There’s a lot happening on Museum Mile these days. Among many highlights, the Met just opened their new American Wing, with a cascade of period rooms and galleries of decorative and functional objects orbiting around the huge Charles Engelhard Court, an atrium showcasing sculpture and stained glass. And up the street, the Guggenheim is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an overview of work by its dad, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).
At first glance, the two seemed only tangentially related, tied by opening date and only the broadest of tags. The Met’s new American atrium holds some familiar sculpture and stained glass, but the sparse installation also served as a reminder of how Euro-centric the museum’s holdings are. The many cases of household items—pewter, porcelain, silver—are now sandwiched in a relatively glamourous mezzanine between the court and Central Park.
A tour (starting with the spiffy new glass elevator—Morgan Library, take that!) through the largely revamped period rooms shows just how young this country still is, or how little the past century’s industrial design has emanated from the US. (Or how little is has been valued by collectors and curators, in any case.) The earliest room, from the 1680s, feels cave-like, and the furniture is tiny in scale, especially compared to the giant maw of the fireplace. The 20 rooms ascend chronologically as you descend, culminating in Frank Lloyd Wright’s room.
Coincidentally, that was the final room I took in at the Met, and though I’d seen it before, it was an epiphany. Maybe it was the predominantly colonial style that preceded it, which is so reminiscent of certain aspirations of America that have always seemed so unduly sentimental. But the space in Wright’s room, the light, the proportions all sang loudly, in harmony, about modernism’s ideals. Feeling duly transported into the 20th century, and somehow part of a master plan, I floated up Fifth Avenue to Wright’s cupcake of a building that housed Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward (through August 23).
As long as there have been art exhibitions in the Guggenheim, there have been debates over whether Wright was being intentionally antagonistic toward visual art, or simply would never allow his own design to be upstaged by less essential, more frivolous art. This retrospective—organized by a laureled team from the Guggenheim and the Wright Archives—gives Wright a taste of his own medicine. In order to be legible, his graphite renderings are exhibited in oddly-angled freestanding vitrines that line the ramp. Models (several are new) punctuate the walkway; a large, brightly colored curtain illustrates his keen eye for form and color.
Many of his unrealized projects are featured—a planetarium, resorts, several projects for Baghdad. They show how fine a line there can be between genius and madness, utopia and fascism. He understood precisely how the built environment could affect its inhabitants, but left little (if any) room for negotiation. When you inhabit his designs, you realize how right he could be. And when you look at art in the Guggenheim, you wonder what possibly nefarious motives drove him. In any case, it is precisely as he wished.
Image: Hillside Theatre #2, Taliesin II,I Spring Green, Wisconsin, 1952. Photograph by David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York