaching career at Princeton University, NJ, in 1962 and established a private practice in Princeton in 1964. Graves participated in a number of unexecuted projects and competition entries (1963–5) with Peter Eisenman and then built the first of several private houses of the 1960s and 1970s, the Hanselman House (1965), Fort Wayne, IN, based on a pristine white double cube with three layered façades. This was followed by the addition to the Benacerraf House (1969), Princeton, with geometric planes, coloured struts, free-form spatial effects and curves echoing elements of Le Corbusier’s rationalist ‘white’ villas of the 1920s and 1930s. Both were included in the New york five exhibition at MOMA, New York, in 1969. Colour was increasingly used in Graves’s early houses, however, culminating in the Snyderman House (1972), Fort Wayne, a light, open, geometric composition whose elements were all painted different colours following the design logic and referring to the heavily wooded context.

Painting and drawing were important components of Graves’s work, and he carried out several large murals in the 1970s. Painting also provided inspiration for architectural form. His approach borrowed much from Cubist art, particularly the layering and synchrony of imagery, structure and symbolism. His early work makes direct reference not only to Le Corbusier but also to such Cubist masters as Juan Gris, compounding fragments with overlays and superimposing perspective and structural grids contrasted with curves. In this historical interest in Modernism can be found the origins of Graves’s later Post-modernism. After the mid-1970s his work drew on a wide range of earlier sources for its imagery, including Ledoux, Boullée, Ingres, Poussin and Classical Greece and Rome, integrating representational forms and images into abstract, painterly collages with an increasingly Byzantine complexity in the multiple layering of imagery so that the architecture only gives the illusion of making direct historical references. His buildings also became increasingly colourful mosaics that reflected metaphorical associations with nature.

The Plocek House (1977), Warren, NJ, recalls an Italian palazzo but with abstracted columns and a missing keystone that reappears as the study pavilion in the garden. The Fargo-Moorhead Cultural Center (1977–8) bridging the river between Fargo, ND, and Moorhead, MN, drew on Ledoux’s project for a sluice-house over the River Loue with its semicircular arch, symbolic, slipped keystone and image of sluice. Other well-known buildings include the Portland Public Services Building (1978–82), Portland, OR, whose façade echoes the classical division of base, middle and top, with a portico as a central motif; the Humana Corporation headquarters (1983), Louisville, KY, a 27-storey steel-framed office building clad in coloured granite that has a gigantic columned and pedimented ‘loggia’ to the street frontage; and the addition to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, designed in 1985 but revised in 1988 to a more abstract scheme in response to Marcel Breuer’s original building. His Disney hotels in Florida—the Swan (1988–9) and Dolphin (1988–90) at Lake Buena Vista—provided a rich canvas for a thematic approach, including giant sculptures and murals of waves and tropical vegetation.

The pictorial character of Graves’s architecture is consistent with his approach to drawing. He rejected the abstract, minimal geometry of Modernism, believing it led to a sense of alienation from architecture, in favour of figurative elements thought to be derived from classical analogies of man and nature. His architecture also takes the form of a literary art in its attempt to create a new vocabulary of semiological, syntactic analogies that appeal to the collective memory. By re-establishing architecture as a mythic and symbolic representation of culture, he sought to increase its communication with the culture at large. His buildings represent these arguments in a series of provocative, sometimes puzzling and often amusing metaphors that are, above all, decorative. Graves’s work, which was widely exhibited in the USA and Europe and won many awards, also included interior, industrial and furniture design ; he designed showrooms for Sunar Furniture throughout the USA and also worked for Steuben Glass, Alessi and Memphis Furniture, both in Milan, and for Baldinger Architectural Lighting.

Malcolm Quantrill
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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