Can so much Wright be wrong?
Exhibition of legend's work is vast, flawed
NEW YORK - There's a major new show here at the Guggenheim Museum on the work of America's greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
If, like this writer, you're a Wright fan, there's tons of stuff to look at. No less than 64 of the master's buildings are here in the form of drawings, models, photos, even computer simulations. The show is a grandma's attic of Wrightiania, and you're sure to be fascinated by stuff you've never noticed.
If you're not such a fan, though, and you don't already know your way around Wright's work, I'm afraid this exhibit will seem random, confused, and pointless.
The occasion for the show is a double anniversary. Wright died at 91 in the same year the Guggenheim opened, 50 years ago, in 1959. The museum, one of his most famous creations, has just completed a massive $30 million, three-year renovation.
It must have seemed like a great idea. But an anniversary isn't an agenda, and this show doesn't have one. Instead it settles for rehashing every cliché you've ever heard about Wright.
Start with the title: "Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward." The idea here is that Wright designed his buildings by first planning the interior spaces, and only then shaping the exterior appearance around them. Well, hey, sure he did that. In some of his early houses, indoor space pinwheels outward from the center, morphing into porches and courtyards and gardens and binding indoors and outdoors into a single harmony.
The problem is, Wright spent most of the 20th century bragging about how he was doing exactly that. This is not an appropriate theme for a new exhibit. It's an old-fashioned view of an artist who in truth is as relevant today as ever.
I'd rather have seen an exhibit, for instance, titled "Frank Lloyd Wright: Environmentalist." Wright believed in building from local materials, not from costly stuff shipped halfway around the world as is common today. Often his buildings grow from the trees and rocks of the site they're built on.
In a world that today is sinking into universal sameness, Wright was hyper-sensitive to the nature of place. He built two houses for himself, both of them in this show. The one in Wisconsin is as different from the one in Arizona as the northern forest is different from the southwestern desert. Each is carefully attuned to the local site and the climate they live in. And the one near Phoenix, Taliesin West, is an especially masterful example of sun control by natural means - surely a lesson for a world that is wasting its energy resources.
The yawn-provoking theme, though, is only the beginning of problems with this exhibit. It's a poor fit, for example, in the Guggenheim interior, which, of course, consists mainly of one endless sloping curving ramp. The heart of the Wright show consists of drawings, more than 200 of them. These are laid in glass vitrines, sometimes horizontal and sometimes tilted up like an old-fashioned drawing board. Rectangular tables on a curving ramp are awkward and they ignore the museum Wright actually intended. Wright designed the Guggenheim primarily for paintings and sculptures, which would be displayed on the vertical walls of the ramp (and skylit in his original conception). The museum works well when it's used that way, especially for artists such as Miro, Kandinsky, and Calder who employ bold colors that carry across the space of the atrium and become part of the architecture.
The only example of anything like that in the show is a wonderful Wright-designed theater curtain, which was included at the special insistence of Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, the Wright archivist who also supplied all the drawings. The curtain has nothing to do with the rest of the show, but it's the one item that works with the Guggenheim's space. Everything about this exhibit feels thrown together. Nothing about it suggests the presence of a critical intelligence. The in-house principal curator, David van der Leer, joined the project midway in its development, and admits he had little previous background on Wright. The cosponsoring group, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, certainly knows its man but it tends to ignore his numerous faults. You'd never guess from the show, or the catalogue that accompanies it, that Wright's buildings, however wonderful, were usually over budget and often plagued by construction flaws.
All that said, there's still a lot to like. No show about a figure as fascinating as Wright can fail to be interesting. Those 200 drawings, for example. Most are in Wright's own hand. Some are formal presentation drawings, some are quick and even sloppy sketches. You can follow some of the designs - that of the Guggenheim itself, for instance - as they developed over time. (In several early renderings, the entire Guggenheim exterior is bright red.) Fans will want to pore over these drawings, many rarely seen. There's a welcome emphasis, too, on Wright's larger, lesser-known works, most of which never got built, such as his amazing sci-fi-like proposals for Baghdad in the 1950s. Among his many other sources, Wright was an admirer of Islamic art and architecture.
Besides the main show I'd recommend a trip to the Sackler Center in the Guggenheim basement. Wright started a school for young architects, the Taliesin Fellowship, that still exists in Arizona. Students - they're called apprentices - are asked to design their own one-person shelters for the desert climate, shelters in which, theoretically at least, they live while at the school. The Sackler displays a series of these designs, in the form of tiny models and images, as they were created by students over a period of more than half a century. Some are like caves, some like trees, some like tents. They're a delight.
Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.