Surry Schlabs

Surry Schlabs

Waiting for Architecture: John Dewey and the Limits of Modern Art (2017)

In 1934’s Art as Experience, John Dewey sketched the outlines of a new approach to aesthetics, an approach, he suggested, that was finally consistent with a truly modern understanding of the world, now made clear in light of the previous century’s radical discoveries in industry, technology, and science, especially those of Charles Darwin. The term experience, around which Dewey had constructed his broad-based and multivalent critique of modernity, was a notion conceived in terms of interaction and intercourse, continuity and contingency, organic growth and engaged undergoing. Deweyan experience, in short, is an open-ended process of becoming.

This project is divided into three parts, each comprising an extended meditation on one or more aspects of Dewey’s aesthetic thought, and exploring the various trajectories along which his ideas adapted, evolved, and helped to define the contours of American modernism in the middle decades of the 20th century. In certain cases, Dewey’s theories are shown to have direct bearing on the work of artists and educators, for whom the Deweyan notions of engaged aesthetic experience and the active construction of knowledge provided the framework for a new, progressive, and radically integrative approach to aesthetic production and educational practice. In others, Dewey’s thought contributed to an ethos in which certain ideas, methods, and concerns – drawn, perhaps, from other, decidedly foreign contexts – would be transformed and eventually find fulfillment. Chapter one, “Constructing the `Temple’ in Merion: Space and Continuity in John Dewey’s America,” frames Dewey’s discussion of space-time in Art as Experience within an account of his long and productive relationship with the eccentric industrialist and art collector, Albert Barnes, and the cultural context in which both Barnes’s and Dewey’s thought took shape in the 1920s and 30s.

Chapter two, “Historisch oder Jetzig: Time and Experience in John Dewey’s America,” provides an account of Josef Albers’s work during his time at Black Mountain College, and examines the manner in which Albers’s engagement with the social, political, and historical contexts of mid-century America, a cultural milieu in whose construction Dewey played no small part, affected and inflected both his own work and that of the broader network of students and collaborators passing through his orbit in the 1930s and 40s.

Chapter three, “It’s All Happening: Form and Expression in John Dewey’s America,” concerns Dewey’s relationship to Abstract Expressionism, often considered the United States’ first significant contribution to 20th-century- aesthetic modernism, and the extrapolation of its experiential implications, articulated most clearly by Allan Kaprow, into an artform with decidedly architectural characteristics, the happening, in the 1950s and 60s.


Surry Schlabs received both BA and M.Arch degrees from Yale where, during his time in architecture school, he applied a longstanding interest in collaborative and experiential learning to his work as teaching assistant in the School of Architecture and in the History of Art and Political Science departments. Before returning to Yale for his Ph.D, Surry worked for several years in and around New Haven, serving as project manager and desig‚Äčner at both Gray Organschi Architecture and the Yale Urban Design Workshop.