Original Paolo Soleri exhibit highlights Arizona artist’s work


Paolo Soleri, in center, teaching students. (file photo)

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has announced an October event, unveiling a groundbreaking and unprecedented retrospective of seminal Italian-born American artist and architect, Paolo Soleri.

Organized by SMoCA Curator of Contemporary Art Claire C. Carter, Paolo Soleri: The City Is Nature focuses on drawings, sculptures and models that Mr. Soleri produced during the richest years of his artistic evolution — from 1947 until the mid-1970s, according to a press release.

The selected works represent Mr. Soleri’s most creative moments when he was making his artwork and constructing his home-studio, primarily with his own hands. The exhibition brings together elements from his built and unbuilt residences, bridges, dams, cities and transportation systems.

In addition to original drawings, models and sketchbooks, the exhibition surveys the artist’s earliest ceramic and bronze artisan crafts, as well as fabric designs and silkscreens.

It also investigates Mr. Soleri’s personal engagement with the art and architecture of his time; the widespread recognition of his work by museums, scholars and curators; his relationship with Frank Lloyd Wright; and his influence on the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.

“The Museum is very excited about this retrospective,” said SMoCA Director and Chief Curator Sara Cochran, Ph.D., in the press release.

“It represents the culmination of SMoCA’s three exhibitions series with Paolo Soleri and the Cosanti Foundation, and almost a decade of engagement with, and study of, Soleri’s work, ideas, models and practices. It has been a joy to have the opportunity to work with Soleri during his lifetime and to publish this comprehensive catalog that we believe will add to the scholarship around this visionary thinker now that he has passed. We look forward to seeing ever more interest and study of this compelling figure who pioneered so many ideas, including the idea of high-density living, and who built some of the icons in the Arizona landscape.”

Paolo Soleri

The exhibition will be the first and only retrospective and monographic exhibition since Mr. Soleri’s death in 2013 in the Town of Paradise Valley, and represents the largest collection of original drawings, fragile sketchbooks, architectural models, sculptures, prints and photographs presented in North America since 1971.

It will cover about 4,500 square feet with works gathered from the artist’s vast archives; The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; and private collections. Large scroll drawings — some more than 30 feet long — will be presented for the first time since their conservation in 2005, the press release states.

Mr. Soleri’s pioneering idea, “arcology,” or the fusion of architecture and ecology, proved prescient in its ties to current issues about sustainable cities, suburban sprawl, climate change, renewable energy and water shortages.

“Throughout his career, Soleri’s designs changed radically,” Ms. Carter said in the press release. “But one constant remained: a concern for the how man should live among other humans, but also amid the natural splendor of the world around us and the ways in which our built environment can serve that goal.”

Paolo Soleri: The City Is Nature is SMoCA’s third and final exhibition exploring the trajectory of Mr. Soleri’s art, architecture and philosophy, initiated in 2010. The first was Bridges: Spanning the Ideas of Paolo Soleri (2011); the second was Paolo Soleri: Mesa City to Arcosanti (2013).

Bridges focused on the architect’s designs for bridges, which he viewed as metaphors for the way humans connect to one another and the natural landscape, and coincided with the inauguration of Mr. Soleri’s final construction project, the Soleri Bridge and Plaza on the Scottsdale Waterfront.

The Mesa City exhibition concentrated on Mr. Soleri’s urban designs, including Cosanti and Arcosanti — two residential communities he built in the Arizona desert.

Cosanti is Mr. Soleri’s studio and former residence in Paradise Valley. The name Cosanti combines the Italian word “cosa,” or thing, and the Latin prefix “anti,” or against. “Anti‐thing,” or anti‐materialist, is a value Mr. Soleri was committed to in his art, architecture and personal life.

Arcosanti is Mr. Soleri’s largest experiment with urban design, located about 70 miles north of Phoenix in Mayer, Ariz.

Construction at Cosanti began in 1955 and new construction ended in 1969 when Mr. Soleri and his apprentices redirected their attention to Arcosanti, the press release stated.

Mr. Soleri initially conceived of Arcosanti as a residential community focused on environmental accountability and sustainability. His first designs and models depict a dense urban city with more than 5,000 residents living in massive apse‐shaped buildings rising high above a desert canyon. Building vertically would reduce the city’s spatial footprint and provide residents with immediate access to the beautiful natural landscape.

Arcosanti quickly became a nexus in American avant‐garde art, music and theater.

During the latter half of the 20th century, Cosanti and Arcosanti were considered pilgrimage sites for the counter-culture, and were visited by celebrated artists and intellectuals, such as composer John Cage, feminist Betty Friedan, scientist Stephen Jay Gould, choreographer Anna Halprin, photographers Julius Shulman and Hans Namuth, and filmmakers Frances Ford Coppola and George Lucas.

Soleri sketching at his desk, Cosanti, circa 1960s. (Photo: Stuart A. Weiner, The Weiner Estate)

The majority of structures were completed by the early 1980s. The number of residents peaked in the mid‐1970s when more than 150 people camped onsite. During the 1980s economic crisis, financial resources, as well as popular interest in the site, waned.

Today, Arcosanti includes a ceramics workshop and bronze foundry, community spaces, a performance stage, cafeteria, dormitories and private residences where about 40 permanent and semi‐permanent individuals live, the press release stated.

Mr. Soleri, born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, initially was drawn to the United States by the desire to apprentice at Taliesin West with Mr. Wright, and he fell in love with the American Southwest, the desert landscape and the freedom isolation provided. Although Italian by birth, Mr. Soleri became a U.S. citizen and always identified as an American artist.

He first drew national attention while apprenticing under Mr. Wright in 1948 and his artwork figured into the earliest integrations of art and architecture in American art museums.

He was included in The Museum of Modern Art’s book, The Architecture of Bridges (1949), which was followed by three seminal contemporary architecture exhibitions at MoMA: Built in the USA: Post-War Architecture (1952), Visionary Architecture (1960) and Modern Architecture, U.S.A. (1965). In the 1950s and ’60s, Mr. Soleri was exhibited beside Le Corbusier, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn, Charles and Ray Eames, and Mr. Wright.

In 2000 Mr. Soleri received a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. He was awarded gold medals from the American Institute of Architects and the Union of International Architects, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in 2006.

Despite these accolades, until now the last major U.S. exhibition of Soleri’s work, The Architectural Visions of Paolo Soleri, was organized in 1969–1970 by the Corcoran Museum of Art and traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Berkeley Art Museum; among others.

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