Encounters I: Abstracting Rome

Encounters - Eugene Berman display
Installation view of Encounters I with a display of works by Eugene Berman
Encounters - Philip Guston Untitled Forio Cityscape
Philip Guston, Untitled (Forio Cityscape), 1949, ink on paper, 21.5 × 39.5 cm (artwork © The Estate of Philip Guston)
John Cage, Lecture on Nothing (Silence), 1949, corrected transcript, 21.6 x 27.9 cm. Box 10 Folder 21, John Cage Papers, Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections and Archives (image © John Cage Trust)
Philip Guston, White Painting I, 1951, oil on canvas, 147 × 157.16 cm. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, T. B. Walker Foundation Fund Purchase (artwork © The Estate of Philip Guston; photograph by Ben Blackwell)
Philip Guston, Drawing No. 19 (Related to Zone), 1954, ink brush on paper, 45.4 × 61 cm (artwork © The Estate of Philip Guston)
Eleanor Clark, Rome and a Villa (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1952), cover of first edition with illustration by Eugene Berman. American Academy in Rome, Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library (photograph by Giorgio Benni)
Eleanor Clark, “Rome Notes.” Eleanor Clark Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (used with the kind permission of Rosanna and Gabriel Warren)
Eugene Berman, Imaginary Promenades in Italy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956), 28.5 × 44.5 cm. American Academy in Rome, Barbara Goldsmith Rare Book Room (photograph by Giorgio Benni)
Eugene Berman, Vista Fontana Lato Maggiore da erigersi nel Cortile del Palazzo Collicola, Spoleto, Variante II, 1966–69, hand-colored architectural drawing, 42 × 55 cm. Eugene Berman Archive, American Academy in Rome, Photographic Archive
Al Held in his studio at the American Academy in Rome, 1981 (courtesy Al Held Foundation)
Installation view of Encounters I with a display of works by Al Held that partially re-creates a scene captured in a photograph of the artist in his Academy studio
Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, Reflected Ceiling Plan, Student Activity Center, Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, PA, 1986, cut paper, 205 × 137 cm (courtesy KieranTimberlake)
Multicolored abstract painting that resembles spinning wheel and gears
Al Held, Padua II, 1981, acrylic on canvas, 213.36 x 213.36 cm (courtesy Al Held Foundation and White Cube; photograph by Christopher Burke)
Encounters - La Città Ideale
Central Italian Painter (previously attributed to Luciano Laurana), La Città Ideale, ca. 1480–90, oil on panel, 67.7 × 239.4 cm. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

Encounters I: Abstracting Rome
Philip Guston/John Cage
Eleanor Clark/Eugene Berman
Al Held/Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake
Curated by Peter Benson Miller
October 15–December 11, 2019

John Cage/Philip Guston

During his Fellowship year at the Academy, Philip Guston (1949 Fellow, 1971 Resident) struggled as he moved toward abstraction, leaving behind the politically engaged figurative language that had made him one of America’s most admired painters in the 1940s. In Rome, he worked fitfully on a single painting between numerous pilgrimages to see works by Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, Giotto, and other Italian masters he admired.[1] In May 1949, toward the end of his stay in Rome—a period Guston later recalled as one in which “things were changing for me”—the composer John Cage performed excerpts from his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946–48) at the American Academy.[2] A cycle of twenty short pieces played on a piano modified by the insertion of nuts and bolts, as well as pieces of rubber and plastic, between the piano strings, Cage’s meditative work demonstrated the composer’s fascination with the “dramatic power of the pause—the intent void as a point of arrival, of climax in a texture of sounds designed to set silence as a jewel.”[3] Following the concert, Cage conversed with Guston about Zen Buddhism.

Guston had only recently returned from the island of Ischia, near Naples, where he made a series of drawings reducing the architectural framework of the town of Forio to a tangle of abstract shapes and interconnected lines. These Ischia drawings, one of which is included here, represented a key breakthrough as Guston worked his way out of his creative impasse. The encounter with Cage further propelled the development of the distinctive form of gestural abstraction Guston pioneered in the 1950s.

Renewing their acquaintance in New York, Guston went several times with Cage to hear the Japanese Zen philosopher Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki at Columbia University. In Cage’s avant-garde circle, Guston met the composer Morton Feldman; in turn, their close friendship, conditioned by Cage’s ideas, nurtured both Guston’s trembling abstractions, with their dialectic irresolution and delicate chromatic rhythms, and Feldman’s experimental approach to musical notation. Feldman’s Extensions for Orchestra (1951) was dedicated to Guston “for himself, his painting, and his friendship.”

Guston’s White Painting I (1951), which he called “one of his sparest pictures of all,” has often been discussed in relation to a conversation that took place in Guston’s Tenth Street Studio in New York. Upon seeing the painting Cage exclaimed, “My God! Isn’t it marvelous that one can paint a picture about nothing!”[4] Cage evidently saw in Guston’s White Painting I, whose linear composition is closely related to the Untitled drawing on display here, a visual complement to ideas that he explored in his “Lecture on Nothing” (1949), among other works.

Cage’s 4′33″, conceived in 1947–48 and also deeply indebted to the composer’s study of Zen Buddhism, premiered in August 1952 at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, where Guston had a studio. In these works by Cage, as Douglas Dreishpoon has noted, “the nothingness that surrounds silence assumes dynamic form and character depending on its context.”[5] Drawing No. 19 (Related to Zone), made with a bamboo-tipped quill pen, also reveals the pared-down aesthetic, meaningful voids, calligraphic lines, and improvisational, gestural drawing technique that Guston developed after meeting Cage. In paintings such as Attar (1953), which Feldman once owned, Zone (1953–54), and Painting (1954), Guston translated this technique into haunting, meditative works on canvas.

Eleanor Clark/Eugene Berman

Dedicated to Isabel and Laurance Roberts, the charismatic and cosmopolitan couple at the helm of the Academy from 1946 to 1959, Eleanor Clark’s Rome and a Villa, first published in 1952, explores the Eternal City in a collection of spirited essays. A classic, genre-defying book, neither a travel book—a term Clark disliked—nor a guidebook, Rome and a Villa nonetheless has been called “perhaps the finest book to have been written about a city.”[6] In her review, Katherine Anne Porter admired Clark’s recreation of “Piranesi’s opium-dream reconstruction” of ancient Rome.[7] This vision emerged out of Clark’s deep immersion in the Academy community. After coming to Italy on a Guggenheim grant in order to write a novel, Clark found Rome a more compelling subject. Informed by excursions around the city in the company of Academy Fellows using a 1748 map by Giambattista Nolli as a guide, Clark’s account also benefited from the close counsel of Frank Brown (1933 Fellow, 1954 and 1955 Resident), professor in charge of classical studies and an archaeologist known for his work on the Regia in the Roman Forum. In his memoir of life at the Academy immediately after the war, Lawrence Richardson Jr. (1950 Fellow), a classicist, recalled that “for a while [Brown and Clark] were thick as thieves, much of which comes through in her book Rome and a Villa.”[8]

For Clark, Rome was a collage: “an impossible compounding of time, in which no century has respect for any other and all hit you in a jumble at every turn.”[9] Her complex sentences with baroque flourishes, including dashes, colons and semi-colons, reinforced this analogy.[10] The opening chapter juxtaposes a series of provisional views from a succession of perspectives of the Campidoglio. As William Vance observes, “each of these provides at best a momentary and fragmenting frame…. Rome is a Dada collage, and to move through it is a surreal experience.”[11] In fact, Clark’s notes for the first chapter indicate that she initially titled the section “The Great Collage.” “The center,” she writes, “you start here, among the incongruities and mad juxtapositions.”[12] Throughout the book, as her outline demonstrates, she views the city through oblique, often deceptive angles, including through the vantage point of the keyhole of the Knights of Malta on the Aventine: “a trompe l’œil.”

Fittingly, Eugene Berman, a trompe l’œil specialist, provided the book’s illustrations, which meld his neoromantic aesthetic with references to Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Johann Heinrich Füssli to convey the kaleidoscopic vision of the city described in Clark’s prose. A Russian emigré trained in Paris, Berman was affiliated with the other Neo-Romantic artists Christian Bérard, Leonid [Berman], and Pavel Tchelitchew. In the United States, where he moved in 1935, Berman showed his work with Julien Lévy Gallery, a crucial venue where the Surrealists and Neo-Romantics encountered the American avant-garde. In numerous paintings and set designs, Berman created imaginary landscapes reminiscent of Giorgio de Chirico’s in which classical architecture, fountains, and desolate ruins frame deserted vistas. Italy remained an important source for Berman’s brand of melancholic sublime. This was in evidence in Berman’s first show in Italy, hosted by L’Obelisco gallery in Rome in 1949 while Clark was in the city gathering material for her book. Both writer and artist were highly conscious of the Grand Tour tradition. As William Weaver pointed out in a preface to a reprint published in 2000, Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome and Augustus Hare’s Walks in Rome were “acknowledged ancestors” of Rome and a Villa.[13] In 1951, Berman contributed illustrations, including five color lithographs, to Viaggio in Italia by writer and critic Raffaele Carrieri.[14] The following year, a drawing by Berman, Souvenir d’Italie, appeared on the cover of the brochure accompanying the exhibition, also titled Viaggio in Italia, held once again at L’Obelisco.[15] Photography, too, played an important part in Berman’s artistic research; the albums that he donated to the Academy’s Photographic Archive conserve the countless photographs he took of Roman markets, fountains, buildings, and public squares, including the Campidoglio.

In the second chapter of Rome and a Villa, “Fountains,” Clark explored the irrational, dreamlike effect of the city via its network of fountains: “an endless revelation and immersion; this is the vocabulary of our sleep; and the key image is always water.”[16] In the late 1960s, Berman designed a circular, tiered fountain for the courtyard of Palazzo Collicola in Spoleto, Umbria. The final proposal, which remained unbuilt, was preceded by a series of fantastic drawings of fountains in which Berman experimented with a variety of designs, including complex forms resembling abstract biomorphic sculpture.

Many of the drawings Berman created for Rome and a Villa reappear in his own book, Imaginary Promenades in Italy (1956). In both, instead of creating a faithful record, Berman gave free reign to his imagination and formal invention. “I must study, analyze, dissect, discard, re-assemble, re-invent, and rebuild what I have taken apart,” he wrote, “until I have remade the demolished cities and edifices in a way completely new.”[17]

Al Held/Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake

In their 2002 book Manual, the architects Stephen Kieran (1981 Fellow) and James Timberlake (1983 Fellow)—who recently designed the new United States Embassy in London—declare that “all paths open from Rome.” They explain: “In countless conversations at Rome’s American Academy bar, the painter Al Held opened the spatial terrain of modernism to our then backward looking eyes. His work suggested endless fields, space that you could climb into and be forever lost.”[18]

A photograph of Held in his studio during his Residency at the Academy in 1981 testifies to his interest in the interplay between Italian Renaissance architecture and pictorial abstraction. The installation in Rome re-created the scene captured in the photograph (with the exception of the large drawing above Held’s left shoulder, which is related to Padua II). Held’s drawings in progress hang alongside and clearly respond to a reproduction of La Città Ideale, a panel painting attributed to various artists and architects active in Urbino, a center of lively encounter and exchange in the second half of the quattrocento. Herbert Damisch has noted that the uncertain attribution of this work has led modern scholars to privilege its “architectural content” over its “pictorial form.”[19]

Held’s paintings and drawings revel in the dialogue between these two registers, which has had lasting effects on the built environment in the United States. Held himself received several important commissions to create public murals, including a 15 by 55 foot composition for the Southland Center in Dallas, Texas. Kieran, who met Held at the Academy in 1981, and Timberlake used the hard-edged color architectural abstractions by Held as the visual and conceptual model for a three-dimensional ceiling with rectilinear and curved elements at the Student Center at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.[20] This small interior was one of Kieran and Timberlake’s earliest projects after returning from Rome and founding their practice, in 1984. Held took architectural and urban space as a starting point for pictorial abstractions expressed in two dimensions; at Chestnut Hill College—here represented by the reflected ceiling plan rendered in cut-out colored paper collage—Kieran and Timberlake translated those abstract forms back into three-dimensional space.

These collaborations took place in the context of a broader exchange between architecture and the visual arts. In a 1984 monograph dedicated to Held, art historian Irving Sandler remarks that the painter’s shift to postmodern “complexity and illusionism” in 1967 coincided with the publication of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), a manifesto informed by Venturi’s study of architecture in Italy.[21] While Kieran and Timberlake worked at Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates prior to their Fellowships at the Academy, they make a distinction between Venturi’s and Held’s respective use of Italian precedents. If Venturi (1956 Fellow, 1966 and 1981 Resident) used historical examples in a rhetorical manner, maintaining a recognizable form of the original, Held took prior models as a starting point, identifying their underlying logic before transforming them completely into his own abstract idiom.

Beyond the specific case of the Chestnut Hill College project, Held’s abstractions provided the impetus for what has become a signature aspect of many of Kieran and Timberlake’s buildings: the integration of didactically exposed systems (including structure, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, lighting, electrical, partition, envelope, etc.) as a legible framework for the formation and depiction of architectural space.

More Encounters

Please read Mark Robbins’s preface and Peter Benson Miller’s introduction to the Encounters series to learn more about the project, as well as visit Encounters II: The Activist Gesture to view the second half of the exhibition.

In fall 2019 Claudia Trezza spoke with curator Peter Benson Miller about his ideas for the exhibition, which investigates the enduring impact of the city of Rome as a dynamic creative laboratory through a series of interdisciplinary exchanges.


The curator expresses his profound gratitude to Sally Radic, Executive Director of the Guston Foundation, for her invaluable help in reconstructing Philip Guston’s experience in Rome and Ischia in 1948–49.

1. Musa Mayer, Night Studio (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 39.

2. Clark Coolidge, ed. Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 293. It is unclear exactly which work was performed on this occasion. Academy director Laurance P. Roberts mentions “a concert, for a specially invited audience, by John Cage on his ‘prepared’ piano,” in Laurance P. Roberts, American Academy in Rome Annual Report 1943–1951 (New York: American Academy in Rome, 1951), 16. Cage describes the concert but does not name the specific composition in a letter to his parents dated May 14, in John Cage, The Selected Letters of John Cage, ed. Laura Kuhn (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2016), 96. I thank Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust, for her help narrowing down the possibilities.

3. James Pritchett, in his 1995 essay “Six Views of the Sonatas and Interludes” (published at http://rosewhitemusic.com/piano/writings/six-views-sonatas-interludes), cites Peggy Glanville-Hicks, “John Cage … ‘A Ping, Qualified by a Thud,’” Musical America 68, no. 10 (September 1948).

4. Coolidge, 294.

5. Douglas Dreishpoon, Nothing and Everything: Seven Artists, 1947–1962 (New York: Hauser & Wirth, 2017), 9. See also Robert Storr, Guston (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986), 31–34.

6. Robert McG Thomas Jr., “Eleanor Clark Is Dead at 82; A Ruminative Travel Essayist,” New York Times, February 19, 1996. In a 1978 interview, Clark stated: “nothing irks me more than to hear anybody refer to what they call my ‘travel books’ because I don’t write any such thing.” See “Interview with Eleanor Clark and Robert Penn Warren,” New England Review 1, no. 1 (Autumn 1978), 53.

7. Katherine Anne Porter, “The Grand and the Tragic: Rome and a Villa. By Eleanor Clark,” New York Times, April 13, 1952.

8. Lawrence Richardson Jr., The American Academy 1947–54, Reopening and Reorientation: A Personal Reminiscence, ed. Harry B. Evans (New York: American Academy in Rome, 2012), 71.

9. Eleanor Clark, Rome and a Villa (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1952), 17.

10. Peter Sourian, “Short Fiction and a Classic by Eleanor Clark,” New York Times, January 12, 1975, 242: “Rome naturally led her to write in a style effectively approximating the baroque atmosphere [of Rome], replete with elaborate ingenious imagery and richly-laden sentences laced with dashes, studded with colons and semi-colons.”

11. William L. Vance, America’s Rome, vol. 2, Catholic and Contemporary Rome (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 406.

12. Eleanor Clark, “Rome Notes,” Eleanor Clark Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.

13. William Weaver, “Foreword,” in Eleanor Clark, Rome and a Villa (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2000), XI.

14. Raffaele Carrieri, Viaggio in Italia (Milan: Piero Fornasetti, 1951).

15. Ilaria Schiaffini, “It’s Roman Holiday: American Artists at L’Obelisco,” paper presented at Winter Study Day, “Methodologies of Exchange: MoMA’s Twentieth-Century Italian Art,” organized by Raffaele Bedarida, Silvia Bignami, and Davide Colombo, Center for Italian Modern Art, New York, February 12, 2019.

16. Clark, Rome and a Villa, 35.

17. Eugene Berman, preface to Imaginary Promenades in Italy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956), n.p.

18.Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake, Manual (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), 164. Held exhibited a large painting, titled D-G, also known as Double Gate (1979), at the Annual Exhibition of Work by Fellows and Residents at the American Academy in Rome, May 21–June 12, 1981.

19. Hubert Damisch, The Origin of Perspective, trans. John Goodman (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 174.

20. George Dodds, “Architecture as Instauration,” arq: Architectural Research Quarterly 5, no. 2 (June 2001): 131.

21. Irving Sandler, Al Held (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1984), 134.

Press inquiries

Andrew Mitchell

Director of Communications

212-751-7200, ext. 342

a.mitchell [at] aarome.org (a[dot]mitchell[at]aarome[dot]org)

Maddalena Bonicelli

Rome Press Officer

+39 335 6857707

m.bonicelli.ext [at] aarome.org (m[dot]bonicelli[dot]ext[at]aarome[dot]org)