Reflections on Silver Studios

In light of Josiah McElheny’s recent reconstruction, it’s a short hop from the Bauhaus Metallic Party to Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory, the pop studio environment in New York where a perpetual party reputedly took place from 1964 to 1968. Both were social spectacles of modernism with reflective backdrops: avant-garde events that merged art, fashion, music, dance, decor, even film.1 The results were synthetic performance environments where every participant was also a creative constituent in a flow of actions and conversations (to say nothing of constituent participation in imbibing, ingesting, inhaling, and injecting). Together they advance an art history according to which parties signify as art. But what happens when the same retrospective light moves past the seemingly similar dynamics and meaning of the Bauhaus and the Factory and hits metal?

The same year that Bauhaus students and faculty clanked and tinkled the Dessau Night away at a theme party devoted to metal, another silver studio environment came into being. Isamu Noguchi recalls the influence of his first meetings with Buckminster Fuller: “I first met Mr. Fuller, as I used to call him…at Romany Marie’s [a Greenwich Village artists’ hang-out and café] in 1929. Some time later I got an old laundry room on top of a building on Madison Avenue and Twenty-ninth Street with window all around. Under Bucky’s sway, I painted the whole place silver—so that one was almost blinded by the lack of shadows. There I made his portrait in chrome-plated bronze—also form without shadow.”2

Reading this, one can almost see the chrome-plated head of Fuller dissolving into the silver backdrop of Noguchi’s studio. But even in less blinding circumstances, the Fuller head is almost impossible to see. The streamlined form appears to melt, like liquid, into its own reflective surfaces. (One writer recently likened the portrait to a car bumper.3) In so doing, it embodies the visionary architect’s machine-age aesthetic. In 1929 Fuller had just completed his plans for the metal Dymaxion House and was trying to find a means of having it industrially reproduced. Nochugi’s bust also makes manifest Fuller’s theory of the “fundamental invisibility” of “completely reflective surfaces.” As Fuller later explained it: “This fundamental invisibility was that of utterly still waters whose presence can be approached only when objects surrounding them are reflected in them…. Then only the distortion of familiar shapes in the surrounding environment could be seen by the viewer. In the brains of the viewer there would be induced a composite constellation of pattern information permitting the secondarily derived recognition of the invisible sculpture’s presence and dimensional relationships.”4

Likewise, in a consideration of Fuller’s career, it’s the invisible impact of his teachings, writings, friendships, and other indeterminates that matter. He himself was completely unfazed when a geodesic dome—bolted together from venetian blind slat—collapse in the midst of a demonstration. Fuller simply dubbed it “the supine dome.”5 This experiment was conducted in 1948 at the Black Mountain College, located just outside of Asheville, North Caroline. When it opened in 1933, the college had inadvertently assumed a legacy from the Munich Bauhaus, which had closed that same year after refusing to admit Nazi students, by bringing Joseph and Anni Albers from there to run the art department. Judging from all accounts, the events that occurred outside the Albers rigorous classroom curricula—the parties, lectures, meals, music, and other happenings—were as integral to the experience of Black Mountain as they were to the Bauhaus.

Among the faculty who participated in the summer term of 1948 were, besides Fuller, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham. It was also the first of the three nonconsecutive years that Robert Rauschenberg attended Black Mountain as a student. Since he didn’t show up until the fall term, he missed both Fuller and Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg says it was de Kooning’s work that inspired him in 1950 to paint the walls of his New York apartment/studio silver. He and Susan Weil, his wife at the time, were living on Ninety-sixth Street. As Rauschenberg told art historian Barbara Rose in a 1987 interview: “Betty [Parsons, the art dealer] came over to see some paintings. There was a man with her, looking very grim. Clyfford Still. She came into my studio with Clyfford Still. He didn’t even look up. We had problems. We had a Scottie that ate goldfish and stole butter. I had painted the house silver. I had noticed at the time Bill de Kooning would paint silver around the edges, the restrictions of an image on canvas. Noticing how well that worked, I had painted my house silver inside, thinking it might improve my own paintings.”6

As incidental as this story may sound, it is also wildly suggestive. Four years before his first “Combines” upended distinctions between painting and sculpture, Rauschenberg was already thinking outside the frame. Three years before he asked de Kooning to give him a drawing in order to erase it, he was already consigning aspects of abstract expressionism to decor. Rauschenberg’s silver studio was short-lived—perhaps not enduring much past that studio visit, with eventually led to the 1951 gallery show that launched his professional career.

Rauschenberg’s determination to engage de Kooning seems mirrored, a decade later, by Warhol’s determination to ingratiate himself to Rauschenberg. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is Warhol’s elegiac 1963 silkscreen portrait of Rauschenberg, based on family photographs Warhol solicited from him. At the time, Warhol had not yet moved into the East Forty-seventh Street space that would become known as the Silver Factory, so-called after his assistant Billy Name covered the interior in silver paint and foil. Warhol had enjoyed the effect when he first saw it while attending one of Name’s home hair-cutting parties.7 (Indeed Warhol, a wig-wearer, must have also enjoyed the experience of watching people getting their hair done in this silvery domain, as the party inspired him to make a new film Haircut, starring Name.) In January 1964, he asked Name to decorate the new Factory space just like his apartment, in mirrors and foil.

The light on the Factory’s aluminum surfaces has a tarnished, campy glow, like burned-out movie screens. It is completely unlike the shiny brilliance of metal (and its promise) at the Bauhaus party, which is, furthermore, unlike the revisionist light of McElheny’s postmodern reconstruction. In short, as this brief metallurgy proves: not all silver studios are created equal! And yet, there they are, a surprising ongoing trope of modernism as reflected in metallic surfaces. What these spaces do seem to share in common, however, is a desire to collapse the distinction between different disciplines—to provide a single foil, if you will, for music, dance, painting, sculpture, haircutting, etc. to occur against. Silvering also speaks of the will to break down basic figure/ground relationships, to create new fields, or contexts, in which to perceive works of art—fields, like parties, where people meet, things happen, and maybe someone goes home and paints the walls silver.


I would like to thank Geoffrey Batchen, Susan Davidson, Donna Ghelerter, Brandon Joseph, Walter Hopps, David White, and Matt Wrbican for their insights and interest in this essay.



  1. Films added “an amusing confusion” to the original Bauhaus party, reported a 1929 newspaper (quoted in Frank Whitford, Bauhaus [London: Thames and Hudson, 1984], p. 162). At the Factory, Warhol’s Screen Tests provided flickering wallpaper. Films were not part of McElheny’s reconstruction.
  2. Noguchi quoted in Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980), p. 62.
  3. cf. Bert Winther-Tamaki, "Stone Pied-à-Terre and Space-Age Steel, " in Isamu Noguchi's Sculptural Design (Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, 2001), p. 191. See also in the same book, Donna Ghelerter and Ingrid Schaffner, "Mr. Expanding Universe: Isamu Noguchi's Affiliations across the New York Art World(s) of the 1930."
  4. Fuller quoted in A Sculptor's World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 7-8.
  5. Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), p. 31.
  6. Quoted in An Interview with Robert Rauschenberg by Barbara Rose (New York: Elizabeth Avedon, 1987), p. 45. I am extremely grateful to Brandon Joseph for answering a hunch by bringing this quote to my attention.
  7. I would like to thank archivist Matt Wrbican at The Andy Warhol Museum for sharing the biography he prepared based on his interviews with Billy Name (Billy Linich) to accompany the Museum’s 1997 exhibition Billy Name: Factory Fotos 1963-68. It is an invaluable resource on the Silver Studio.