Into the Light: The Art and Architecture of Lauretta Vinciarelli : In Conversation with Rebecca Siefert
In our latest ‘In Conversation’ post, author Rebecca Siefert talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the aims and (re)discoveries of her upcoming book, Into the Light: The Art and Architecture of Lauretta Vinciarelli, which takes a uniquely interdisciplinary approach to Lauretta Vinciarelli's work, and seeks to rectify the erasure of female narratives in the history of art and architecture of the 20th century.
Meris Ryan-Goff: When and how did Lauretta Vinciarelli first come to your attention?
Rebecca Siefert: Interestingly enough, I only arrived at Vinciarelli’s work through my interest in Donald Judd’s work! I was taking a seminar on Italian architectural theorist Manfredo Tafuri with Prof. Joan Ockman as a Ph.D. student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, and I had to choose a topic for my term paper. I mentioned that I was interested in Donald Judd’s writings on Postmodern architecture, which seemed to echo Tafuri’s critiques which we had read for class. Prof. Ockman said “Well you know, Donald Judd was with a woman for some time, an Italian woman who was an architect – maybe there’s something worth exploring there?” Another professor who happened to be in the room quipped: “Yeah, maybe some pillow talk!” I was stunned – who was this woman? I had written an entire Master’s thesis on Donald Judd’s work and never heard of any Italian architect! As it turned out, Prof. Ockman had actually been a close friend and colleague of Lauretta’s, and she generously shared her insight and memories with me in the early stages of my research. So I am forever indebted to Prof. Ockman for bringing Lauretta’s work to my attention.
MRG: Could you explain the significance of your title: Into the Light?
RS: The title I chose in many ways pays homage to the titles of other books, exhibitions, or panel discussions about Vinciarelli’s work that came before – Clear Light, Light Unveiled – as well as some of the titles and imagery of her watercolour paintings – 'Luminous Void, Volume of Light', for example. So the title is literal but also figurative, as this book 'illuminates' her work and brings her life and oeuvre 'into the light', so to speak, for a wider audience. In a way, I imagine her stepping into the spotlight – like one of the rays of light in her watercolours – to finally get her due attention and credit.
Lauretta Vinciarelli, Intimate Distances II, 2002, watercolor on paper,
76.2 x 57.15 cm (30 x 22 in), David Totah Gallery, New York
© Lauretta Vinciarelli, courtesy David Totah Gallery. Reproduced in Into the Light, 2020.
MRG: You mention how you came to feel as if you knew Lauretta Vinciarelli personally, due to the research process, even though she passed away in 2011. Why was this? And what quality of Lauretta do you think her work and legacy conveys?
RS: I was fortunate enough to meet and interview and even study with a number of Vinciarelli’s closest friends, colleagues, former students, and loved ones. When I first began my research, Lauretta had only been gone for a year, so her passing was still quite fresh, and so were the memories and anecdotes that were shared with me. I heard all about the hours-long dinner parties in Judd’s Spring Street Loft in SoHo (the pasta was amazing, but it was always freezing cold in winter); about her thick accent and the way she would tell students 'this is correct', or 'this is not correct'; about her love for Vivaldi and her fascination with the Tao Te Ching; even about her involvement in the 1968 student protests in Rome, where she received a blow to the head during a skirmish with the police. All of these stories helped me to flesh out a whole portrait of a fascinating person, who in many ways kind of compartmentalized her life so that very few people knew about all aspects of her life. In a way, I was privileged to be able to see her life and her work from this outsider’s perspective, because it allowed me to understand how these individual stories and pieces came together in her work. For someone who was in many ways intensely private, her biography really helps us understand her work in a more profound way.
Pages from Into the Light. Publishing 2nd November 2020.
MRG: Is the story of the erasure of Lauretta’s narrative surprising? It now seems very conspicuous, but is this just a result of retrospective analysis?
RS: Unfortunately, her erasure is not surprising at all considering the entrenched sexism of the discipline of architecture (and art, for that matter). But it certainly is surprising considering that Judd and Vinciarelli were together for roughly a decade, not only as a romantic pair but as a professional pair, and even talked about starting an architectural firm together – and this was even published in Architectural Digest – and yet she remained absent from the Judd literature for so long. As I explain in my book, this is due to a number of factors, but I think it’s important to remember that Lauretta, like Denise Scott Brown, like Ray Eames, and like so many others, in many ways suffered from the 'Star System in Architecture' that Scott Brown identified decades ago, which privileges a singular figure (usually male) over the beautiful complexity that is collaborative work.
MRG: Is it Is it fair to say that your text ‘sets the record straight’?
RS: I sure hope so! Part of the struggle has been not only setting the record straight, however; it has been getting the word out and encouraging the narrative to change. Art History is notoriously resistant to change, and I think it may take some time before Vinciarelli’s name starts to appear alongside Judd’s in the history books, textbooks, and classroom lectures, but it’s up to us (scholars, teachers, curators) to ensure her legacy does not fade away.
Pages from Into the Light. Publishing 2nd November 2020.
MRG: Into the Light is the first study of the multidisciplinary, multimedia, work of Lauretta Vinciarelli. Why do you suppose there has never before been an overarching study of the entirety of her oeuvre?
RS: I think that people have understandably been enchanted by her watercolour paintings, which just lend themselves to being exhibited and appreciated in person, but also to being reproduced in beautiful spreads in exhibition catalogues. They are ripe for analysis and interpretation on a conceptual level, and they are satisfying to look at, aesthetically speaking. I think there’s also a temptation, although misguided, to connect her watercolours to Donald Judd’s work and suggest that she was influenced by his Minimalist stack pieces and Plexiglas boxes. To me, it was always strange to relegate her life’s work to just one medium, when she was a trained, practicing architect and professor of architecture, as well as engaged in architectural theory. I suppose discussions of public housing typologies and architectural theory are not as glamorous and eye-catching, but I think another issue has been a cautious approach to her collaborations with Judd. It’s a potentially thorny topic amongst Judd scholars; for advocates of Vinciarelli’s work, however, it was also important to allow her work to stand on its own, to not let her connections to Judd overshadow her life’s work, since it is about so much more than that ten-year period of time.
MRG: What would you say is the uniting factor of Vinciarelli’s varied body of work?
RS: Going back to the title of the book, it seems to me that Vinciarelli’s work is united by light, both literally and as a metaphor – from the courtyard typology and pergolas, to the luminous watercolours, it always comes back to bringing in light. Vinciarelli once made a connection between some of her watercolour paintings and the 'Annunciation' scene from the Bible, and how light penetrates the protected space of the Virgin, who is in an enclosed garden (the 'hortus conclusus'); the hortus conclusus, in turn, had influenced Vinciarelli’s designs of gardens. So as diverse and varied as her work might appear, it is all connected, and it always comes back to the light.
Lauretta Vinciarelli, The Subway Series (1 of 3), 1988, watercolor on paper,
76.2 x 57.15 cm (30 x 22 in), private collection.
© Lauretta Vinciarelli. Reproduced in Into the Light, 2020.
You can order your copy of Rebecca Siefert's Into the Light: The Art and Architecture of Lauretta Vinciarelli HERE. The book will be released on 2 November.
Hardback • 168 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
31 B&W illustrations and 60 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848224124 • Publication: November 02, 2020
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