In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright appeared on the television show What’s My Line? On the show, a panel of once-upon-a-time celebrities ask a mystery guest yes-or-no questions in order to figure out who he is and what he does. We know who Wright is, of course, and there’s anticipatory pleasure even in the decisive way he chalks his name on the show’s blackboard to start: It is less script than graphic, less name than geometry. If Wright was going to be on a game show, he was going to do it properly, though he only admits to having “watched one of the shows with interest.”
Problem was, Wright had already done his job too thoroughly. Under questioning, he reveals that he is self-employed, that he uses his hands, that clients frequently come to him two at a time. “Is this service for both men and women?” one panelist asks. “I like to think so,” says Wright dryly. One lady finally catches on, wondering if he could be in a profession “such as design, or architecture, such as Frank Lloyd Wright?”
“Wright and architecture had, for many Americans, become synonymous,” writes Barry Bergdoll in the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art’s latest Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition, “Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive,” which he co-curated with Jennifer Gray. Problem is, for many Americans, Frank Lloyd Wright and architecture still are synonymous. Even the Museum of Modern Art— with whom Wright famously feuded after the 1932 International Style exhibition dared to put his work alongside that of younger, less famous, European architects—has gone back to the Wright well more than a dozen times, giving him solo shows in 1940, 1962 and 1994, as well as spotlighting the acrobatic Fallingwater (1938), both earth-hugging Taliesins (1947), and his radical workplace for Johnson Wax (1952).
This show is occasioned by the joint acquisition of Wright’s archive by MoMA and the Avery Architectural & Fine Art Library at Columbia University in 2012, and its subsequent cataloguing and public accessibility. As such, it has to display the archival goods (55,000 drawings, 125,000 photographs, 300,000 letters, models now as valuable as sculpture). Anniversaries make for good hashtags (#FLW150). But what show could make news for an architect still so world famous that MoMA’s children’s book about architecture has to star a boy named Frank?
Bergdoll and Gray decided on a process not unlike a game show itself: “The shift is less the way we are talking about Frank Lloyd Wright than in who is talking about Frank Lloyd Wright,” he told me. Out with the specialists, in with the younger scholars, people previously unwilling or uninterested in tiptoeing into the hagiographic cloud that so often descends over discussions of the master. The scholars talk about things other than buildings. Other architects are mentioned. No one claims Frank Lloyd Wright invented the gas station or the ranch house, as Wright guides tend to do.
The result is an exhibition that isn’t comprehensive, isn’t chronological, and ends up suppressing many of Wright’s greatest hits. Fallingwater, for example, appears as a single—albeit gorgeous—image in a central gallery devoted to giving the people what they want: great big drawings, of many of his biggest projects, elegantly set off against midnight blue walls. Exhibitions of architectural drawings can be heavy going (and this one is no exception) but Wright and his apprentices defined the rare skill, shared by the late Zaha Hadid, of making a drawing that really does seem to levitate off the wall.
Off this gallery lie smaller ones, each focused on an object from the archive used to highlight a theme in Wright’s work. Their choices reflect many of contemporary architecture’s preoccupations. Landscape. Race and appropriation. Replication. Urbanism. Fame.
This curatorial approach is editorial in scope, like a food magazine that has to come up with a new set of recipes every Thanksgiving. A great idea in theory: Doesn’t the list of previous Wright shows at MoMA—which doesn’t even mention the Guggenheim’s exhibit in 2009 and the Whitney’s in 1997—prove that New Yorkers have had enough heroic Wright, enough roast turkey? But this strategy only works if the side dishes are tasty enough to rival the bird.
At the end of the exhibition’s main axis, you can see Frank Lloyd Wright talking, white hair swept back, in his antiquated high shirt collar and cravat, a costume as carefully chosen to frame his face as any of Georgia O’Keeffe’s. The clip from What’s My Line? runs in a loop with a pair of interviews Wright did with Mike Wallace in 1957, just beyond a gallery devoted to his unrealized Mile-High Illinois skyscraper project (1956). The tower was the literal pinnacle of his fame-whoring, as Wright tried to grab the mantle of Chicago’s skyscraper pioneers for himself, and away from Mies van der Rohe. The diffused curation should wave you away from this project—so obvious, so starchitectural—and yet, that’s where you want to be.
Same with the Imperial Hotel. It was a great relief to me to walk into the room where Ken Tadashi Oshima “unpacks” the photographic narrative of Wright’s Imperial Hotel (1913-23) in Tokyo. There, the visitor can flit between large-scale drawings, the rediscovered photographs, side chairs, upholstery samples, and a colored pencil drawing of a rug design for the hotel’s Peacock Room. You get a sense of the actual building (which was demolished in 1968) from the assembled items, and an idea of the clientele from a 1925 brochure. “The Jewel of the Orient,” reads the cover. “Sukiyaki is served in pure Japanese atmosphere and is the delight of the foreigner,” it says inside. Sure, you say, I would love to have experienced that “pure Japanese atmosphere.” The point of architecture, after all, is the atmosphere, so the best way to commune with Wright (or any other architect, for that matter) is to visit one of his many, many buildings.
Other galleries feature vintage models, photography, and more drawings, including some mounted on replicas of the drafting tables used by the apprentices at Taliesin West. Bergdoll says the curators tried, with a few exceptions, to stick to materials in the archive, which means two-dimensional, not 3D or AR or VR. But architecture without a third dimension is by definition flat, and Frank Lloyd Wright should be anything but flat. Without Wright’s charisma, or the charismatic artifact, you end up relying on the videos, where the scholars literally unpack the archive on some previous occasion, rather than the materials in front of you.
Some of this material is a fascinating window into America’s cultural past, though I’m not sure you’d know it from a quick peek in the gallery—better to read the short, sharp essays in the catalog.
Architect and Columbia University professor Mabel O. Wilson looks at Wright’s 1928 design for a Rosenwald School. The Rosenwald Foundation, funded by the co-owner of Sears, sponsored the construction of thousands of schools for African-American children across the rural south. Most were utilitarian, built by local black communities from a series of pattern books, but Wright added elements of fantasy. He believed, like many progressive educators of his day (and ours), that architecture was a factor in education. But he also tweaked the architecture to fit the racist idea of the period that African Americans preferred bright colors so that “the Darkies would have something that belonged to them. Something exterior of their own lively interior color and charm.”
In the gallery next door, Elizabeth S. Hawley looks at Wright’s search for an American architectural expression through Native American buildings—even though he doesn’t know a wigwam from a teepee, and the Pueblo peoples from the Plains Indians. There’s more than a soupcon of sexism too, in a pair of sculptures Wright designed for the gateway to the Nakoma Country Club in Madison, WI (1924): Nakomis, the man, is tall and angular and spearlike; Nakoma, his mate, is hunched and rounded, with “brimming bowl and children symbolic of domestic virtue.” As Wilson says, rather kindly, “He was certainly a 19th century man, that’s for sure. His educational philosophy was quite radical but he still holds these antiquated cultural ideas about who he thinks black people are. They don’t connect.”
What’s fascinating from a historical perspective, however, isn’t necessarily useful as public display. You can delve into Wright’s archive with a contemporary lens, and pick out projects that demonstrate his interest in landscape architecture, engineering, farm-to-table living, and the power of the media, but those doesn’t mean, except in the last case, that Wright’s solutions have contemporary meaning. Wright is really the model for the modern mediagenic architect, as his TIME cover, his wardrobe, and his embrace of TV attest.
But Long Island is not going to be resettled as a tract of 200 farms, each one growing enough food to feed the resident family and contribute to a cooperative market, linked by daily truck deliveries. Those seeking wisdom on the present-day vogue for native plants might better look to garden writer and designer Gertrude Jekyll and landscape architect Jens Jensen, than to Wright. That Wright hasn’t previously been integrated with these other leading figures of design is more of a commentary on Wright’s ego, and of the historians who submitted to the contours of that ego, than it is on his primacy in these other fields.
In his remarks at the press preview, Bergdoll spoke of a time when the Wright archive might be integrated into exhibitions not focused on him. I wish the museum had decided the time to put Wright in his place was now.
MoMA owns a full set of Friedrich Froebel’s blocks, which Wright’s mother legendarily discovered at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, so one could use him as one among equals in a show on design for education. His logo for Jensen’s Friends of Our Native Landscape group, which more closely resembles a building elevation than graphic design, could be part of a show on modernist letterheads. You could make the case for the inclusion of his engineer from the mid-1940s on, a Czech émigré named J.J. Polivka, in a necessary exhibit focusing on modernist engineers, alongside Pier Luigi Nervi, Ove Arup and Mutsuro Sasaki.
Eugene Masselink, Wright’s secretary for three decades, manages to steal a wall from the master with two pattern studies of cactuses, brilliant green abstractions that could transform into anything, including Zaha Hadid-like architecture. Masselink was responsible for graphic design for Taliesin and the decorative motifs in dozens of projects, both elements integral to our appreciation of the total nature of Wright’s work. Why isn’t his name bigger, if we’re recalibrating? And for that matter, why not bring in John Portman or Paul Rudolph or Rem Koolhaas as reference points, instead of Mies?
If Wright has to remain the sun, the exhibit could at least have more explicitly highlighted the planets: Marion Mahony Griffin gets solo credit on several drawings, and a shout-out in a wall label and video, but she deserves her own gallery. Polivka and Jensen might also have been yanked out of their relative obscurity, flipping the narrative so that they are not supporting players but innovators to whom Wright is indebted. (Other people’s posts on Polivka, Masselink, and Mahony make for masochistic reading.)
One of the true surprises of the exhibition, for me, was the array of fabrics—a line of Taliesin textiles—produced in 1955 by F. Schumacher and Co. “And now Frank Lloyd Wright designs home furnishings you can buy!” read the November 1955 issue of House Beautiful, suggesting that the home as total work of art was now within everyone’s reach. The line included curtains, tablecloths, bedspreads and wallpaper and was designed, according to the wall text at the suggestion of House Beautiful’s influential editor Elizabeth Gordon. I’d like to ask the archivists who, exactly, created curtains that make ordinary windows look like Wright panes. If the museum is recognizing the textile designs of Anni Albers, Lucienne Day and Vera Neumann in a gallery down the hall (“Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction”) this fabric, and the red and gold upholstery samples from the Imperial Hotel also deserve a more thorough accounting.
The first question at the press preview, from a travel editor at the Associated Press, was a version of, “Why is Frank Lloyd Wright still so popular?” Bergdoll’s answer, arrived at circuitously, is Fallingwater: “That house is in the imaginary of the entire world.” It wouldn’t make sense to do a Frank Lloyd Wright retrospective without it, but even Wright, in his lifetime, wanted to move beyond it. He seems to have known that an architect without a tower has not completed his mission: there was Mile-High Illinois, and he is quick to tell the What’s My Line? audience that his Price Tower had just been completed. “I wish we had a photo here,” he laments, always the salesman.
150 years after his birth, his pitch remains hard to resist, hard to subvert. The result is an exhibition that seems like a half measure: plenty to see, but unsatisfying both for the superfans and the anti-fans, like me, that wouldn’t mind letting the man MoMA’s own Philip Johnson (who had a way with shade) called “the greatest architect of the 19th century” rest in peace.