The name of John De Cesare (1890–1972) is not unfamiliar to students of Art Deco architecture. For twenty-five years he was an innovative and highly successful architectural sculptor, who provided ornament for some of the earliest and most important Art Deco buildings in America.
Between the years 1923 and 1948 John De Cesare’s firm, Stifter and De Cesare, working primarily in conjunction with the architectural firm of Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker (now Haines, Lundberg and Wachler) supplied the sculptural decoration for many New York city structures, including the Empire State Building, the Barclay-Vesey Building, and the Irving Trust Company Building.
The Barclay-Vesey Building, 1923–26, now a historic landmark and one of the most distinguished architectural monuments of the 1920s, was the first and most influential example of the "set-back" formula characteristic of skyscraper design in the late 1920s and 1930s. It was also one of the earliest buildings in America to incorporate ornamentation into its design. Lewis Mumford stated that, "the real triumph of the Barclay-Vesey Building is its ornament . . .It is perhaps the first large structure, with the exception of the Auditorium Building in Chicago, to carry through a significant scheme of decoration."
By the mid-1940s the International Style in architecture was rapidly making traditional architectural decoration either functionally untenable or aesthetically undesirable, and John De Cesare retired. He did not, however, retire to lament the passing of an architectural era or his own sculptural career. Instead, he began to evolve an intricate and complex theory using the medium of colored pencil drawings. It was his belief that the sounds of music could be made visual. He was well prepared through his formal training and professional career to demonstrate his theories pictorially, as he had extraordinary skills as a draftsman and model maker and produced remarkably beautiful, refined drawings.
John De Cesare’s aim was to translate an aural art into a visual art form by systematically translating musical compositions into designs, so that one would actually see in the picture the equivalent of what one would hear in performance. Taking the transposition one step further, he then used these "visual design scores" as the basis for design motifs that could be adopted in various ways as architectural decoration.
Interestingly enough, John De Cesare was not a musician, nor did he have any formal musical training. To develop his theory he had to begin by learning the basics of music. At the time of his death, several books pertaining to understanding the elements of music were found in his studio apartment. One in particular, The ABC of Musical Theory, by Ralph Dunstan contains the artist’s notes and comments, and was apparently the primary source of his information about the technical aspects of musical composition. Although De Cesare was not a musician, he was a problem-solver. The enormous complexity of accurately translating the sound of music into a visual art form, while at the same time maintaining an aesthetically interesting design, was a challenge he could not resist.
In a short, unpublished manuscript entitled "The Theory of Visual Space in Music," John De Cesare stated that he intended to explore a dimension in music that he felt had not been recognized before: "a visual dimension of space in music." He stated that:
there are two kinds of space in music: the space the sound travels through and the space forms created by the different parts heard in relation to each other.
The last point is significant. On an actual musical score, each part is written on a separate staff, but in performance the notes played by each of the musical instruments are heard simultaneously. "Space form," therefore, is the term the artist uses to refer to his personal visualization of the sound of the musical score.
In order to devise a system of visual "space forms," De Cesare created a new vocabulary of visual forms that represented the equivalent of traditional musical notation. With this vocabulary, the viewer can "read" the drawings in much the same way as he would "read" a musical score. The artist determined that:
Music has two geometric elements within its structure. A horizontal and a vertical reciprocally related. The horizontal movement from left to right indicates the duration (or time value) of a note and the vertical, or up and down movement, indicates the pitch (or position on the staff). Since a musical note contains both duration and pitch, it forms a geometric unit in the form of an angle. This angle can be considered the space form.
Using an angular geometric shape to symbolize a standard musical note, he varied its width to suggest the length in time, and its position on the staff to indicate the pitch. The direction of the angle up or down indicated the bass or treble clef. He created forms of entirely different shapes to symbolize vocal parts. He used color to clarify visually each line of music (for instance, in a simple score, violet "notes" might indicate notes in the treble clef and red "notes" those in the bass clef).
As in a traditional musical score, the artist used staffs, ledger lines, and measures for framework. However, since his intention was to represent musical compositions as they are heard, he superimposed the notes from all the staffs of a score onto a single staff, allowing the viewer to see what he would hear in a performance.
De Cesare drew upon a variety of compositions for his translations, including the works of Stephen Foster, "Silent Night," "The U.S. Army Bugle Call: Taps," and "The Star-Spangled Banner." His most important sources, however, were classical works by Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Dvorak, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, Brahms, and Bach. He often chose a particular score or arrangement because it provided him with a vehicle for experimenting with certain aspects or problems involved in the translation.
For example, he chose a piano arrangement of Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue" because he wanted to deal with the representation of chords:
Single notes are not difficult to represent. It is in the chords where the difficulty presents a temporary problem. One chord following another makes it necessary to alternate the colors in order to maintain the legibility of the individual notes as chords.
He found it a relatively simple matter to depict musical scores that were written for only one instrument. In referring to three drawings relating to the famous Sextet from Lucia Di Lammermoor by Donizetti, the artist says:
This composition was chosen to see how many parts can be included in a visual interpretation of a musical score.
This particular arrangement contains eleven different lines of written music: six vocal parts and five instrumental parts. An even more complex score is an arrangement of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in B-flat with twenty-nine instrumental parts and one vocal part.
A second aspect of John De Cesare’s project was to create architectural designs and ornamental motifs developed from his musical translations. For instance, in a study for a Bell Tower, he determined the dimensions of the building, its form, and designs for the decorative detail from certain measures of an arrangement of Bach’s "Ave Maria." In another case, he used the melody line from "The U.S. Army Bugle Call: Taps" as the basis for the wrought iron grill-work decoration of a gateway to a military cemetery. Extracting the vocal part of "The Star-Spangled Banner," he created numerous architectural decorative motifs, designs for wall murals, for door knobs, gates and entranceways, and patterns for accessories, like rugs. In all these drawings, what appears on the surface as abstract decoration, is, in reality, readable as measures, phrases, periods, or even whole score lines from specific musical compositions.
Although the subject matter in the drawings is most frequently related to musical scores, the earliest drawings were inspired by non-musical topics. Charts included in the 1949 Annual Report for the General Foods Corporation were the basis for a series of designs of linear motifs for an imaginary façade of a General Foods building. Photographs published in the New York Times provided the impetus for a series connected with the Berlin airlift, and several news photographs about nuclear bomb explosions were incorporated into his drawing relating to Wagner’s "Fire Music" from "Die Walküre."
Beyond the drawings’ function as the embodiment of the artist’s theories is the consideration of the draftsmanship. The intensity of the numerous colors which emanate from the drawings with a mosaic-like brilliance, along with the refinement of the drawing style and the meticulous rendering of detail, results in images of compelling beauty. The intricacy of the designs is not unlike oriental rug patterns in which the complex interlacing of a variety of shapes results in a harmonious and visually pleasing whole. The artist was totally in control of the colored pencils that he chose as a precise but flexible medium to carry out his involved, imaginative conceptions. It is surprising that De Cesare did not consider the drawings to be finished works of art. Rather he viewed them as studies, or working drafts which represented step-by-step solutions to problems he had set for himself. He was at the same time fully aware of the remarkable intellectual and artistic achievement his drawings represented.
In retirement, living as a virtual recluse, John De Cesare worked continuously for twenty years developing his theories. According to his careful explanatory notes, he apparently produced over three hundred drawings. It was his wish that the drawings remaining in his studio apartment be shared by his family with a museum. It was the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s good fortune that in honoring his wishes the De Cesare family chose the National Museum of Design as the most fitting repository.
John De Cesare was born in Palermo, Italy, in 1890. In 1895 his family moved to New York City, where the artist remained until his death in 1972. He received his training at the Mechanics Institute, Cooper-Union, and the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, all in New York City. For a number of years during the 1930s he served as juror for the prestigious sculpture competitions held by the Beaux-Arts Institute.