Robert Blanchon (1965–1999) is an artist near and dear to our hearts at Visual AIDS, whose work was the subject of our first published monograph. Here, German-based writer Christoph Szalay discusses Blanchon's photograph "Dr Farnsworth's Curtains" and its relationship to modernist architecture, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and more. The text is abbreviated for the Visual AIDS website from a longer essay by Szalay of the same title.

The presence emerges from the absence [1] – On Robert Blanchon’s Dr. Farnsworth’s Curtains

by Christoph Szalay

In 2015 the Grazer Kunstverein showed major works by David Wojnarowicz and Robert Blanchon, in an exhibition titled David Wojnarowicz & Robert Blanchon. While both were highlighted as having gained cult status in the United States[2], this seems to be more true for the former rather then the latter, notably evident in the upcoming Whitney Museum of American Art’s David Wojnarowicz retrospective History Keeps Me Awake At Night. Up until 2015 and the exhibition at the Grazer Kunstverein, Blanchon’s works had never been shown in Europe before.

I remember walking through the exhibition, looking at Wojnarowicz’s' Rimbaud in New York Series, his intimate Peter Hujar: Deathbed Photos and watching Blanchon’s let’s just kiss + say goodbye. But it wasn’t one of the iconic works that caught my closest attention; instead Blanchon’s Dr. Farnsworth’s Curtains, a photograph, taken in 1998, one year before his death that struck me right away. Whether it was the exposure as the only picture on the wall in one of the passageways in the exhibition space at Grazer Kunstverein that struck me, or the subject matter, I can’t remember. What I do remember is that I had to stop and pause for quite some time, experiencing and embracing changing feelings of attraction and uneasiness. Later, I asked myself what it was that had caused these feelings, and if I could put a name to it.

Robert Blanchon’s Dr. Farnsworth’s Curtains begins with the questions What do I see? and How do I speak of it?

When you first look at the picture, you find a shimmering radiance, a glow, a glimmer, that covers and carries the photograph. One supposes the luminescence to come from a fine, transparent cloth or a curtain or a veil, most certainly something to cover and uncover things. Unless you read the title, which identifies it as a curtain, this remains a matter of imagination and speculation. As such, it evokes the feeling of a bodily presence, the narration of a body being hidden or absent from the frame. Adding to the mystery and eeriness are the trees in the upper part of the picture. Is it a small forest? Am I inside a house, covered in a veil, looking outward, or am I in the woods, is the rest rendered? Coming back to the title: the object, as well as the picture itself, is given not only a designation but also a contextualization: the curtain of Dr. Farnsworth, Edith Farnsworth, a Chicago nephrologist who commissioned the Farnsworth House in Plano, IL.

The story of Robert Blanchon’s Dr. Farnsworth’s Curtains is at first glance the story of the Farnsworth House and its main protagonists, Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth. While the consensual tenor is one of the Master and his Masterpiece, Blanchon takes a very different angle. Already indicated in the title, Dr. Farnsworth’s Curtains is a dismantling of the narrative of van der Rohe’s icon of modernism[3]. Where others speak of a pilgrimage site, a symbol, a poem[4], Blanchon refuses to speak of it at all, instead turning the narrative around, giving a voice to someone who has not only been denied one, but for the most part ridiculed. Edith Farnsworth’s telling of the tale is not one of perfection but one of deficiency, as she noted:

The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax. [... T]he house is [...] like an x-ray.[5]

Her concerns, which are more like confessions, stand in stark contrast with van der Rohe’s concept and experience of the glass house which he instead told members of the Architectural Association that he had a great experience with: "Before you live in a glass house you do not know how colourful nature is. It changes everyday."[6] Nature is a key element in van der Rohe’s thoughts—he saw it as a path to transcendence, as such echoing the concepts and aesthetics of Romantics such as Caspar David Friedrich, Philipp Otto Runge, etc. He once said:

"Nature, too, shall live its own life. We must beware not to disrupt it with the color of our houses and interior fittings. Yet we should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together into a higher unity."[7]

The Farnsworth House is van der Rohe’s most intriguing embodiment of this imperative. The elevation of the house to 5 feet 3 inches off the ground as a precaution against the flooding of the nearby Fox River produces a feeling of floating, and of not being surrounded by, but being part of, being within nature. Still, the most prominent features are the huge single-pane glass windows that span from floor to ceiling, diminishing the difference between the outside and the inside, even to the point where all becomes one—the outside becomes the inside, object becomes subject, and vice versa. "The Farnsworth House is an instrument for the appropriation of external space[8]," states German photographer Hans-Christian Schink—and the glass windows are the medium for this.

With Modernism’s fundamental shift in architecture to adopt glass as one of its centerpieces, the window was no longer a hole in a wall, rather it took over the wall[9]. In accordance with the rise of television in western postwar societies the window became a picture screen, a space that is not made of walls but of images. Images as walls[10], making the house a device to see the world, a mechanism of viewing. Shelter, separation from the outside, is provided by the windows ability to turn the threatening world outside the house into a reassuring picture. The inhabitant is enveloped, wrapped, protected by the pictures.[11]

However, the window in Modernism works not just one but two ways, generating both a view from the inside to the outside and vice versa, so equally making the spectators the spectacle. As a consequence, staying in a house becomes a permanent negotiation of privacy and representation, further to this, the traditional sense of privacy is now not only scarce but endangered, under attack.[12] By installing curtains[13], Edith Farnsworth not only withdraws from, but also counters the politics of enduring exposure and visibility—counters Mies van der Rohe’s and architecture’s heteronormative discourse, claiming a room of her own, a room that wasn’t supposed to be claimed by women in postwar America at all, especially women with a lifestyle like Farnsworth’s.

Farnsworth was indeed foregrounded as being in opposition to the modern American view of the ideal woman occupying the ideal domestic space. (...) her perverted life as a single, professional, independently wealthy, middle-aged woman, (...) existed outside the enclave of the idealised norm.[14]

In depicting a glance enfolded in a veil, a blurry vision of a cold and empty outside with bare trees, rusty leaves covering the ground instead of a scenic view, Blanchon (re-)articulates Edith Farnsworth’s act of critique, attributing to her the position of the author rather than the character, thus writing an alternate story of the Farnsworth House—one that articulates the blank spaces, that were supposed to be left unmarked.

Robert Blanchon’s Dr. Farnsworths Curtains is as much a story of Modernism, its phrasing and execution, its implications and hierarchies, as it is a story of body. The curtain is a topos that reaches far back in history; beginning with Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain in 1646, it has long and ever been denoted and connoted divine and cultic. Despite the constantly shifting context in which the curtain has been invoked and applied, its basic meaning is of something with the purpose of covering[15], has remained the same. It is this attribute of division, of protecting and sheltering something private and personal, something precious, that causes the feeling and notion of a body.

The simplicity of the gesture resounds with a plethora of meanings – not only the perennially shifting distinction between the private and the public, but also the imagination, the memory of the sensual body, a faith in formal beauty, the desire for transformations; and the hope for renewal.[16]

Nancy Spector’s remarks on Felix-Gonzalez Torres' installation Untitled [Lover Boy] as well as the variation Untitled (1994, version of Untitled [Lover Boy] [1989]) at the Fabric Workshop, Philadelphia, provide a reference to Robert Blanchon’s Dr. Farnsworths Curtains. In all three, the curtain is at the center of the work, and in all three, its gesture resounds a body, an absent body, filled with the projections and desires of the observer. It is through its absence, through the imagery and desire of imagination that it creates its presence.

The body and it’s absence, the emphasis on the blank spaces are a constant narrative throughout Blanchon’s work. When Sasha Archibald speaks of an Archive of Absence[17], it is pieces like Untitled [table setting card] (1994) or Clock (1993) that illustrate this term, a table setting card addressed to no one or anyone or everyone, a clock with no clockhands, showing no time or any time or all time, it is pieces like Self-portrait with Tattoo or Untitled, both from 1993, showing empty scriptrolls on the neck, the upper arm of a body, Blanchon’s own body.

In works like Untitled (Death Valley Self- Portrait), (...) and his tattoo series, Blanchons body is the artwork, while in other pieces (...) he posits his body as an empty receptacle, (...).[18]

The exhibition of the body in the works of Blanchon, as well as its negation, its absence, demonstrate the intertwining of the public and the private, the personal. "Blanchon considered it dishonest to separate the artwork from the person that produced it," writes Sacha Archibald, "and in recognizing his own failing health, we follow his lead." [19] Through such a reading, the curtain in Dr. Farnsworth’s Curtains—like the one-eyed glasses of Untitled (eye frame), the view through a blurred windshield in untitled (windshield) or the two identical pictures in horizontal format in The Atlantics, one sharp and clear, the other hazy, diffuse—becomes the story of disappearing, of losing sight to a disease that today still kills over a million people a year. [20] But while others shout and cry, Blanchon narrates gently and silently.

It was the silence, I guess, the intimacy of Dr. Farnsworth’s Curtains, somehow sensing a body, that kept me, trying to name it.

Over and over again.

Christoph Szalay studied German (Language & Literature) at Karl-Franzens University Graz and Art in Context at University of Arts Berlin. As a writer, performer, curator, he most recently worked on: SPACE=WOW (BUT I STILL MISS YOU, EARTH), publication at Spacecraft Press 2017 as well as a performed piece at Minoriten Graz and Musiktheatertage Wien, Werk X, 2017 / When I think of Palace, threepart lecture at Forum Stadtpark&Steirischer Herbst 2016 / Re-Considering Trieste or OH, HOW I WANTED TO BE YOUR BABY (but you wouldn't let me), limited publication of 100 pieces for the AiR Trieste 2016 / Alex&der Mond, children's book with drawings by Lisa-Maria Wagner, Luftschacht 2016. For more info: toutlemondesaitque.com & veza.at/filter/and-then-we-ran-into-the-ocean

Special thanks to Kate Howlett-Jones for her proof reading assistance.

[1] Translated from Cixous, Hélène & Derrida, Jaques (2007), Voiles. Schleier und Segel, Engelmann, Peter (Ed.), Passagen Publishing, p.17. (see also the English version Cixous/Derrida (2002), Veils, translated by Geoffrey Bennington, Stanford University Press)

[2] Taken from the introductory text of Grazer Kunstverein, as announced on e-flux: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/29934/david-wojnarowicz-robert-blanchon/. Accessed 15 February 2017.

[3] Taken from the documentary at Farnsworth House Visitor Center, Optimus, 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Quoted from Churchill, Lynn (2009): Anatomy of Occupation. Online paper http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/44819/10_Lynn-Churchill_Farnsworth-and-the-Anatomy-of-Occupation.pdf. Accessed 17 February 2017.

[6] Address of Appreciation (1959), quoted after Dziewior (2005), Mies van der Rohe, p. 79f.

[7] Quoted from Adelyn Perez (2010), AD Classics: The Farnsworth House/Mies van der Rohe, http://www.archdaily.com/59719/ad-classics-the-farnsworth-house-mies-van-der-rohe. Accessed 20 February 2017.

[8] Schink, Hans-Christian (2009), Photographing Farnsworth’s House, In: Beatriz Colomina, Moisés Puente & Hans-Christian Schink (Eds.), Mies van der Rohe: Casas Houses, 2G, Nr. 48/49, Gustavo Gili, p. 168.

[9] Direct as well as indirect quotes taken from Colomina, Beatriz (1994), Privacy and Publicity. Modern Architecture as Mass Media, MIT Press, p. 6.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. pp. 6-7.

[12] Ibid, p. 8.

[13] While in fact the curtains were installed by Edith Farnsworth, they were very likely already included in the early drawings and drafts of the Farnsworth House by van der Rohe himself. There is absolutely no doubt he designed the house with drapes. (…) The original early drawings ofthe Farnsworth House show a double track to allow two drapery systems, one a sheer and the other a more opaque drape. writes Algis Novackis of Antunovich Associates in an email correspondence with Whitney French, former Historic Site Director Farnsworth House, Rolf Achilles, David Bahlman and Clark Christensen. O.W. Fischer argues in the same direction in his essay Reflexionen im Spiegelglas... (transl. Reflections in the looking glass...) (2013), In: Plüm, Kerstin (Ed.), Mies van der Rohe im Diskurs. Innovationen – Haltungen – Werke. Aktuelle Positionen, transcript, p.139-158. Why he did not in the end install them himself, and left Farnsworth House without them, is a subject of speculation.

[14] Churchill (2009), Anatomy, p. 3.

[15] e.g. the lexicon entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (online): curtain, n. 1. A piece of cloth or similar material suspended by the top so as to admit of being withdrawn sideways, and serving as a screen or hanging for purposes of use or ornament; e.g. to enclose a bed (the earliest English use), to separate one part of a room from another, to regulate the admission of light at a window, to prevent draught at a door or other opening, etc., http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/46176?rskey=4bxdnn&result=1#eid. Accessed 25 February 2017.

[16] Spector, Nancy (1995), Felix-Gonzalez Torres, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, p.192.

[17] Archibald & Duvergne (2006) (Eds.), Robert Blanchon, p. 23.

[18] Archibald, Sacha & Duvergne, Tania & Martin-Breen, Bethany (2010) (Eds.), You make me feel (mighty real). The work of Robert Blanchon (catalogue), Tracey/Barry Gallery & Bobst Library New York, p. 5.

[19] Archibald & Duvergne (2006) (Eds.), Robert Blanchon, p. 23.

[20] UNAIDS (Eds.), Fact Sheet November 2016, http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/UNAIDS_FactSheet_en.pdf. Accessed 26 February 2017.