The tubes of paint are neatly splayed out on the desk. Jars are filled with brushes that have been lovingly cleaned. On an easel sits a pencil sketch, the beginning of a new work. When he sits here at the easel, the artist is looking out the window, where the shutters are slightly ajar to let in some light, not too much.
This is the studio of Michael Graves. The world-renowned architect and product designer spends evenings, weekends, and whenever he’s not running his practice, putting paint to canvas.
The studio is modest in size, and every bit of wall space is filled with his landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. There is a pencil sketch of Ingres, a French neoclassical painter; a self-portrait; and a painting of three white-haired men in suits — Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, and Graves. The three go back to before 1967 when they were part of a Museum of Modern Art exhibit on architectural modernism.
While the canvases are sized differently, they fit snugly like puzzle pieces. There are a few extra canvases out in the hall, but everything else is in its place in the Mediterranean-style villa Graves designed from a former furniture warehouse, built by Italian stone masons in 1926.
The front entryway is flanked with a sarcophagus; there is an oculus (circular window) above the front hall, and a long library with colonnaded shelves filled floor-to-ceiling with books on art, architecture, and philosophy. Poussin, Pontormo, and Corot are among those he studied.
Scored concrete floors polished like marble enable a person in a wheelchair to glide easily through the neoclassical manor. Artifacts from travels to Italy fill niches. These artifacts show up in Graves’s paintings, both as what they are in still lifes, and as suggestions of something else in the landscapes.
Being in this space is like being in a remote Tuscan villa. Even though it is located in central Princeton, it is hard to find. I have been there several times and still could not give directions or find it again without a guide.
The world of Graves’s paintings also seems like the remote Italian countryside. Vegetables grow in neat rows, trees are more irregular, and all the buildings have red roofs. Neoclassical arches and columns can be found.
Just a few blocks away is Graves’s Harrison Street office. In the front entryway are prints he made in the 1990s. In his office, he is also surrounded by walls of his paintings. Since 2008, he says, he has been working on two series: Remembered Landscapes and Imagined Landscapes.
On the board of the American Academy in Rome, he used to travel frequently, and having drawn on location so many times, he no longer needs to be there to see these scenes. They have become part of him, and he can paint them from memory. Or imagination.
On his desk sits a sculpture of a Picasso-style guitar. Graves made two of these and gave one to the Princeton University Art Museum for an auction. It fetched $25,000.
Two summers ago, the artist Mel Leipzig was painting a five-paneled canvas of Graves. Leipzig, a realist, paints on location, and spent several months in the Warehouse, as Graves’s house is called. As he got to know Graves, Leipzig discovered his paintings, and suggested an exhibit to his friend, Harry Naar, gallery director at Rider University.
The Rider University Art Gallery will present an exhibit of rarely seen paintings by Graves from Thursday, January 27, through Sunday, February 27. An opening reception for “Michael Graves: Landscapes and Still Lifes” will be held on Thursday, January 27, 5 to 7 p.m., and the artist will discuss his work during an artist’s talk on Thursday, February 3, at 7 p.m.
Graves was an artist before he became an architect. As a boy growing up in Indianapolis, he drew as much as time would allow. His high school ran out of courses for him and had to create a few more so he could continue to draw. His father was a livestock broker, his mom was a nurse.
Graves recounted this tale to Rider University Gallery director Harry Naar for the catalog to the exhibit:
His mother told him he could pursue a career as either an architect or an engineer to avoid the life of a starving artist. She told him what an engineer does, to which he responded, “I’ll be an architect.”
But I didn’t tell you what an architect does yet, she said.
“I don’t care, I’m sure I don’t want to be an engineer.”
A few summers ago, I arrived at Graves’s office just as some recently completed large canvases were being shipped off to Singapore. The Hotel Michael, a luxury facility featuring everything Michael Graves, had commissioned the paintings for the hotel’s guest rooms, lobbies, and corridors. It is part of a complex that includes a maritime museum, a casino, and retail space. Graves completed 11 canvases, each four-feet square, and one 32-foot-long canvas completed in sections. This is no small feat for a man who, as a result of a bacterial infection in 2003, is paralyzed from the chest down.
“My chair goes up and down, and I can move the paintings up and down,” he says. His friend, Chuck Close, the painter known for his large-scale photorealist portraits often done in tiny grids, has the same wheelchair. Close suffered a severe spinal artery collapse in 1988 that left him paralyzed. He continues to paint with a brush strapped to his arm.
“He has a machine that lifts his paintings, so he’s painting his squiggles of color right here,” says Graves, indicating the space right in front of his arms.
Both Close and Graves are members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and when they get together they talk about their wheelchairs and doctors.
At the same time Graves did his large canvases for the Hotel Michael, he also had a commission from the Federal Reserve Bank in Houston, and completed three large canvases for Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati in 1958 and a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1959, Graves was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome to study at the American Academy in Rome. One of the artists there, Lennart Anderson, taught Graves to record what he saw with more precision. He used his drawings in order to understand Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and the character and proportion of the buildings he saw. One thousand of these line and wash drawings were published in “Michael Graves: Images of a Grand Tour.”
Drawing is central to Graves’s way of working on and thinking about architecture, and he is well known for his sketches and drawings. In 1979 Graves was one of the first architects to be presented in a one-man show in a commercial art gallery. The sold-out exhibition, held at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York, advanced public interest in architectural drawings as works of art.
Graves has exhibited his drawings and models in more than 150 exhibitions throughout the world, and his work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Newark Museum (which he designed), and many others.
Earlier in his career, Graves painted murals in private homes and in lobbies, conference rooms, and doctors’ offices. And his architecture, with its signature use of color, has always been described as painterly.
Graves, 76, retired from Princeton University in 2001, but is a visiting critic at Miami University, to which he travels three or four times a semester. He has a residence in Miami, and an eight-year-old son, Michael Sebastian Graves, in Boca Raton, with whom he visits. Graves also has two grown children. Young Michael and his mother, Lynn Min, president of Shibao International, attended a book signing Graves gave at the national AIA conference in Miami in June, 2010.
After his paralysis, Graves had to give up golf, and it freed up time for him to paint more.
“I always drew a lot of buildings,” he says, having built his practice before the advent of computer-assisted design. Even these days, he is the rare architect who continues to draw his buildings. “Architects don’t do hand drawings any more. I do, and I’ve always done landscapes.”
Early in his career, Graves was more interested in Abstract Expressionism, and De Kooning was a big influence. “But now I’m less interested in abstraction and more interested in realism.”
He says he’s never been interested in showing his work. “I find myself sometimes backing my work into a corner, and it is that moment of escape and invention that is most rewarding,” he told Naar. By that he means, “You’re composing and taking risks. Sometimes you’ve made a series of decisions, and you have to invent to get out of the dilemma.”
“Robert Motherwell said he loved weekends, because he wasn’t painting, he was looking at art books,” says Graves. “He was not reading, but looking. You get so much enjoyment from looking at good work.”
While he’s painting, he listens to football, rooting for his favorite team, the Indianapolis Colts.
The economic collapse has not been kind to Graves’s practice. Some projects were cancelled, and the office is half the size it used to be, he says, although the product design side of the business is still doing well. “Americans aren’t building,” he says. “So we’re going all over the world looking for work: in the Middle East, China, India. That’s a long way to go. Our work has always been international; we rarely get work in New Jersey.”
His hometown is fortunate to have his design for the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts.
So if the business is not doing well, the up side of that would be more time to paint?
Absolutely not. “I’m trying to hold the office together,” he says. “I can’t just paint. I have to find ways to get work. It’s hard, but I won’t rest until that happens.”
Art Exhibit, Rider University, Luedeke Center, Lawrenceville. Thursday, January 27, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Opening reception for an exhibit of rarely seen paintings by architect and designer Michael Graves. The first architect inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, Graves began drawing and painting architectural forms and structures, as well as still lifes and landscapes, at an early age. Artist’s talk on Thursday, February 3, at 7 p.m. On view to February 27. 609-921-2663 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.