Kathryn Smith on Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural exhibitions

SmithMore than one hundred exhibitions of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work were mounted between 1894 and his death in 1959. Wright organized the majority of these exhibitions himself and viewed them as crucial to his self-presentation as his extensive writings. Wright on Exhibit by Kathryn Smith presents the first history of this neglected aspect of the architect’s influential career.

Drawing extensively from Wright’s unpublished correspondence, Smith challenges the preconceived notion of Wright as a self-promoter who displayed his work in search of money, clients, and fame. She shows how he was an artist-architect projecting an avant-garde program, an innovator who expanded the palette of installation design as technology evolved, and a social activist driven to revolutionize society through design. Smith recently took the time to answer a few questions about her new book.

There have been so many books published on Frank Lloyd Wright. Why should we be interested in another one?

KS: In that sense, and in other ways as well, Wright can be compared to Pablo Picasso. Wright is a seminal figure in the history of modern art. Blessed with longevity, his seventy productive years resulted in approximately one thousand built and unbuilt designs. Like Picasso, Wright still captures the general public’s imagination, both with his buildings and his persona. There is always an audience for Wright books, whether they are coffee table books, children’s books, biographies, or historical fiction. However, in the field of scholarly studies, the list is significantly shorter. Although he died in 1959, it was not until 1985 that his papers became available for in-depth research. I chose the subject of Wright’s architectural exhibitions organized during his lifetime—excluding the exhibitions he curated on Asian art—because I wanted to plumb the depths of his unpublished correspondence to create an exhibition history. While there are approximately 103,000 letters, telegrams, and cablegrams in the Wright Archive at the Avery Library at Columbia University, it was also necessary for me to answer many questions by consulting the repositories at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Archives of American Art in Washington D.C., among others.

Why did you choose the subject of architectural exhibitions?

KS: Architectural exhibitions—and even architectural exhibitions about architectural exhibitions—have a global currency today. In addition to the well-established Venice Architecture Biennial and the Milan Triennial, there are generally architectural exhibitions going on somewhere in the world every month: in art institutes, world expositions, European and Asian museums, galleries, and architecture schools. The growing list includes Seoul Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism, Chicago Architecture Biennial, and International Bienniale Rotterdam. Shows are mounted in institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal and the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design, Stockholm; but also in alternative spaces such as the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan. There are now organizations dedicated to architectural exhibitions in Zurich, Copenhagen, and New York. Events have been curated in cities in order to experience the urban core as a three-dimensional exhibition in time and space.

While contemporary activity is growing exponentially, scholarship on historic exhibitions of modern architecture is slight in comparison, especially in regard to the United States. An exception is MoMA: Terence Riley, Barry Bergdoll, Wallis Miller, Mary Anne Staniszewski, and Mardges Bacon have written major articles that have contributed to our understanding of many aspects of MoMA’s exhibitions. One major fact I learned in my research was that, although Wright was intimately involved with the majority of his exhibitions during his lifetime, he was just as frustrated at the severe limitations of simulacra—drawings, models, and photographs—as his counterparts are today. One of my discoveries was that as an artist-architect, rather than as a museum curator or critic, his major concern was not to create a chronological narrative. Instead, he was driven to shape public installations of his built and unbuilt work to communicate his ideas about the man-made and natural environment to stimulate public discourse and effect societal change. This point of view resonates today. Wright on Exhibit, which is a framework for evaluating installation practice, provides a cultural and historical context for a burgeoning movement.

We normally think of museum staff and art professionals organizing exhibitions. Did Wright’s exhibitions deviate from that model?

KS: Yes, they did, for the most part. That was one of the revelations of my research. I was really amazed at the origins of his approach in late-nineteenth-century Chicago and how he applied it in various circumstances from the 1930s until his death in 1959—to the shock and chagrin of his collaborators. His formative years from 1894 to 1914 were spent exhibiting with the Chicago Architectural Club, an organization of architects and draftsmen that held an open annual juried exhibition. Wright never became a member, but his major exhibitions in those years were under their sponsorship. From 1902 to 1914, he demanded and received a separate gallery to mount one-man shows, which he curated and designed and for which he wrote and designed catalogs and accompanying booklets. Sometimes the synergy of all this effort would result in publication in a national periodical such as the Architectural Record. This was a pattern that he maintained throughout his career. Sometimes it worked beautifully. Everything came together rather smoothly. On other occasions, there was opposition which erupted into confrontations that became fodder for the local press. In 1914, he was forty-seven years old; by that time his exhibition methodology was fully formed. One of the important facts about Wright is that, like Picasso, he lived to within a few months of his ninety-second birthday and he was at the pinnacle of his reputation at the end in 1959. So you see, his exhibition history continued for another forty-five years. These years constitute almost a separate study.

Is Wright on Exhibit meant to be humorous?

KS: No. Some readers may think so when they read certain passages, but I would say vivid is a better word. Wright was an exceptional letter writer. He also composed extraordinary telegrams and cablegrams, often at the height of a crisis and sometimes several in one day. I think by this point in my career I have read about 15,000 pieces of correspondence in the Wright Archive over the decades. I felt that the wealth of material on this subject—and I mean thousands of letters—demanded that his voice and that of his correspondents be heard. I wanted the reader to enter into the events to correct the stereotypes of Wright and figures such as Philip Johnson, his main contact at MoMA in 1931-32 and between 1947 and 1953. This is another instance that proves there are not enough scholarly books about Wright because clearly these stereotypes have been repeated in popular books and magazines without any knowledge of the primary material. The relationship between Wright and Johnson, and between Wright and MoMA, for that matter, required a completely new investigation and analysis. What I concluded was that what previous generations believed was negative about Wright’s involvement with MoMA was the opposite.

Could you provide an example?

KS: Yes. The first MoMA architectural show in 1932, Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, which is generally referred to misleadingly as the “International Style” exhibition. Certainly, the organizers—Johnson, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and Alfred H. Barr Jr.—intended to limit the scope to European architects; however, the museum trustees subsequently required equal representation by Americans. The four Europeans had to be matched by four Americans. Wright was left off the list. By 1931-32, he had not built much for a decade and many regarded him as retired at sixty-five years old. But the trustees had widened the parameters of the subject matter to modern architecture and Hitchcock, the eminent historian, included him as the ninth architect. Although Johnson initiated a ten-month period of planning with Wright, the correspondence proves that almost nothing was accomplished until the last sixty days. While many have speculated that Wright did not want to participate in Modern Architecture because he turned his back on Le Corbusier, Mies, and Gropius, this is erroneous. He demanded to be withdrawn at the last minute when he found out that Raymond Hood and Richard Neutra were on the list of nine architects. As to Hood, Wright believed he was a cynical businessman who merely copied fashionable styles of the day for financial profit; Neutra was a more complicated case. At this time, Wright wrote him off as someone who was more of a self-promoter than a genuine original. But Wright remained in the show, which toured America for two years. His inclusion alongside the leaders of the younger generation and, for the most part, Hitchcock’s serious evaluation in Modern Architecture, the museum catalog (a publication, it should be pointed out, which was distinct from the commercially published book, The International Style), reinvigorated Wright. The greatest impact of the 1932 MoMA show was that it was a turning point for him. It was the prologue to the most productive and critically acclaimed era of his career. Six years later, he had a one-building show at MoMA featuring Fallingwater, the country house for Edgar and Lilianne Kaufmann. The whole factual history of Wright and Johnson between 1931 and 1932 is a fascinating one and completely unknown today. By the end of 1932, contrary to common belief, Johnson became Wright’s champion. This is documented in the correspondence and other primary sources contemporary with events. I explain all the circumstances in my book. My view of Johnson changed after I made these discoveries. Johnson left MoMA in 1934, so it was more than a decade before he connected with Wright again.

Wright on Exhibit is generously illustrated, in black and white and color. What was your thinking?

KS: I was very fortunate that Wright often commissioned photographers to document his installations, even as early as 1907; but the documentation was in black and white, while the drawings on display were rich in color; as were most of his models, later in the 1940s and onward. Very early on when I was conceptualizing my book I decided to illustrate drawings and some models in color so the reader would have a more intimate connection with the subject. It was at this point that I singled out in my mind the book designer, Miko McGinty, as the perfect fit for my concept. When the time came, I was very pleased that McGinty and her associates, Rita Jules and Anjali Pala, agreed to work with Princeton University Press on the project. They created the ideal layout. I think the book looks stunning. My hope is that as the reader turns the pages he or she will be able to visualize how lush these exhibitions were for the visitors who experienced them originally.

Wright on Exhibit has two appendices; why did you include them?

KS: From the beginning, I wanted to provide scholars and institutions with a complete catalog of Wright’s exhibitions from 1894 to 1959 (the year of his death) complete with facts such as title, dates, and locations, at the minimum. I was able to exceed that goal by adding names of curators, organizers, and sponsors. The total count is 124 exhibitions. The second appendix came about over the course of my research when I learned that Wright made models primarily for exhibitions rather than as study models (as most architects do today). Since I had images of the models, and from the correspondence, I was able to pinpoint exact dates when certain models were fabricated during Wright’s lifetime. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to create an illustrated catalogue raisonné of all known models, existing and lost. Since the majority of the 57 models are no longer extant, my book will be the only complete visual record of this aspect of Wright’s architectural production. There are various compendiums of the drawings, but this book fills a gap in the scholarship; no catalog exists of the models made under Wright’s supervision. Of particular note, for example, are the two Guggenheim Museum models (the first one was damaged in transit and then replaced by a new more updated version of the design). Both models were extremely complicated because Wright had created one of his most powerful public rooms and he wanted to communicate the intricacies of the interior space. So he designed the models to come apart in sections. Few people realize that today because the model is normally exhibited as a whole. I have provided several images of each model to illustrate Wright’s original intentions. I think the two appendices will make Wright on Exhibit an important reference book for decades to come. As you see, I created the book to appeal to a broad audience and to serve a variety of purposes. In addition to the archival material, I have written the book in clear, easily accessible prose for scholars and students, but also for readers outside academia who are interested in Wright and/or modern architecture, in general.

You have also written about a selection of Wright’s articles and other publications as well as exhibition planning and installation design. How does that fit in with the subject of your book?

KS: That was another discovery I made that was unanticipated. Really, it was a complete surprise. Writing articles and delivering lectures was a part of the culture of Chicago’s nineteenth century progressive architectural world, which revolved around the Chicago Architectural Club. The primary influence was Louis H. Sullivan, who had been Wright’s employer and mentor. Wright was forged in this milieu; he came away with a sense of purpose that went beyond inventing new forms, experimenting with Machine Age materials, and serving a new social class. He believed he was creating a New World that had existed only in the promise of “virgin” America before European settlement. He called his crusade, “In the Cause of Architecture.” And, indeed, it was a cause; one which he held to until the end of his life. Although there were multiple purposes for his exhibitions, which changed depending on the time and the location, in his mind they were always exercises in realizing the cause, which amounted to realizing a “genuine” American architecture by rejecting European styles. His drawings, models, and photographs were on display to communicate that message to the American people. However, when reviews appeared, he frequently found negative criticism baffling. He often believed that he was being misunderstood; as a result, he turned to writing for clarification. Most of his exhibitions, as a result, had a literary component to them; sometimes, the booklet or periodical reprint was available simultaneously with the exhibition; at other times, there was a lag time of one or more years. On many occasions, the exhibition would be accompanied by one or more public lectures by Wright. So the typical Wright exhibition was a product of the architectural and the literary.

With a total of 124 exhibitions, did Wright actually organize all of them?

KS: No, it is more complicated than that. Due to the fact that he owned all of his drawings and models and had a collection of photographs of his built work, it was necessary that Wright participate as lender for most exhibitions. This proved very problematical with institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art when as the date of the opening drew closer, he began to take over all aspects of the organization such as curating and designing the exhibition. In one instance, at MoMA in 1940-41, the show actually had two titles: the one MoMA advertised and the one Wright gave it! After this experience, MoMA got around the problem in the 1940s by taking advantage of the fact that commercial photographers owned images of Wright’s built work. For instance, MoMA bypassed Wright by staging an exhibition of photographs of Taliesin and Taliesin West by Ezra Stoller. But, yes, for the most part he wanted and maintained a great deal of control. I think it will come as a revelation to most people today already knowing how prolific Wright was as an architect, how productive he was as a writer, when they discover how seamlessly he incorporated exhibition production into his practice for sixty-five years. A case in point: while dedicated to the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in 1959, he was in the midst of planning a touring show of his recent work when he died at the age of ninety-one. This aspect of Wright’s career is virtually unknown, but it is a key part of the history of modern architecture.

Kathryn Smith is an architectural historian who specializes in Frank Lloyd Wright. Her books include Frank Lloyd Wright: American Master; Frank Lloyd Wright, Hollyhock House, and Olive Hill: Buildings and Projects for Aline Barnsdall; and Wright on Exhibit: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architectural Exhibitions. She lives in Santa Monica, California.