In the 1970s, when Rem Koolhaas was just a struggling co-founder of a new firm called the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), his artist wife, Madelon Vriesendorp, was more famous than the future starchitect. In her surrealist-influenced paintings, skyscrapers bent in half, intertwined, or sprung from the Statue of Liberty's belly. Vriesendorp's best-known work, Flagrant Délit, a 1975 watercolor of a Rockefeller Center spire discovering the Chrysler and Empire State buildings in bed together, appeared on the cover of Koolhaas' 1978 breakthrough paean to urban chaos, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. Her works started selling for $10,000 apiece, and when the Guggenheim Museum included them in a 1978 OMA show, Paul Goldberger's review in the Times called them “the wittiest and perhaps the finest things in the entire exhibition” as well as “some of the best explorations of the unconscious.”
By the 1980s, however, “Maddie went ‘off radar,' ” writes Shumon Basar, the director of cultural projects at the Architectural Association (AA) in London, in a new monograph about Vriesendorp's work. The AA has published the volume in conjunction with a traveling retrospective, “The World of Madelon Vriesendorp,” which Basar curated with Karlsruhe, Germany–based architecture professor Stephan Trüby. (It appeared early this year at the AA and then at Berlin's Aedes Gallery, and negotiations with U.S. venues are under way.) The artist left the limelight, Basar explains, to focus on teaching at the AA and other U.K. schools and raising her and Koolhaas' son, Tomas, and daughter, Charlie. Vriesendorp kept painting and sculpting, and even designed costumes and landscapes, but stopped exhibiting.
Basar and Trüby have gathered 60 of her pieces, mostly from storage in the Koolhaases' London flat. Spanning from 1967 to 2007, the works include not only paintings but also huge recycled-cardboard sculptures of dice and a rarely seen 1979 film animation based on Flagrant Délit, in which the Statue of Liberty stalks off her pedestal and enters psychoanalysis with Freud. The curators also borrowed thousands of Vriesendorp's favorite found objects, whether statuettes of nuns and aliens or postcards filed in arcane categories like Glass Bricks and Big Vegetables.
Vriesendorp, age 63, has enjoyed her decades in relative obscurity, Basar reports, and often happily gives away her output in the form of ephemeral frosted cakes. (Though her life in Koolhaas' shadow cannot have been easy: Plus for decades he has very publicly had a mistress, designer Petra Blaisse.) “When we first proposed the show to her, she, of course, had a certain amount of anxiety about putting herself back under scrutiny,” says Basar. “But everyone around her has kept telling her, ‘This is long overdue. We've known for ages that you're a genius.' She's grown into the idea of it, and now it signals a new phase of creativity.” He and Trüby persuaded her to loan two new paintings to the exhibit: a panorama of her studio stuffed with sketches and knickknacks and a Dalíesque caricature of Rem with his lips formed into a sofa.