The passions of Philip Johnson

A contribution by Prof. Dr. Jeffrey Lieber

Professor of Art History at Texas State University.

Impulse lecture within the framework of the symposium
Yesterday. Today! Tomorrow?
From the museum of late modernism, its history and its future, monument protection, the “third place” or climate box versus climate crisis.
Part I, April 21 + 22, 2023
Good Spirits, Bad Spirits: Facing the Stories of the Kunsthalle

Magazine cover. On it stands Philip Johnson, with an architectural model of a tall building in his hand. Viewing angle slightly from the bottom up, skyscrapers behind him, title of the issue: U.S. Architects. Doing their own thing.
Cover of Time Magazine, January 8, 1979

The Passions of Philip Johnson

Are there new conclusions to be drawn from the life and work of a figure about whom so much has already been written? Since his death in 2005 at the age of 98, historians have parsed the myths Johnson cultivated for himself during his long life and gauged his impact on the development of modern and contemporary architecture. Analyses of Johnson’s life and work sometimes devolve into stereotypes. He has been accused of stylistic promiscuity, labeled effete and narcissistic, and depicted as a high-strung nihilist and destructive cynic who disdained normative social and political values. The extent of Johnson’s fascist activities in the 1930s is by now well-documented. Many historians argue that Johnson distanced himself from politics in the 1950s and 1960s to rehabilitate his reputation and have not found much in the way of political content in his work, although he seemingly embraced the dictates of corporate capitalism in his later postmodern projects. These issues raise several questions, which Lieber addresses in his talk: What happened to Johnson’s political passions after 1940, when, at the age of 34, he abandoned political activism and enrolled at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design? Throughout the post-WWII decades, Johnson often spoke about his “passion for history.” How did he deploy this passion in his writings and to what ends? How did Johnson dramatize his ideas about beauty and history in the pavilions he built on his New Canaan estate and in his museum designs of the 1950s and 1960s and were these projects part of an oppositional approach?

The illuminated bus stop shelter in front of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld at night. At its head is a black and white portrait photo of Philip Johnson wearing black, round glasses. The rest of the glazing is intentionally shattered.
Philip Johnson 1998, photo portrait of Satoshi Saikusa, part of Dennis Adams' Bus Shelter XII, 2018. Photo by Philipp Ottendörfer.

You can watch the recording of the entire talk here.

Portrait of a young white man. He has short, slightly curly hair, glasses and wears sporty clothes. Water can be seen in the background.
Prof. Dr. Jeffrey Lieber

Jeffrey Lieber is Associate Professor of Art History at Texas State University and the author of Flintstone Modernism or the Crisis in Postwar American Culture (MIT Press, 2018). His essays on Philip Johnson have appeared in international publications, including the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Lieber’s 2018 opinion piece in The New York Times (“What Will We Lose When the Union Carbide Building Falls?”) sparked a debate about the importance of mid-20th century architecture in the United States. His wide-ranging interests in the field have been sponsored by the Delmas Foundation Grant for Independent Research in Venice to cite one example, and are reflected in his curation of provocative film series for the Harvard Film Archive and The New School in New York. He received his AB from Vassar College and his PhD in art history from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Further blog posts related to the architecture symposium

The symposium is sponsored and supported by:

Black and white logo, the name of the institution flush left and the coat of arms of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia flush right.
Black and white logo, a black rectangle in which the name of the organization is written in capital letters.
Foundation logo, in green is written on the left in capital letters B & A with a circle around it. To the right is the foundation name written out in capital letters.


The advertising poster of the Architecture Symposium with writing in the bottom left corner: Part 1, April 21 + 22.