Robert Tannen sees the world through a multitude of sources. These angles -- which include time, place and, most importantly, experience -- form into a single, but an all-encompassing viewpoint. The 70-year-old artist and urban planner is sitting on a bench in the Kirsha Kaechele Project, a recently opened gallery located in the St. Roch neighborhood, ostensibly discussing his work, but he's doing much more than that.
He's explaining why he created these new works, why he's exhibiting them here, and how this somehow has to do with the rebuilding of New Orleans. His reasons are all intertwined and all part of the Tannen perspective.
"I don't separate the planning from the art work," Tannen says. "To me, it's all connected."
Tannen started making these connections at a young age. By the time he entered the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., at 18, he had already attended art school for a number of years and was experienced in figure drawing, sculpting and carving. At Pratt, he earned a bachelor's degree in environmental design and went got a multidisciplinary master of fine arts, combining social sciences, environmental studies, architecture and urban planning. While he was completing his studies, he also managed to exhibit his artwork at the Great Jones Gallery in 1961, which is why he is currently displaying his work at the Kirsha Kaechele Project.
Tannen believes the two galleries, the one in New York more than 40 years ago and the current Kaechele gallery, share similar circumstances. Great Jones Gallery was the first to open in the Soho area, which was a rundown warehouse district before blossoming into a community of artists and galleries. Tannen says that artists were searching for affordable places where they could live and have large studios. Soho offered all of that, and Tannen thinks Kaechele's St. Roch neighborhood does as well.
"This is what artists in New York in the 1950s were looking for," Tannen says as he scans the expansive room that holds his watercolor works and sculptures and Kaechele's bed.
Standing in front of the bed is a sculpture Tannen designed from sheet metal. The shape should be recognizable to most New Orleanians: it's a shotgun house, but it's been beaten and severely dented. It's part of a collection he calls "Category Five." The rest of this particular group is hanging from the gallery's walls, but because they are mostly flat and compact, no one would guess the shapes once resembled houses.
That's the point; the environment can destroy homes and both the urban planner and artist in Tannen recognizes this. He certainly knew it before many of us did. In 1969, Tannen first traveled to the Gulf Coast and was part of a team that wrote a plan for the state of Mississippi's redevelopment after Hurricane Camille. Tannen and others thought that Mississippi should rebuild in areas far away from future storm surges. The state rejected the plan. This didn't discourage Tannen from permanently moving to New Orleans, but he didn't forget the lesson of Camille.
In July of 2005, a month before Katrina hit, Tannen had fellow sculptor, Noel C. Fisher, change the sheet metal sculptures he first had built in the late 1970s into the new work, "Category Five."
"I told him to smash them, so they wouldn't fly into my neighbor's yard (the pieces were in Tannen's yard) during a storm," Tannen recalls.
Other items that are part of this Tannen exhibit include watercolor works -- watercolors without color showing the effect of water on the environment -- and wooden models. One model is of a neighborhood -- not a traditionally laid out block, but one with open community spaces with the streets off to the side instead of down the middle.
Kaechele appreciates Tannen's visions. She bought her building in 2002 and has purchased other properties she wants to rehab into more studio space for artists. Tannen can't help but admire Kaechele's work, which he sees as a small part of New Orleans' redevelopment.
"It's the community development aspect," Tannen explains. "She is building a gallery in a neighborhood that's been terribly damaged. A place like this -- it's taken from a good model. Neighborhoods like Soho and Chelsea were built around places like this."
This isn't the first time Tannen has applied his New York experience to New Orleans. In 1976, he and another artist, James Lalande, held a show in a former box factory in Bywater. The opening was well attended and the two began looking for a larger space where many artists could work and display their art. With the aid of Luba Glade, a local art critic, they were able to rent a warehouse on Camp Street. Today, that warehouse is the Contemporary Art Center.
Tannen still consults as an urban planner, but admits the results intrigue him more nowadays than the process.
"I'm more interested in the results of urban planning than urban planning. This gallery is a potential result and nucleus for how this neighborhood might redefine itself."