Opening the Box: Holmes Perkins and the Founding of ICA

Bill opens a box, takes out a contact sheet, and peers at the images. “Okay, so here’s Richard Neutra,” he says, pointing. “And Eugene Feldman. And there’s Bob and Denise [Venturi and Scott Brown]…And isn’t that Roy Lichtenstein?” He passes the contact sheet to Ingrid who confirms his ID.
around the table

around the table

“And that’s Bruce Conner,” she says. “And, oh my gosh, that’s Yvonne Rainer with Al Held!”

She hands the sheet to Liz who bends over it. “This woman is chewing gum and blowing bubbles,” Liz says.

All year at ICA we have been celebrating our 50th birthday by exploring our history: researching the past, putting archival images on our website, using old shows as inspirations for new presentations. As part of that project, today we are visiting Penn’s Architectural Archives, where Curator Bill Whitaker has a box full of old contact sheets and negatives for us to look at—many hundreds of images of ICA exhibitions and openings from the 1960s, taken by photographer George Pohl. “Many times Bill has said we should come down and see this stuff,” Ingrid explains. “So here we are!”

The Architectural Archives and ICA share a common source: the shaping vision of Holmes Perkins (1904–2004). Perkins was long-time Dean of Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts who came here in 1950 after working with Walter Gropius to reshape Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Bill knew Perkins, and Ingrid asks him to tell us a little about him.

Bill laughs. “I used to park his car,” he says. “A Mercury Topaz. He would spend most of his time in the rare books room [Perkins also helped established an architectural rare books collection at Penn] and come down here a couple of times a week.” The dean was in his nineties then—too frail to park, though once a tennis champion—and Bill, studying for his master’s degree, had a work-study job at the Archives he now oversees.
contact sheet 1

contact sheet 1

In the early sixties, Bill says, Perkins had been involved in University-wide discussions about establishing an art museum. Unlike others, he could see that going for a traditional university museum didn’t make sense. For one thing, what chance would an institution like that, established in the 1960s, have of catching up with its Ivy League peers? Instead, the forward-thinking Perkins pushed for a contemporary institute that would expose the students to what was “new and happening” in the art world.

As we pour over the contact sheets, trying to pick out people we recognize, Bill disappears, returning with a facsimile of a bit of memoir Perkins wrote in 1998 describing the events leading up to ICA’s founding.

“In 1961, the GSFA [Graduate School of Fine Arts], dedicated to breaking new ground in the professions of architecture, city planning, and landscape architecture, was in dire need of a painter of stature,” Perkins wrote. He himself traveled to Rome to look for one, and he found one, in the form of Piero Dorazio, known for his vivid use of color and geometrically ordered design. Arriving in Philadelphia, Dorazio pressed for a show. A space (now the site of the Arthur Ross Gallery) was found,and an exhibition of work by Dorazio, David Smith, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, and others was organized in 1962. “Its instant success with the students,” Perkins wrote, “called for plans to assure its continuance in the years to come.”
contact sheet with ladies

contact sheet with ladies

The first official ICA show was the 1963 Clyfford Still exhibition organized by Ti-Grace Sharpless, which Perkins described as “a resounding success but a financial catastrophe.” Eleanor Biddle “Lallie” Lloyd, a true Philadelphia philanthropist and prescient contemporary art enthusiast, was charged with finding a permanent director for ICA, taking over “with drive, wisdom, and charm,” as Perkins wrote. “[By] midsummer [she] brought her candidate…to Martha’s Vineyard for my approval. Lallie and Samuel Adams Green were off and running with Warhol and an unbroken series of spectacular shows.”

Lallie Lloyd and Andy Warhol are in the photos too, of course, along with many elegantly dressed people smoking and drinking and wearing dramatic hats. There’s Lou Kahn at the Robert Indiana show, and over here is Barnett Newman. Marcel Duchamp is unmistakable, as is Edie Sedgwick.

We could keep this up all afternoon, but it’s getting late. It’s time to put the contact sheets away and walk back across campus from one of Perkins’s visions to another: from an archive that preserves the past to an institute dedicated to fostering whatever’s next. “What a lively space,” Ingrid says, tucking the contact sheets back into their box. Really, she could be talking about either one of them.
notebook

George Pohl’s photographic ledger

—Rachel Pastan

To learn more about ICA’s history, and how it is sparking new projects, visit ICA@50, on view through August 17.

To stay up to date with ICA’s past and future, email miranda@icaphila.org.