Nelly Agassi, “Elsa,” 2019. Wool, cotton, and rayon. Dimensions variable. Produced in collaboration with The Weaving Mill, Chicago. View of "Nelly Agassi: Spirit of the Waves," Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2019. Photo: Nathan Keay

Unlike our own bodies, when the body of a building is transformed and renovated, it does not leave many traces of its former self. While its bones remain the same, the building’s design is updated and its purpose changes. In the process of becoming somewhat immortal, hiding its old age with a new skin, the history of the building is erased.

The new body of the Madlener house functions as the center of operations for the Graham Foundationa local and preeminent non-profit dedicated to architecturebut its former self was the grand home of Albert and Elsa Madlener. In “Spirit of the Waves”, Nelly Agassi’s first major solo exhibition in the US, she uncovers what the building once was, and how both its physicality and function have changed. 

The exhibition layout starts by pointing out a permanent piece in the house, on which the show was named after. The bronze relief, Spirit of the Waves (1902), by artist Albert Van den Berghen is located above the fireplace in the foyer; referencing the waves of Lake Michigan only a few blocks away. The relief was commissioned as part of the original building at the turn of the century. You can find the original floor plans in at the foundation’s library, which is also pointed out by the exhibition layout,  therefore seeming like a significant part of the show. By guiding our attention to the bronze relief and the floor plans, Agassi is making them and the history of the building an intrinsic part of the exhibition and a lens to view her work through, orienting us within an extended timeline.

View of “Nelly Agassi: Spirit of the Waves.” Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2019. Photo: Nathan Keay

Upon entering the first-floor galleries, there is a small and intricate embroidery that illustrates a frontal view of the building’s facade. Additional embroidery pieces on the first floor are made with white fabric and golden thread, with their titles derived from the original floor plans, the home of the brewery owner Albert Friodolin Madlener and his wife Elsa Seipp Madlener. Room 15, East (2019) seems to be illustrating a flat view of the same wall it is installed on, the gold thread used to depict the ceiling molding, baseboards, and windows, but the other embroidery pieces are harder to locate yet are still familiar, depicting what the room they are occupying used to look like.

Located in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, which houses some of Chicago’s most affluent residents, the Graham Foundation is a public institution in an exclusive community. The Madlener house was originally built in 1901-1902 for the newlywed couple, designed by architect Richard E. Schmidt, with designer Hugh M. G. Garden. It was in the 1960s that the building was transformed into the Graham Foundation’s Headquarters, by architect Daniel Brenner.

Nelly Agassi, “1:1 (for Elsa),” 2019. MDF, poplar wood, adhesive, and latex enamel paint. Two pieces: 111 x 111 x 11 1/2 in.; 86 1/2 x 51 x 1 in. View of “Nelly Agassi: Spirit of the Waves,” Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2019. Photo: Nathan Keay

The three South facing windows on the second floor are covered by curtains that are so long, they spill over the floor to cover the majority of the room. The curtains bring a softness to a building that is now more institutional, reminiscent of the domestic life that used to inhabit these walls. At the same time, the scale and presence of the fabric occupy such a large portion of the space, it feels territorial and excessive. Agassi has allowed the presence of the past to overtake the room while lightly addressing the lavish lifestyle of its original residents.

Brenner-Danforth-Rockwell, Architects, director’s office renovation for the Graham Foundation, Chicago, ca. 1963. Daniel Brenner Papers, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

In the East room on the second floor is one artwork with two pieces Agassi has titled 1:1 (for Elsa) (2019); a solemn white baseboard is coming out of the existing one, outlining a small room (Elsa’s closet room, as indicated in the initial floor plan), next to it is a molding outline of the doorway, another direct relationship of the existing door frames but is now casually leaning against the wall. These outlines use the same white color and austere design the current room has as if this current building is using its new skin to conjure up its past. It is a moment of collision between the institutional aesthetic of the building and the private, intimate space this architecture once had. This is also the first time in the exhibition that scale is used 1:1 to physically bring us back to what once was without fully reconstructing the space, the way in which the embroideries do. The outline implicated within 1:1 (for Elsa) (2019) allows us to imagine the many ways in which this small room could have looked like or has been used for.  

The embroidered work points to what we no longer have access to; with Agassi displaying both the frontal and aerial perspectives of the missing fireplaces. The two works,  Room 28, Hearth (2019) and Room 31, Hearth (2019), contain a collapse for the viewer.  We are not only traveling between perspectives but also the past and the present of this architecture. On the West wall of the room, Room 28, South (2019) and Room 29, West (2019) are more abstract and seem to be referencing the specific deconstruction of the architectural elements that were once in the room.

To articulate architecture that is now gone using such a meticulous process like embroidery demonstrates the form of care and investment that Agassi has given to preserving the history of this building. She has translated the detached floor plans into a hand-made, precious architectural manifestation. By revealing the past, Agassi has made the experience of this building feel different now, maybe a little more familiar. Even though the title of the show, “Spirit of the Waves”, is in reference to the bronze relief in the foyer, its meaning has unfolded as something else.  Agassi has channeled the spirit of the architecture–given form to its former body–as if the ghost of its floor plan were reincarnated. However, the exhibition not only acknowledges the history of the architecture of the Madlener house but the memory of the domestic, private life this house, these bones, used to contain. 

Nelly Agassi, “Elsa,” 2019. Wool, cotton, and rayon. Dimensions variable. Produced in collaboration with The Weaving Mill, Chicago. View of “Nelly Agassi: Spirit of the Waves,” Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2019. Photo: Nathan Keay