Frank Lloyd Wright is the most famous (if not prolific) architect of the modern era. Even the design-illiterate can spout some facts about the preeminent American master: He was a proponent of the Prairie School and “organic architecture”–buildings that were in harmony with their environment, as exemplified by his tour de force, Fallingwater. But here’s something that’s typically left out of the generic historical biography: Wright was also an avid collector of not just Japanese prints (he acknowledged Japan’s influence on his work) but a series of turn-of-the-century German and Austrian prints, long mothballed in the archives of Taliesin West in Arizona. That collection is the focus of Frank Lloyd Wright: Art Collector (University of Texas Press), a new academic treatise by Anthony Alofsin, who speculates that the architect, so American in his democratic ideals, was influenced by the Vienna and Berlin Secessionists.
Wright amassed the prints during a trip through Europe with his lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney in 1909–10. But the journey wasn’t all romance; according to Alofsin, Wright hoped to accomplish three aims: revive his career, which was momentarily flagging; publish his work with the German imprint Wasmuth Verlag; and escape his wife, who refused to grant him a divorce. While in Vienna, Wright met Josef Hoffmann and possibly visited the designer’s Wiener Werstatte showrooms and Kunstschau building, which features the type of ancient motifs that Wright himself later used. And in Austria and Germany, the American picked up prints by 22 artists, eight of which were members of or exhibited with the Vienna Secession, which had already begun to peter out.
In other words, these prints don’t represent the stirrings of Modernism but the tail end of its precursor. As Alofsin writes, “If we compare him to the proponents of modern art, the taste of the forty-three-year-old American appears relatively conservative, and he showed neither awareness nor interest in the emerging avant-garde, particularly expressionists who were exploring graphic media.” Wright instead was drawn to sentimental, pastoral landscapes–and not even the very best examples of their kind. Nevertheless, Alofsin writes, they’re still of value to Wright-philes: “[The] collection provides a unique confirmation that Wright, the champion of a democratic American architecture, had the sensitivity to embrace what he saw as a fresh aesthetic rooted in turn-of-the-century Europe. His artists were at the end of their époque. Wright assimilated into a broader aesthetic sensibility what they represented, and moved on.” Be grateful that he did.
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