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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Frank Lloyd Wright (American, 1867–1959). Imperial Hotel, Tokyo. 1913–23. Cross section looking east. Ink, pencil, and colored pencil on drafting cloth, 15 x 40 in. (38.1 x 101.6 cm). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York). © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved.
No question about it: Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) was – and is – America’s greatest architect. Less well known are the superb drawings on which his greatest works – both built and only conceived of – are based. All of which gives us two major reasons to visit the richly rewarding (if imperfect) exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, entitled “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive” (through October 1).

The official reason for this show (aside from the sesquicentennial of Wright’s birth) is the joint acquisition – by MoMA and Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library – in 2012 of archives assembled over the decades by the architect himself, from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which still owns and operates Wright’s two last homes, Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona.

According to the MoMA press release, the title, “Unpacking the Archive” refers to the monumental task of receiving and examining 55,000 drawings, 300,000 sheets of correspondence, 125,000 photographs, and 2,700 manuscripts, as well as models, films, building fragments and other materials.

From this wealth of possibilities, the show itself has drawn nearly 400 works made from the 1890s through the 1950s, including architectural drawings, models, building fragments, films, television broadcasts, print media, furniture, tableware, textiles, paintings, photographs, and scrapbooks, along with other rarely exhibited works

Quite a show— lovingly & meticulously organized, as it has been, by Barry Bergdoll, curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design and also Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia, assisted by Jennifer Gray, project research assistant at MoMA. But I am picky when it comes to a favorite subject.

Decades ago, when I was still a grad student, I taught an art humanities course at Columbia that included a one-week segment on Wright (and I taught it six times).

Later, when an assistant professor at Bethany College in West Virginia, I used to take vans of my introduction-to-architecture students to visit Fallingwater (1934-37), Wright’s frankly fabulous house over a waterfall in Mill Run, Pennsylvania (their tours are so good that every time we went, I learned something new).

Having a cousin in Chicago, I've been to visit the Robie House (1909-10) and the Unity Temple in Oak Park (1905-08).

Most relevant here, I fell in love with the last big Wright show in Manhattan, at the Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in 2009 (celebrating the building’s 50th anniversary) and entitled “Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward.”.

This was a more classical (or dare I say modernist?) kind of show: it followed a vaguely chronological sequence (up the ramp) and had lots of specially-created models, also 200 drawings (plans, elevations and perspectival renderings).

Those drawings were mostly so beautiful that I nearly fainted with delight. Equally glorious was how the show introduced me to many splendid though lesser-known Wright buildings & projects.

Looking forward to more of the same, I arrived at MoMA a week or so ago with high hopes. And in some essential ways I was not disappointed. Certainly, the opening gallery, hung with 18 drawings of acknowledged masterpiece buildings or projects, was handsome.

Particularly eloquent were the delicate pale grays of the never-realized Doheny Ranch Development in Los Angeles (1923), towering over the valley like a mighty dam; the majestic Florida Southern College campus (begun 1938, not all buildings built), and the sweeping aerial perspective view of Taliesin West (also begun 1938).

Some of the drawings in this gallery were perhaps a little too highly colored – not least the picture of Fallingwater that was hung behind Wright’s head when he made the cover of Time in 1938.

On the other hand, the first drawing here – a small elevation of a low-slung “Queen Anne” house that Wright made in 1887, at the age of 20, when applying for a job with Louis Sullivan (his “lieber Meister”) -- was not only graceful but indescribably touching, with its sheer, pure silvery grays.

(Unfortunately, none of those exquisitely pale drawings look like anything when reproduced in small scale online. You really need to go to the museum and see them for yourselves.)

Sad to say, I was distracted by the blare & flickering images of a movie screen in a separate space but clearly visible and audible from this opening gallery. It showed not only Wright being interviewed on TV by Mike Wallace but also appearing on the quiz show, “What’s My Line?”

I think I even glimpsed Wright on the screen with a puppet or two—Howdy Doody, maybe?

Did we really need this?

Is it necessary to let the world know that Wright had a giant ego and was adept at using all the latest technology to promote his own image? Didn’t we somehow know that already (to the limited extent that it’s necessary to know it. After all, all artists need to believe in themselves passionately--because if they don't, who else will)?

And (even assuming there is a need for this underlining of Wright's ego) why couldn’t the movie screen & its noise at least be shut off from the rest of the show by a curtain or partition?

But this is a show that – in true postmodernist fashion – dotes on motion & noise. In each of the ancillary galleries surrounding the entry gallery, we had yet another, smaller video screen with a talking head yak-yakking away.

Turning to the show’s press release again, I learned that surrounding the entry gallery are “12 subsections, covering themes both familiar and little explored, that highlight for visitors the process of discovery undertaken by invited scholars, historians, architects and art conservators.”

Ah yes – where would postmodernism be without its Duchampian shibboleth of “process”?

Some work displayed in these subsections is genuinely worthy of our attention, if one can get past the feeling that Wright’s massive & unforgettable oeuvre is being carved up into little, easily-digestible pieces in order to fit it into a Procrustean postmodernist bed.

But some of these subsections sag under the weight of the organizers’ attempts to “contextualize” the maestro by showing his concern with social issues – an attempt that apparently had to be qualified by smug little observations in the labels pointing out that after all he wasn’t as broadminded as we enlightened postmodernists today are.

As examples of this I cite the galleries devoted to a mediocre (and never realized) design for a golf club with a Native American theme, the Nakoma Country Club near Madison, Wisconsin (1923), and a similarly undistinguished (and unrealized) design for a school house for African-American children created in 1928 for the Rosenwald Foundation.

This foundation had been organized by Julius Rosenwald, a co-owner of Sears, Roebuck of Chicago who was devoted to enhancing the “Negro” experience in arts and education (and, among other things, a patron of Jacob Lawrence)

Turns out that Wright’s proposed “American Indian” decorations for the golf club are wildly inaccurate by 21st century standards.

I suspect that they were inspired as much as anything else by “The Song of Hiawatha,” that epic doggerel devoted to an "American Indian" as created in 1855 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and a staple of later 19th century grammar school curricula – in it, Nokomis is the name of the hero’s saintly grandmother.

Meanwhile, the labels in the Rosenwald area carefully point out that Wright still favored separate schools for “Negroes” because of their different racial traits, schools that satisfied their supposed preference for “bright colors” and so on.

Is all of this subtle (or not so subtle) debunking so surprising? To me, it sounds as though in social terms, Wright was only a relatively advanced man of his own times (despite how timeless he was in terms of his grasp of physical shape and form).

And no matter how outrageous this may appear to younger scholars and equally naive museum-goers, his particular form of broad-mindedness reminds me very much of my own progressively-minded mother (whose heritage, not unlike Wright's or for that matter, Longfellow's, was the purest WASP).

Born in 1905, she was much more nearly a contemporary of Wright’s than I am. And I can remember her doing her best (ca. 1948) to be sure that I didn’t grow up to be a bigot by telling me all the positive stereotypes in order to keep my mind free of the negative ones – Jews were so cultivated, such great patrons of the arts, she said. And “Negroes” were such great dancers….

But there’s more of this debunking at MoMA. When I saw the Guggenheim show, I suppose I didn’t think twice about assuming that all these marvelous drawings were Wright’s own handiwork.

But here the postmodernist mystique requires that visitors be disabused of the modernist concept of the single great originator and team efforts be ushered in to take the credit instead.

One of these 12 segments; entitled “Drawing in the Studio,” emphasizes that Wright’s beautiful drawings were created by the teams of draftsmen, students and apprentices working in his studio – though why all these drawings should have looked a) so similar stylistically and b) so radically different from what was coming out of other contemporary architects’ studios are questions that this show doesn’t address.

(I’m not surprised that Wright employed assistants, since it was -- and most likely still is -- standard architectural practice.

(When I was in high school, I took an aptitude test which suggested that I might be good at architecture, so I spent a month of summer vacation as a tyro drafts-person in the offices of my uncle André Halasz, who was an architect. I spent a lot of time drawing bathrooms in floor plans –and discovered that I wasn’t nearly neat enough to do such work -- had to do too many erasures.

(But I also saw enough to know that architecture is definitely a team sport. As, for that matter, was getting out Time magazine.

(Our own word for it was “group journalism,” but -- in a day when none of the articles in the magazine were signed -- people reading it used to say that it sounded like one person had written it. Well, one person was in charge – the managing editor – but beneath him were about ten senior editors and thirty or forty writers.

(If a story didn’t satisfy the managing editor, the senior editor gave it back to the writer, and the writer wrote it over. If the writer and the senior editor between them couldn’t get it right the second time, they might find themselves ruthlessly re-assigned—so we learned to create copy that satisfied the m.e.).

The “Drawing in the Studio” segment of this show also does its best to point the finger of sexism at Wright. One of his drafts-persons was Marion Mahony (1871-1961), one of the first licensed women architects in the U.S., and the show includes one drawing signed by her.

There’s no doubt she was a tremendously talented woman, and may have had a notable effect on Wright’s early style, but the show creates the impression that she was with him from the beginning of his career to the end, and if you pursue her name in Wikipedia, it turns out that she was only in Wright’s office for at most 15 years, from 1895 to around 1909.

Wright would have another 50 years ahead of him in his career after they parted, and she went into a long and productive partnership with Walter Burley Griffin (whom she married).

All of that said, there’s so much lovely work in this exhibition that I would definitely recommend it.

In addition to the entry gallery, the gallery devoted to Wright’s “Mile-High” skyscraper has a five tall but narrow & awe-inspiring drawings for it—3 elevations, 1 perspective drawing and one cross-section, ranging between 8 and 9 feet in height and between only 10 to 30 inches in width.

Wright unveiled this proposal at a press conference in 1956. It was for a building 528 stories high, with room for 100,000 people, 15,000 cars and 100 helicopters, seven stories of TV studios in its pointy top and a “taproot” or concrete mast that drove deep underground to anchor it (floors being cantilevered out from that mast).

This building was never built, but the magnitude of its vision can be seen from the fact that the tallest building in the world even today (unveiled in 2010 in Dubai) is still only half-a-mile high.

Other interesting galleries (or “subsections,” if you prefer) are those devoted to “Ornament” and “Building Systems.”

In “Ornament” may be found objects designed by Wright to ornament his buildings: they range from a copper urn and textiles to mosaics, concrete blocks and stained glass windows. Somehow those employing circular designs look a bit dated while those built around straight lines and rectilinear shapes seem as crisp and fresh as today’s salad.

“Building Systems” is interesting for the “affordable” homes, with factory-produced components, mail-order distribution techniques and licensed contractors to ensure quality that Wright designed for The American System-Built Houses in 1915-1917.

Although Sears, Roebuck were already offering similarly prefabricated homes, mass-produced homes as a whole didn’t catch on in the U.S. until after World War II.

And Wright’s houses I am sure had a charm that those offered by Sears did not. One that stood out for me was the perspective drawing of a short and chunky, but also winsomely tall “Small Town House – Plastered Frame.”

My favorite subsection, though, was “Reframing the Imperial Hotel.” True, its collection of relics from this now-demolished Tokyo structure (built between 1913 and 1923) is rather scattershot.

Classy porcelain chinaware that Wright designed vies for attention with one of his uncomfortable-looking little dining-room chairs. More to the point are the fine old photos of this noble building as well as so many wonderful drawings that went into its creation.

In more than one way, the Imperial Hotel must have been a love match between East and West. Wright had been a profound admirer of Japanese art and architecture for more than a decade already (most likely beginning with his exposure to the Japanese Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago).

He had traveled to Japan in 1905, and he collected Japanese wood block prints; the influence of this superficially fragile but fundamentally tough form of expression shines forth through all the drawings here, even when the drawing is of such a technical topic as a cross-section.

For those with the stamina to go the distance, other galleries with goodies in them include “Urbanism” and “New York Models Conserved.” As with so much else in this show, they commingle buildings and projects actually constructed with those only designed, never built.

The unbuilt must constitute about half of Wright’s total graphic oeuvre: in his lifetime, he created about a thousand designs, of which only a handful over 500 were built.

If there is a virtue that stands out beyond all others in this admirable show, it is the emphasis on Wright as not only the builder but beyond that the visionary, the man whose dreams were bigger than life.

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