The Woman in the Shadows: Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn’s Relationship Reflected at Yale Art Gallery

Architect Louis Kahn is famous for designing the Yale University Art Gallery, yet we know now his assistant and lover Anne Tyng played a much larger role than previously recognized. When I visited the gallery last week, it struck me just how much of Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn’s relationship is reflected in the design, and in the other artwork on display.

Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn’s relationship at Yale University Art Gallery

My wife Myra and I visited the museum together. We were lucky to have an amazing tour guide, Myra’s plein-air painting teacher Lenny Moskowitz. Excited to share his knowledge of all the art around us, he told story after story. At one point, he stopped and stared at a painting by Pierre Bonnard. He couldn’t help but shed a few tears as he related its background. The piece is on a white wall with plenty of space around it, as light from the ceiling illuminates the image, giving us the opportunity to stand back and also get up close.

For Myra and me, at first, the Bonnard image was nothing more than a bathroom. But for Lenny, it meant much more because he empathized with the story.

“Do you see the woman in the back?” he asked us.

The painting shows two rooms, he explained, the room in front is sunny and the room in the back is a bathroom where an amorphous depiction of a woman, barely seen, is bathing. She is the artist’s wife, an agoraphobic who suffered from debilitating OCD. She spent her life taking an endless series of baths; she and Pierre would hardly leave the house. As we engaged in the story, we saw the juxtaposition of her shadow and Pierre’s light. He was devoted to her darkness, to their love — a striking contrast.

While Bonnard’s works are on large canvases, he felt most inspired by Persian miniatures during the time he painted this image and many others of his wife in the apartment. Patterns span the tile, wall, and tub, characteristic of the Islamic art he helped introduce to Europe. Undoubtedly, the painting also nods to Freud’s psychology movement.

Completely taken by the story, we saw more clearly the piece of art before us. Moving forward, we engaged in the story of the gallery’s architect, well architects, Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng. The gallery was designed in the 1950s when modern architecture was ‘all the rage.’ Their focus was on the lighting. They wanted to use light in innovative ways so that people could really savor moments in front of each piece. Rather than banks and banks of glass, as seen in traditional museums like the Louvre, Kahn’s team considered how you control the light that’s coming in. At the Yale University Art Gallery, some windows control natural light through screens, meshes, and panels and other displays are mostly lit by artificial lighting — like Pierre Bonnard’s painting. This gallery was quite possibly the first to use embedded track lighting in a museum, a triangular ceiling grid made to look like a honeycomb of tetrahedrons, from which the almost concealed lights shine. The building itself has this wondrous simplicity … and as I learned during my research in a case study of the building, it was Anne Tyng who likely designed the entire ceiling.
Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn’s relationship at Yale University Art Gallery
Along the lines of relationships, Kahn explored “Served and Servant spaces.” The spaces where the main business operates are treated as the Served zone, and the spaces for the support and circulation, like the staircase, are in the Servant zone. In many big buildings, the stair is an afterthought. Yet in the Yale University Art Gallery, the staircase is a work of art — with tremendous detail from the basement all the way to the skylight.

“Served” and “Servant” still apply today even in residential architecture. In the last 30 years we’ve blurred the lines between Public and Private spaces. Before, the kitchen was considered more of a Servant space, but now it’s more of a Served space. My clients and I talk about how they want to treat their private spaces and their more public spaces — communicating what their home means for them. We blur the lines by removing walls to make the kitchen more visible as the center of activity. But in older houses, walls remained between the guests and the servant/clutter in the kitchen. These days, plans are much more open.

Reflecting on Pierre Bonnard’s painting and the architecture of the Yale University Art Gallery, it comes down to relationships. Women in architecture such as Anne Tyng worked in the shadows for so long. Known as Kahn’s muse, she never really escaped his shadow. As she stated wisely in The Rome Letters, “The muse is a shadow figure, an empty vessel only existing to gestate and bring forth visible form identified as the man’s creation.”

Louis Kahn developed his identity as an architect, and from near the beginning, Tyng was at his side. One of their early projects was a little concrete block bathhouse in Trenton credited to his name. While the woman in the shadows of Bonnard’s painting remains in the darkness, Tyng’s passion for geometry which inspired  Kahn, still shines through the Bath House’s intricate roof design.

Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn’s relationship at Yale University Art Gallery

Even today, we hear stories where women linger in the darkness and struggle for the limelight. The good news is gender roles are changing fast. Anne Tyng beamed a ray of hope; in her 1988 essay “From Muse to Heroine: Toward a Visible Creative Identity,” she wrote, “In the future more women architects will make the difficult leap from [the] conditioned introverted role … to the challenge of being articulate and visible.”

My hope is for more and more women to emerge from that back room, and shine for all they’re worth.

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