Sunday, August 16, 2009

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward

The Guggenheim celebrates the golden anniversary of its landmark building by mounting an exhibition of its architect's work. Wright (1867-1959) died six months before the opening of the museum. The building, conceived as a temple of art, is a beautiful articulation of interior as free flowing space.

I discovered I did not like, however, Wright's architectural style in the main. In designing vast (unbuilt) projects like the Crystal City for Washington D.C. (1940) and Plan for Greater Baghdad (1957), which includes a university and an opera house, the use of plinth and ziggurat struck me as grandiose. The concern for geometry, for sculptural forms, seemed to dominate other considerations. The plan for the Mile-High Tower, which shoots its elevator out of the sheath of the building, giving the riders stunning views, seemed inconsistent with Wright's concern for interweaving urban spaces with nature. I was not attracted to his vision of an ideal city.

Perhaps the presentation of the exhibition focused too much on the aspects that I did not like. The videos and architectural models concentrated attention on the external forms, and not on the interior spaces. I did not get a strong sense of what it would have been like to live in a Wright-designed apartment block, or work in his office tower, or worship in his synagogue.

The visit, made with VM and LW, was not all disappointment. We also saw the painting exhibition "The Sweeney Decade: Acquisitions at the 1959 Inaugural." During his tenure from 1952 to 1960, director James Johnson Sweeney championed postwar abstraction, including Art Informel, CoBrA, Tachisme and homegrown Abstract Expressionism. I did not know most of the painters on exhibition, but painting after painting drew me to it. I liked the Hans Hartung: "T50 Painting 8." Color blocks covered or crossed out with black, in a manner that reminds me of stalks of wheat. Beautifully composed. The strongest painting there was a late Jackson Pollock, in which the painter struggled to return to the figurative. "Ocean Grey" swarms with gold and green movement. I had never seen a painting so turbulent.

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