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Modernity and the Metaphysics of Presence: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe & Barnett Newman

Part 2 Dissertation 2009
Paolo Scianna
Kingston University Kingston-Upon-Thames UK
This dissertation attempts to explore a subtle relationship between the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the American Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman. The basic thrust of the thesis is concerned with notions of abstraction, temporality and space, and the search for a metaphysical presence within Mies’ and Newman’s work. The study begins by probing into Mies’ links to the Romantic movements developing in Northern Europe and attempts to trace a link between Mies and Newman through a shared Romantic heritage in the work of Friedrich, Schinkel then later Mondrian and others. The study charts the modernist tendency towards abstraction and suggests this as key to a search for any notion of the metaphysical within our protagonists’ work. However, particularly with respect to Mies, the move into abstraction points more towards a motivation concerned with sensual ends than technical or economic ones more commonly associated with functionalism. The discussion focuses on a series of important “mature” works by the respective artist and architect and seeks to tease out an understanding of their motivations and goals. To some extent this is deliberately explored in an unconventional, non-academic and individually inspired way precisely because of the problem of trying to communicate the universal on a personal level that Mies and Newman strived for. Ultimately the study touches on the deeper problem of a lack of common meaning within modernity, searched for using comparable methods but in differing disciplines, and asks whether it is still possible to touch the sublime since the decline of commonality and religion, and the rise of pluralism and relativism in mainstream society.
Paolo Scianna

Embracing an interdisciplinary approach, the author of this exceptional dissertation proposes a parallel reading of Mies van der Rohe and Newmann as key proponents of the quintessentially modern idea of abstraction. The reader is presented with both a philosophical investigation of and emotional encounter with the works of the architect and painter respectively, as part of the dissertation’s aim to investigate the modernist ‘quest for universal truths’ beyond a mere critical-historical study. This dissertation stands out not only as a highly accomplished piece of academic writing, with remarkable breadth and depth of reference, but also as a beautifully written and affecting meditation on the continuing relevance of the modernist legacy.

Dr Alexandra Stara
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