When the Masters Meet

Years ago, when his house was on the Princeton Area YWCA Rooms to View tour, I got my own private peek inside Michael Graves’ magnificent Mediterranean-style villa (one of the perks of being a journalist that compensates for the miniscule remuneration).

Mr. Graves, Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture, Emeritus, at Princeton University, turned a former university textbook warehouse into an Italianate home. I remember two sarcophogi flanking the entryway, scored concrete floors and art and architecture books stacked everywhere. The highlight was the oculus, at the time a new word to me. (The Oxford English dictionary eloquently describes an oculus this way:1 a circular window. 2 the central boss of a volute. 3 an opening at the apex of a dome.) In Mr. Graves’ home, the oculus connects three floors, with a glass ceiling at top.

Visiting Mr. Graves’ home was, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Living just 15 minutes from him in the past 20 years, the number of times I have interviewed him can be counted on a single hand: In a designer show house about 15 years ago, where he re-created the front entry hall; in 2006, when he painted a dog for the Princeton Dog Walk (a hospital fundraiser); and this past summer, when I spent a good amount of time with him — I had invited him to serve as juror for the West Windsor Arts Council’s Avenue of the Arts, and sat with him as he gave commentary on the many submissions. This is certainly one of the high points of my life: He is a gentleman and a man of exquisite taste and extraordinary talent.

While in his office, I noticed a whole wall of enormous canvases he’d painted in the past year. Mary Kate Murray, his personal assistant and one of the 10 best human beings on Planet Earth, told me they’d be going to the Hotel Michael in Singapore, where everything is designed by Mr. Graves, winner of the 2001 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects . Here’s how that hotel describes itself: “The designer lends his elegant, distinctive strokes to every aspect of this boutique hotel, from lamps to crockery, to lounge chair and carpet… Stepping into Hotel Michael is like entering an art gallery, with mural-adorned walls and artistic furniture pieces that tell a story in every honey maple-coloured room.”

So if you can’t finagle an invitation to the Princeton house, you can fly to Singapore!

When I learned that Mel Leipzig, about whom I’ve written a great deal (see more here), had painted a portrait of Mr. Graves, the first thing I asked was, where did Mr. Graves sit?

Miraculously, Mr. Leipzig painted a five-panel canvas, titled “Michael Graves,” that he began this past summer. I am presenting each of the panels here, starting from left to right. “I ended up painting five panels because I couldn’t decide what room to paint him in,” says Mr. Leipzig. “The entrance is spectacular, with trees imported from Italy.”

The Somerset Art Association, in partnership with Somerset Medical Center Foundation, will host an unveiling of the painting Feb. 17, 6-7 p.m. at the Johnson Gallery, 2020 Burnt Mills Road, Bedminster. The unveiling is open to the public, and free, and is followed by an “intimate dinner” at the Pluckemin Inn with Mr. Leipzig and Mr. Graves – tickets cost $300-$500 and can be reserved by calling 908-234-2345.

Mr. Leipzig, who gives lectures in art history at Mercer County Community College, where he is a professor, has painted a series of artists in their studios, and is now well on his way on a series of architects, having started with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and then Frederic Schwartz. The aforementioned wonderful Mary Kate Murray helped connect Mr. Leipzig to Mr. Graves. “He knew my work,” says Mr. Leipzig.

Each of the panels is an independent painting. The central panel, containing Mr. Graves, is the largest, at 48-by-48 inches, and the side panels are 48-by-36 inches.”He’s sitting in an alcove of the living room in front of a painting by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon,” says Mr. Leipzig.

The panel on the left shows the entryway and trees from Italy — Mr. Graves’ own artwork includes these trees — and the second panel has the oculus. Just to the right of center is Mr. Graves’ library — the bookshelves, I recalled from my long-ago visit, have a faux-painted wood finish. The final panel is of the exterior again, showing the wonderful Mediterranean pink stucco exterior, and the magnificent olive oil vessels Mr. Graves brought back from Italy. So the “portrait,” then, is really two landscapes, two interiorscapes and one portrait.

For the panels without Mr. Graves, Mr. Leipzig would go to the house and paint, but he enjoyed the time spent with Mr. Graves, getting to know him. “He’s a dedicated artist, and his work means a lot to him,” says Mr. Leipzig.

Mr. Leipzig also enjoyed seeing Mr. Graves’ own neoclassical artwork throughout the house.

Mr. Leipzig says his favorite of Mr. Graves’ buildings is the Portland Building in Portland, Ore. “He’s classical and uses color in a playful way.”

He describes Mr. Graves’ Princeton home as “classical in structure in a modernist way… some people have nice homes, but the difference here is that every square inch is thought out, from the moulding and the columns to the lighting. He does this thing with space, so that anywhere you stand you get this huge vista.”

Mr. Leipzig’s “Michael Graves” will go on view to the public in September at Gallery Henoch in New York.

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2 Responses to When the Masters Meet

  1. Ruth Kusner Potts says:

    How I would have loved to have sat on Mel’s shoulder as a small little fly during this process! To see Mel paint and the two masters interact!

    Wow!

  2. Jack Dube says:

    I can imagine Mr. Graves saying…It is simple, but I call it home.

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