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Philip Johnson at P.S.1 in 1999

Johnson and Johnson
by Charlie Finch

Philip Johnson was the first Postmodernist: a century of sluffing off personal responsibility in the service of self-promotion marked him as the very Christ of the vain New York we know today.

He was the Johnny Carson of Manhattan intelligentsia, much as Susan Sontag was its Marilyn Monroe. Lurid flirtations with Harvard, Hitler and homosexuality, in that order, always served to burnish his feckless authority, which he cultivated in monthly meetings at the Century Club, where he coached slacker apostles such as Peter Eisenman and Robert A.M. Stern.

Johnson, whom many doubted would ever be visited by what Henry James called "the distinguished gentleman," surpassed King Kong himself in his identification with the New York skyline. His collaborations, akin to the record producer who slaps his name on a song-writing credential after the disk hits the charts, include the Seagram Building, the Lipstick Building and the AT&T monstrosity on Madison Avenue. Without Johnson, the Museum of Modern Art would still be a townhouse in midtown, and fructifying transparent houses in suburbia would not exist.

That the rest of the world muddled about through Holocaust, World Wars and unceasing deprivation during Johnsons lifetime matters little: his genius turns steak into diamonds, and sand into foie gras. Like the Cheshire Cat, Johnsons charismatic grin survives him -- he was a god in a time when gods had ceased to exist, and we shall not see his like again.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press). .