MoMA wants to cancel Philip Johnson, many who did not know him
A gallery with the architect’s name also tries to wipe it out. As an Ohio gay man, I’m in vain for Philip Johnson to pose with a model of his AT&T building in May 1978. Photo: Bill Pierce / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images Whether you’re me or the Duchess of Sussex, Black is to always negotiate around the bias of others. Racism is ubiquitous. White supremacy is the original sin of the west. But what about when allegations of racism seem to have been fabricated? Judging people of the past by today’s standards, as many young people seem to do, no one is perfect. However, unlike human frailty, many tend to fire people who have much to offer that recommends them for lack of sufficient purity. Despite Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. praising her for giving black women freedom of choice and self-determination for black couples through family planning, Margaret Sanger is said to have advocated black genocide. Even the emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, has been called racist. It’s mostly for things he said to avoid division and prevent war. It doesn’t seem to help that he was appreciated by Frederick Douglass as a personal friend as well as a friend of the colored race. Lincoln helped pass the 13th Amendment and envisioned the 14th and 15th. But his death for advancing all three seemingly means nothing? The latest example of killing someone as a racist is underway at the Museum of Modern Art. Open on February 27 and run through the end of May, a new exhibition, Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, will challenge and attempt to dismiss the legacy of Philip Johnson, the modernist master who did so much to start and cultivate MoMA. Presented in a gallery dedicated to Johnson’s memory, the participants’ introductory manifesto destroys an inscription in his honor. If inclusion is the goal, is a tit-for-tat ban necessary or even helpful? It’s a disturbing existential exhibition, grand with abstract ideas, but few real buildings to display. The organizers argue: we address the question of which architecture cannot be an instrument for imperialism and submission, not a means of glorifying the self, but a vehicle for liberation and joy. Johnson’s white supremacist views and activities, they say, make him an inappropriate namesake within an educational or cultural institution that claims to serve a wide audience. But if the goal is inclusion, is a tit-for-tat ban necessary or even helpful? Johnson’s name has already been removed from a building he designed at Harvard, but some are also trying to cancel him at MoMA. As an American correspondent on the rise of Nazi Germany, Johnson was already his toughest opponents, he said. He envisioned a fascist revolution with elite leaders. Hegemony, patriarchy, and privilege convinced Johnson that the brutal power of the state, coupled with technological advancements and modern aesthetics, could end the suffering of the poor, increase wealth, and defeat communism. The Seagram Building in New York, completed in 1958 by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Photo: Archive Photos / Getty ImagesWhen war was looming, he turned around. He enlisted in the United States military and became a Democratic patriot. Still, his closest friend, the gay, Jewish artistic impresario, connoisseur, and philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein, who founded and cultivated the New York City Ballet in much the same way that Johnson promoted MoMA, wouldn’t talk to him for two years. Then, as now, it was about Johnson’s past Nazi crush, as well as his racism. But isn’t racism worse than most people beyond repair? Historian Robert AM Stern is Jewish. He views Johnson as a critical mentor. TV commentator Barbara Walters developed a friendship with Johnson after she reprimanded him for not being free and proudly gay. According to black architect Roberta Washington, while working on a history of African American designers in New York State, Johnson employed at least two black men whom I interviewed for my book. Professor Steven Semes, of Notre Dame, remembers others from when he worked for Johnson in the 1980s. The first was Percy Griffin, a Mississippi resident whose family were sharecroppers. Griffin has said he and Julius Twyne got on well with their former boss. Griffin was far from discriminated against, but expressed gratitude for an exception that allowed him to work part-time and without a permit. He paid me the full salary, Griffin told the Architecture School Review, the same salary he gave to the architects who had already graduated for five years, and I took off every day that my class was going on, and he never took a dime . He continued to pay me the same as everyone else for five years. And he also gave me personal crits on my school projects. I had the opportunity to meet Louis Kahn, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and others and go to parties with them because they all knew Philip Johnson and he would invite everyone to the party. I wouldn’t trade that for any school in the world: going to school at City College and being in Philip Johnson’s office. I was a friend of Johnson’s older sister, Jeanette Dempsey, in his hometown of Cleveland. I met Johnson after moving to New York in 1985. He was fascinating. He told me how black architect Julian Abele worked hand in hand with white practitioner Horace Trumbauer as his chief designer more than a century earlier. Johnson called the house Abele designed for industrialist James Duke, now the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, exceptional. On the grill of the Four Seasons, he remembered how, back from Germany in 1934, he made a fateful trip to Harlems Club Hot-Cha. Seeing the elegant African-American singer Jimmie Daniels, Johnson said, he was determined to make the beautiful youth his lover. Johnson could be extremely charming. But had he really repented? His Jewish friends and black co-workers thought so. Me too. A fellow gay Ohioan, at least I invested in the hope that Philip Johnson’s youthful crimes could be forgiven, that his reward and reconciliation, and mine, are a possibility. None of us is just our biggest mistake. Today, we all need what Philip Johnson died when he thought he found: the chance to develop an opportunity to become better people.
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