Sunday, January 10, 2010

Louis Sullivan Is Asked to "Deal With His Issues"

One of the great tragedies for dead artists is that they rarely have a chance to respond to the analysis and critique of their work once they are in the grave. There is still no empirical evidence that the dead haunt the living, but we do know that the future frequently haunts the dead before they go to the grave. Some suspect that it was not a prostitute but news of his paintings selling for seven and eight figures in the 20th and 21st centuries that led Van Gogh to cut off part of his ear.

The case is similar for Louis Sullivan. When he was "outed" by Robert Twombly in his 1985 biography, Sullivan chose to neither confirm nor deny the claims though Twombly asserted that the evidence was there in many of the master architect's writings and his "muscular" buildings. Some have giggled at Sullivan gushing about the Marshall Field Store being a building of admirably "virile" stature.

In his 1996 book, Roman architecture professor Mario Manieri Elia went even further to add onto Twombly's theories: "The causes that Twombly adduces could in fact be described as contributing factors, to some extent acceptable, in addition to a long-standing psychological disturbance variously expressed in Sullivan's interpersonal relationships. A further analysis, including historical factors, would lead us to concentrate on the fascinating anachronism of the figure of Sullivan, an anachronism that (as is so often the case with artists) places him at the peak of his linguistic research during the time of his decline. In short, his professional success was being undermined by a disjunction that can be detected as far back as the late 1880s; right from the beginning of that seventeen-year period that Sullivan indicates as the period of incubation and development of his great crisis."

Don't think that these words didn't sting for Sullivan, even though they were written more than 70 years after his death. And they did not go past his business partner Dankmar Adler who monitored the future quite regularly and through unusual sources. Tension had been brewing between them for months after Adler asserted one morning about their business signage that adorned their office entry was a bit too "frilly". Though sensitive and meticulous, Sullivan was no cream puff and refused to be intimidated by Adler's bullying.

However, when the Elia book came out, Adler became even more stern and insisted that Sullivan seek outside guidance. Though Freudian analysis had yet to jump across the pond from Austria to the U.S. full heartedly until the 20th Century, German immigrant Adler had strong Viennese links and insisted one Dr. Schwartzy Baumgartner whose office on Michigan Avenue near Grant Park. After weeks of Adler's needling and Sullivan's resistance, the battle was finally settled and an appointment was made.
Sullivan felt uneasy from the moment he walked into Baumgartner's overly ornamented office.

"So, Herr Sullivan, how was your relationship with your father?""


"And with your mother?"


"So what would you say it is that is bothering you the most. Right now, at this very moment."


Dr. Baumgartner conceded that the individual therapy might be too intimate for someone as initially skeptical as Sullivan and that a group setting might be more comfortable and productive. Relieved that the session ended earlier than originally planned, Sullivan agreed to return next week for a group session, although still having grave misgivings.

When he returned to the office, Adler immediately needled him for details.

"So how did the session go?"

"Fine," Sullivan said, dipping his pen into the ink well as he began sketching an ornate corbel.


"And the doctor-client communication is always confidential."

The following Thursday afternoon, Sullivan dragged his feet slowly along Michigan Avenue as he thought of every excuse to bolt and lie to Adler that he'd attended but he knew Baumgartner would rat on him were he to bail.
Uncomfortable as the first session had been, Sullivan felt even more ill at ease as the small group circled around him and made him sit in the plush center chair. After nibbling on cookies, they were instructed by Dr. Baumgartner asked them to "check in" as each chronicled the emotional baggage of the past week.

"Oh, I was so depressed. I almost jumped into Lake Michigan."

"I had another fight with my mother. And she's been dead for eight years!"

"I keep getting more and more anxious. Even little noises bother me."

The diatribes continued until it finally was Sullivan's turn. There was a long pause until finally Dr. Baumgartner called out gently but firmly, "Mr. Sullivan, it's your turn."


"No, Mr. Sullivan. That's not an option. Surely there is something that you want to share. Some issue that you had to deal with, even if it was something positive."

The group moved in closer to an uncomfortable distance and eyed Sullivan up and down.

"Come on, Sully, share! Share!"

"Hey, little Louie, you gotta tell us your secrets. Just gotta!"

"Fess up. We're all here to share...and support."

Sullivan took a deep breath, staring straight ahead and refusing to make eye contact with the group. "Pass."

Dr. Baumgartner cleared his throat and said, "Okay, let's take a different approach. Mr. Sullivan, let's pretend that your mother and father are in this room. Take a couple of deep breath until you have a clear image of them in your mind's eye. Now what would you say to them, from the depths of your soul, if they were standing right in front of you."

Sullivan took the deep breaths as instructed, closed his eyes and then called out, "Mama! Papa! I'm in a room full of lunatics and they all smell of garlic and moldy cabbage."

With that, Sullivan bolted from his chair, stormed out the door and down Michigan Avenue towards his office. He decided that if it meant dissolving his partnership with Adler it was a better option than one more second in that room.

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At 6:29 PM, Blogger Bryce Digdug said...

Love the bearded seven-dwarf type characters, especially the "papa." The whole Sullivan series is great and turning out to be of juicy proportions.

At 6:50 PM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Bryce - Mr. Sullivan sometimes put some of his famous quotes to rather randy use. After a brandy or two at the Lotus Club, he'd ask some of the younger members if they'd let their form follow his function.


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