Bruce Alonzo Goff was born in Alton, Kansas in 1904. Goff was to become a prolific architect, artist, composer, and educator. He spent most of his childhood traveling the Midwest, then at age eleven his family settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father recognized his son’s immense talent for drawing, and arranged for him to apprentice with the firm of Rush, Endacott and Rush of Tulsa. In 1929, Goff was made a partner.
Goff was largely self-educated, and he employed a free-association technique, often fantastical, in creating his designs. Goff lacked the usual academic credentials but was made a full professor in the University of Oklahoma architecture program, where his classes placed a high value on techniques to stimulate creativity. Goff’s private practice offered clients an organic architecture, a further development of concepts laid down by his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright. His strong individualism is evident, as it is in Wright’s work, in the improbable but surprisingly functional homes he built in the plains states.
Exposed structure and spatial complexity characterize a Bruce Goff design, further complicated by a degree of decorative detailing that set his work apart from the minimalist tendencies of his contemporaries. The home built for Joe Price in Bartlesville, Oklahoma known as Shin’enKan, exemplified Goff’s imaginative approach. Unfortunately, the structure was lost to a fire in 1996. Goff maintained his studio in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma from 1956 to 1963.
Early in his career, Goff became aware of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan (Wright’s early employer) while at Rush, Endacott & Rush. Goff corresponded extensively with both men and their influence is strongly evident in his early work. He also drew inspiration from the artists Maxfield Parrish, Erté, and Gustav Klimt.
In 1934 Goff found himself in Chicago, Illinois, employed by Alfonso Iannelli -a brief association that the 30-year-old architect found stifling. Supporting himself with freelance work, he was offered a part-time teaching post at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where he explored theories on “free architecture” as a consequence of his proximity to artists working in abstraction. Just because buildings were meant to serve practical ends, he told his students, this did not mean that architecture was by any means exempt from the need to break new artistic ground as objects of beauty.
While in Chicago, the composer Goff saw his “piano music of a radically different order” begin to find an audience. There he designed several residences and worked for the manufacturer of Vitrolite, a patented form of architectural sheet glass introduced during the 1930’s. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II, eventually to design numerous military structures as well as residences for colleagues.
After his stint in the Navy, Goff returned to architectural practice briefly in Berkeley, California, then accepted a teaching position with the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma in 1942. By 1943 he was chairman of the school. In his nine years at OU Goff’s private practice soared, garnering important critical attention. Two of his most famous residence projects, the Ruth Ford house in Illinois, and the Eugene Bavinger house near the OU campus in Norman, Oklahoma, were built during this period.
In 1955 Goff left the University of Oklahoma to relocate his practice in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. He set up his studio in the Price Tower, Frank Lloyd Wright’s tallest building. He was the ideal artist of the 1960s, expressing a freedom from convention and intellectual abandon much in vogue in the popular media. To international tastes, Goff typified the American artistic free spirit of the 1960s, and his work entered the international arena. Goff’s designs and ideas were featured in publications including Progressive Architecture, Art in America, and Architectural Forum.
Goff traveled and lectured extensively during this golden period through the 1970s. His hyper-receptive sensibilities immediately became enchanted by the delicate materials and balances of the art and architecture of Southeast Asia and Japan. Earlier chords, struck by his mentor Wright’s obsession with disciplined simplicity, began to ring out full voice in Goff’s imagination. His travels to Germany, Belgium, France, Spain and colleges and universities throughout the U.S. revealed a growing cult-like following.
Goff’s last project, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Pavilion for Japanese Art, was built to house Joe Price’s Shin’enKan collection of Japanese paintings. Bruce Goff died in Tyler, Texas on August 4, 1982.
Bruce Goff in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago Goff’s archive was founded in 1990 with the donation of Goff’s estate through the Shin’enKan Foundation and Joe Price, Goff’s executor and longtime friend. Additional materials have since been donated by Robert Bowlby, Donald Hoffman, Kinji Imada, the estate of Claude Oakland, Eugene Tsui, the estate of Phillip Welch, Thomas Rogers, Joseph Henry Wythe, and the estate of William H. Wilson. Prior to the arrival of the collection in Chicago, the task of arranging and describing Goff’s work was undertaken by David DeLong. The Bruce A. Goff Archive was the subject of a 1995 exhibition and catalog at The Art Institute of Chicago titled “Bruce Goff, 1904-1982: Design for the Continuous Present.”
The Art Institute collection amounts to greater than two hundred boxes of Goff’s paintings, architectural designs, musical compositions, writings, correspondence and photographs, as well as ephemera such as found shells and crystals, and a butterfly collection.
To gain online access to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Bruce Goff catalog, visit the Goff archives.