Tom Vanderbilt | Essays

A Review of a Show You Cannot See

Stuck the other day at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, with inescapable CNN thoughtscreens blaring, cell-phone dialogues traversing my own personal airspace, and every decent magazine already read, I longed for a moment of quiet repose, and thought back to my day, a number of months before, wandering the virtually vacant stillness of Terminal Five. The occasion was a press preview for a forthcoming art exhibit, of the same name, that featured artists "responding" (is there a more overplayed word?) to Eero Saarinen's monumental jet-age artifact.

There was always something a bit unbelievable about the whole show, that this famous space had been handed over to a rather unknown curator; and indeed, it turned out that giving the kids the keys to the candy store was a bit ill-advised when, on its opening night party, random acts of vandalism were practiced. Ironically, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency that always treated Terminal Five as a rather a nuisance, worthy of horrible annexation if not outright demolition, now stepped in as supreme protector, and closed the show indefinitely in the interest of Historic Preservationist National Security. At JFK again recently, I thought back to that more innocent day, wandering the forgotten spaces of one of the most famous airport interiors in the world, wishing I could return and kill an hour, tranquilly. In the interest of voyeuristic architectural-and-design curiosity for those were unable to attend the opening, I present here the never-published review of the show I was commissioned to write.

It was a pilot's day at John F. Kennedy International Airport, endless blue vistas and winds of a few gentle knots. I parked outside the defunct Terminal Five, half-expecting to hear a boarding announcement or see a porter collecting bags; instead, I merely caught some cloying gusts of jet fuel drifting across a distant tarmac. Suddenly, a man in an orange vest approached. "TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) guidelines say it's illegal to park within 300 feet of a terminal," he declared. Never mind the terminal is these days host to nothing more than an art exhibit — I put the car in the short-term lot.

Terminal Five, or more officially the "Trans World Flight Center," designed by the Finnish modernist architect Eero Saarinen, is certainly the most celebrated air terminal in America. Upon its opening in 1962, it received a few saturnine denunciations by hidebound modernists — who felt its swooping kineticism and aerodynamic contours were too-literal architectural metaphors for flight — but was otherwise a rousing popular success, a living monument to the jet-age (even in its dormant state, it still commands star power, as in backdrop to Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can), the kind of place that made Andy Warhol's claim that the "airport atmosphere" was his favorite kind of place — believable.

Air terminals, on average, have a shorter life expectancy these days then the planes themselves, as airports exponentially expand and layouts change. Saarinen's TWA terminal, shuttered in 2001 after its parent went bankrupt, is in the strange position today of being both landmarked — and thus unalterable — and functionally obsolete. Its new landlord, the discount carrier Jet Blue, has been struggling to fold the terminal into its existing operations in a way that will placate preservationists yet meet its logistical program. Until early next year, the terminal was to sit vacant, however, and the curator Rachel Ward had the winning idea of filling this deeply suggestive space with art; not the Leroy Nieman prints or numbing neon sculptures that are typical airport fare, but real heady, conceptual stuff.

The primary promise, and challenge, of having artists "respond" to a space like Terminal Five is that the space itself soaks up so much of a visitor's attention. The terminal's interior, a series of white-tiled swoops and flows bisected by dramatic, geometric windows, is warmly, playfully futuristic; this is a populist modernism that shares a certain pedigree with Morris Lapidus' Fontainebleau Hotel or Berthold Lubetkin's Penguin Pool at the London Zoo. After years of neglect, however, the terminal is afflicted with the creeping decay that marks other retro-futurist monuments — e.g., Brasilia, or the Eritrean city of Asmara. The white tiles are uniformly stained gray, the window-tinting film is beginning to peel back, and there's a few letters missing at the former first-class lounge "Constellation Club." Even worse are the baleful post-Saarinen decorating touches added over the years, like the smoked glass lighting and faux-wood-trim seating in the Paris Café, relics not to Kennedy-esque optimism but late-Carter-esque 1970s malaise.

After gawking at the stalled luggage carousels and the shuttered duty free shops, one gets around to the art, which competes with mixed success. One of the most prominent works is Jenny Holzer's aphorisms, here transmitted across the Saarinen-designed sign, ovoid and a bit like an alien head, that would have once listed departure and arrival information. Holzer, the curator noted, wanted to project these onto the building's exterior, but was told by airport officials that this would interfere with runway operations. The artist also wanted to label the Terminal Five sign one sees upon entering the airport drive — the signs usually marked with Air Khazakstan or LAN Chilean — with "Ambivalence Will Destroy Your Life." This too was nixed by airport officials (as it happens, the sign says "Art Exhibit," which is still striking). Seeing Holzer's familiar koans here, in what is essentially an art gallery, seems a letdown compared to the more public places in which they have been exhibited; rather than shocking the casual observer, it's just a Las Vegas-like rehash for the accustomed art consumer.

Elsewhere, Dan Graham has a beguiling piece of sculpture in the Paris Café, a triangular wedge of metal mesh and reflective glass that warps imagery as the viewer passes around it, echoing and distorting the glass and steel of the airport walls around it (Graham wants to install large version of this here, permanently). On a curved wall upstairs, Jonathan Monk has announced a proposed meeting ("The Lion Enclosure London Zoo Regent's Park London 12th May 2014 Lunchtime"), to which he may or may not show up for, which is perhaps an interesting comment on our Palm Piloted airspace of perpetually reshifting plans, or a reflection on current "on-time" rates of air travel. One of the best works is a soundscape by Ryoji Ikeda. In one of the two tubular boarding ramps, he has placed searingly bright and hot lights at one end and filled the whole space with a sound that flits from sub-audible to almost unbearable levels. The effect is very THX 1138, and is meant, according to the artist, to suggest a near-death experience (why the airline sponsor welcomed this, but rejected another piece by Vanessa Beecroft — featuring shackled African-American models painted black — is interesting). Also praiseworthy is a work by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy that films a series of miniature dioramas — a kind of action film — using abstracted real-time images of the terminal itself in the background.

In one corner of the terminal sits a piece of sculpture that is not officially part of the show, but among the most curiously poignant. It's a slender aluminum Hamilton Standard propeller from the Ford Tri-Motor aircraft that on July 7, 1929, made the first transcontinental flight, cutting the travel time from coast to coast from four days to the then-revolutionary 48 hours. By the time Saarinen's terminal was built, air travel was entering the too-brief utopian epoch, its apotheosis of high style and technological frontierism. Now, the propeller, like a set of United Airlines stainless cutlery I found behind the bar, seems hopelessly of another time: Before terrorism, before economic contraction. The terminal's new sponsor, JetBlue, is a discount airline (without first class) that doles out bags of Cheetos, not caviar — and yet it is one of the few profitable American carriers. Saarinen's terminal, in all its seductively organic, aerodynamic splendor, echoes with the lost footsteps of Cary Grant, and sits like a curious, gorgeous relic, an artwork onto itself.

Comments [10]

Is "poignant" the right word?

I remember visiting the old TWA terminal back in the early 1960s, when the airport was still Idlewild. It was the first decade of commercial jet travel, and a few years later my family would be debating whether to fly or take a ship for our Europe On Five Dollars a Day. Even though we lived perhaps a mile from LaGuardia, Idlewild was where we usually went when we wanted to experience the future.

We would park on the highway under the flight path and watch the jets zooming what seemed to be mere yards overhead. This was before noise abatement, before anti-aircraft missiles, and before they cracked down on people parked on the side of the highway. Now and then, we'd park in the short term lot and go explore the terminals, though it rankled my parents to have to PAY for parking.

LaGuardia airport was a propeller airport. This isn't to say it didn't have plenty of jet traffic, but it felt like a propeller airport. There were two terminals. The Marine Air Terminal was built for the flying clippers and was even by then a bit of a relic. It had been modified a bit, but it was still Art Deco, and seemed to have little modern use. My friend and I would bike down there and bother the Weather Bureau for an old facsimile weather map in brown ink on brown crinkly paper. It would be full of cryptic Beaufort marks showing the winds along with the other weather data. Tiros hadn't been launched yet, so we still imagined weather as something experienced from stations on the ground, not something one experienced whole from space.

The other terminal was late 40s, maybe mid-1950s. It had been built in the 1930s, but it had been modernized, most likely because it was being used. It had a shopping mall, as we would call it today, with lots of high priced shops. There was a florist, some kind of fancy boxes of candy store, and a Hofritz selling all sorts of silvery knives. This was before the Cuban hijackings and 9/11.

You could imagine Noel Coward or Cole Porter arriving at the Marine Air Terminal, but for some reason, the main LaGuardia terminal evoked J. Robert Oppenheiner. World War II was over there. It was the atomic age.

In contrast, Idlewild evoked the excitement of the present meeting the future. The jets seemed more at home here, and the turboprops seemed out of place. Propellers sort of stuck out funny breaking up the aerodynamic curves. The TWA building, Terminal 5, was the focal point. While the building wasn't typical, it captured the spirit of the place, the spirit of tomorrow.

Of course, tomorrow is now yesterday.

I read about the show, the rowdiness, and the cancellation. I'm glad someone has said something about the art at the exhibit. It doesn't seem like anyone is really missing much. Too many people seem to keep doing things that have already been done. Insight has devolved into wit.

Saarinen captured the present and imagined the future, and his building is a great work of art. It is a great pity that it no longer works as an airport terminal building. Still, I'm sure we can do more than simply adorning it with lesser works.

Although the show itself cannot be seen, a lot of the work is shown in a beautiful catalogue designed by David Reinfurt (of ORG) and published by Lukas & Sternberg (Germany).

After a lot of googling I also found some thumbnails of the posters designed by Experimental Jet Set, apparently a Dutch design group.

WOW! "The experience of space..." ?
Would anyone actually commission such banal posters?
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

What do you find banal Ryan? The quotes, or the way they are used? I kinda get the idea behind the posters: old modernist quotes, disguised as airline advertisements. Sort of fits the populist modernism Tom mentions in his article. But maybe I misunderstand the whole thing.

Sorry to sidestep even more...thanks for the excellent review Tom!

I enjoy the quotes, but find no reason to spend more than a passing glance on this banal design.
The idea behind the posters? Was that an idea or lack of an idea? Are we so obtuse to think the metropolitan public will not only have time, but also choose to waste it on such banal communication? Yes, I can see the relationship, or conceptual crutch, which airline advertisements must have provided...Is this good enough? Images of Saarinen's interior bear much more futuristic dynamism than such complacent printed pieces. Perhaps this design is more fitting for a show exploring the boring life of TWA pilots in 1980...
Ryan Pescatore Frisk

I still like the posters, as they are basically a comment on the "becoming american" of modernism, and I find that quite interesting. I'm not a designer, so maybe I can't really judge it.

What I do find surprising though is that the posters, but also the whole show (obviously I haven't seen the show, but I got the catalogue here) completely ignores the whole 9/11 subtexte. Even the essays in the catalogue don't mention it.

I'm not from New York, I never even been there, so from here (France) it's difficult to judge how this great city deals with this drama.
So I'm really wondering how this show (about air travel) relates to this trauma.

By the way, last Decembre there was an exhibition at Colette (Paris) related to Terminal 5 and also curated by Rachel K. Ward. The title was "Now Closed", and the exhibition was, well, closed. But at least I could buy the catalogue there. Nathalie.

I don't share Ryan's distaste for the Experimental Jetset posters that Nouveau directed us to, but I do agree that they represent a curious "flattening" of the idea of modernism that seems pretty common these days. The language of Helvetica Medium, although certainly characteristic of EJS's approach, has little to do with the more expressive brand of modernism practiced by Eero Saarinen. The posters, and the overall promotion for the show, is wrapped (perhaps inevitably) in a haze of irony. Saarinen was a lot of things, but ironic does not seem to be one of them.
Michael Bierut

After reading about the show, I had to let Tom's article sink in for a few days. Then I thought back to the one and only time I have ever been to Terminal Five.

I was sixteen, in the Spring of 2000, and I ended up at the airport by chance on a school-sponsored trip to Italy. We had a six-hour layover in JFK, where our teacher told us not to go exploring and to stay put in the seating area near our departure gate. Getting restless after an hour, I couldn't handle it. I wandered through the long glowing tunnel from the gates into the terminal. I distinctly remember there being something completely incredible about the place. Seeing airplanes out the window, the cafe, the bustle of people, with the curves diving all around me. I parked myself on a bench and took in the whole building for what must have been a few hours. I took a few pictures of the space with my Mom's "don't waste your film before you get to Italy" warnings echoing in my head. Sorry Mom.

To this day, I still consider that moment to be the most sincere experience with architecture that I have ever had. Looking at the building as a first-time world traveler was so much better than if I had looked at it as a designer. Without knowing names of architects, building history, or anything else, I was able to simply understand the place without the bias of knowledge.

My initial reaction to Tom's description of the show was that it seemed like most of the artists missed the point. They didn't capture what I felt like when I was sixteen. They captured what I would have felt like as an informed artist or designer visiting the space. I'll take my version any day.
Ryan Nee

Great text on the airport itself - and nice ending.
There seems more than a bit of ambivalence - writing on an exhibition for whatever reasons, when in fact from the account it seems there wasn't so much reason to do so if it weren't for the architecture. Your narrative weaves two movements through the airport, with the exhibition described as an insert within a much richer textual sense reflecting on that airport. Essentially this reproduces what I understand as a curatorial flaw at work, where you walk, look and comment on objects as an exhibition, but sense the presence of the architecture.

I would like to comment here, that it can suggest an ongoing problematic on writing about, or on the arts. That isn't to take away from the success of the overall text, but it does stand out here in designobserver as an issue.

For example: I enjoy reading designobserver as it offers design culture on a level that is often exhilarating, because it asks to be intelligent to the reader and participants. But a case can be made for many architects, designers, or most disciplines, who share their thoughts on arts projects or exhibitions, that "art" is then situated in an old-fashioned paradigm, where only interpretive sensations and visuals exist. Would you really consider a text successful on any other field, say design, which describes underlying design principles at work in a new project only by the formal qualities, the colors and how you feel? "The new Bruce Mau typeface is beguiling, in blue....." for example?

Writing matches to certain art-based strategies by allowing them to be unfolded, or folded into the textual. There are histories of art exhibitions having operated within situations as a search pattern, speculative, establishing correspondences outside of the accepted "art" conventions, and writing then can expand on that, even as it wishes to critique.

But these are strategies different than the by now exhausted curatorial tendency to introduce objects as works into "the exotic" (the disused, closed down, marginal, etc...) site. Standard-variant works tuned to the invitation, representative of serial production artists, are not the hardest call for a curator.

Again, should that approach as a policy have been transferred to building or design or public space media works etc.., I am sure you would have had a much more specific position with more to say as to the results. Thus it seems the article winds up as a textual frame reproducing just what that exhibition frames as objects:

Looking at Jenny Holzer texts, only now inserted in the modernist frame...versus the other frames these texts have appeared in over the decades. The overall sense is dangerously close to the "I prefer the watercolor in a blue frame, not the natural wooden one..."

A passage quote:
"Elsewhere, Dan Graham has a beguiling piece of sculpture in the Paris Café, a triangular wedge of metal mesh and reflective glass that warps imagery as the viewer passes around it, echoing and distorting the glass and steel of the airport walls around it (Graham wants to install large version of this here, permanently)."

The standard Dan Graham model since his shift in the 80s to model-making - that "sculpture" (or you meant 'model' maybe, which is mostly intended to be built permanently by the way )'responds' to every modernist setting with a basic vocabulary: reflections, two way mirrors, some distorted mirroring, and occasionally a grid or - media insert... If that was inserted in any other similar modernist architectural icon it wouldn't do the exact same? Again, I am sure in a parallel example for designers or architects, you would have had to note something more.

One other quote:
"On a curved wall upstairs, Jonathan Monk has announced a proposed meeting (...) to which he may or may not show up for, which is perhaps an interesting comment on our Palm Piloted airspace of perpetually reshifting plans, or a reflection on current "on-time" rates of air travel."

Maybe... it is just the variation on a standard for the artist? If you had this work in an empty white-walled museum space, or so on... it would alter your interpretation made now in this unused airport terminal? Aren't Palm Pilots in high usage in museum and art sites too? As well people running around due to perpetually reshifting plans...?

Why mentioning Vanessa Beecrofts unproduced work -you have an opinion with the curator suggesting this version update of what the artist has already done? This work is predictable enough in "pushing buttons" one only has to read Beecrofts press, so not exactly a surprise worth mentioning that it wasnt accepted. Except it gives the curator some p.r. for what she didn't have. All authority is the same, all institutional refusals are the same?

But yes I detour from your passages at this point for a reason: because your observations I accompanied allowed me to observe this is a gallery-based exhibition and not aligned to more experimental curatorial tactics that have occurred - oh, since much more than a decade.

Therefore we readers discover a change in your tone, from an investment in moving within the particularities of the architecture as narrative, which this whole project was (apparently) intended to relate, and onto moving through and describing the surface of objects that catch your eye and make you ponder them.

You noted as well this particular airport terminal as architecture is more recently evident aligned to cinematic space, as Scorcese included it in his film, an embedding of the modernist "real", as an iconographical spatial narrative within a 'period piece', where it wound up having as much if not more character than the two-dimensional figure of the protagonist.

I think the text introduces the same in some ways: the walk is less interesting than the character of the airport that permeates it. It has a set-up, made by the failure of a kind of "appreciator"- individual who walks and views objects in a room, in lieu of instead comprehending the airport itself as a scripted space.

And interestingly, it all really only starts at the end, in the last lines, on the verge. The reader is left with a propeller, a signal I would prefer to imagine more from the flotsam circulating from the modernity offered by "Blow-Up" rather than Cary Grant. A remainder produced after dividing your passages of art into those of the architecture, that stands as a convergence of pasts and futures, within which one imagines a different set of passages concerning the discourse of contemporary 'art' ...From THAT perspective, there were, and are so many possible options to begin to deliberate with various artistic practice, with this airport as itself a paradox of time, space flux, a node in a network, a conversion job in waiting, and not just a container for more objects in a room.

Since the last decade and continuing thru the present, there are significant kinds of divisions in the arts, with reasons, as there are in i.e. design, architecture, cinema, theater and to participate in the discourses, I would hope to keep away from the simplistic, ad copy reductivism of, say, a YBA devolved zeitgeist press understanding of the "arts".

The designobserver is a good read because of the dedication to even the notion of discourse, as seen even in the level of comments. And yes, even when it is also keeping up with the "lists" and names and the like, it is also aware of more than that and the comments show that.

I hope that the arts won't appear as curatorial embellishments occurring in buildings, or ornamentation. It means asking for some positions as well, parallel to the tone and rigour applied to the other discourses. The late 80s and 90s were for many artists, the period when a shift occurred away from reading strict limitations of art historians and "critics" and onto the new openings that were available reading between new architectural theory, design theory, media theory, and it shows, by now, and I would hope that cross-pollination would have left some traces evident in such interesting forums as offered by designobserver.

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