A Dreamer of Buildings

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The New York Sun

Joseph Gandy is an early 19th-century example of a thoroughly modern type: the architectural dreamer so enthralled by his inner visions that little, if anything, ever gets built. His difficult character, self-absorption, and love of theories recall such recent Roman ticists as Bruno Taut, John Hejduk, and Raimund Abraham.

Gandy was like them as well in that several of his more modest projects were realized. And while we can recognize some strained grace in the Phoenix Fire and Life Insurance Co. building (1805), which once stood on London’s Charing Cross Road, other structures like Doric House in Bath (1803) and Storrs Hall on Lake Windermere (1814) make it clear how uncomfortable and maladroit Gandy became when compelled to descend into the here and now.

The Richard L. Feigen Gallery deserves credit for mounting the first American exhibition dedicated to this odd and querulous man who labored for so many years in the workshop of a far more famous architect, Sir John Soane. Except for one oil painting, most of these works are the sort of watercolors that have long been dear to the English heart. An architect among painters and a painter among architects, Gandy conceived endless porticoes pierced by sunlight or shrouded in mist, domes and spires jostling in promiscuous confusion, lamp-lit sepulchers, and frigid temples.Taken together, they suggest a mind far more interested in arresting pictorial effects than in the dreary practicalities of inhabitable form.

At the same time, however, Gandy was enough of an architect to have a fundamental mistrust of painting. His skills in composition and perspective are fickle at best. The dry, unemotional line he favored – like the watercolor medium in which he usually worked – fails to deliver the robustness that one seeks in a true champion of the Burkean sublime, and which one finds in a younger contemporary like John Martin.

Predictably, the term “genius” has been attached to Gandy, not least by Gandy himself. But genius, as Blake informs us, “is always above its age,” and Gandy (notwithstanding a few years in a lunatic asylum) was fundamentally a product of his age, the age of revolutions and the Regency. Yet because it is an age we now look back on with some affection, the art and architecture of Joseph Gandy will richly reward our attention.

Ultimately, his show is fascinating more for the light it casts on an odd corner in the history of taste than for the actual excellence of the art. It was curated by Brian Lukacher, whose admirably thorough monograph on the man has just been published by Thames & Hudson.

Until July 22 (34 E. 69th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues, 212-628-0700).

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