This year marks a whopping 150 years since the birth of world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
As institutions across the United States host specials exhibitions and events to mark the occasion, the Milwaukee Art Museum has particular reason to celebrate: although Wright has come to represent Midwestern and American architecture at large, he was born and spent much of his life in our own beloved state of Wisconsin.
Wright’s first home was the small farming community of Richland Center, Wisconsin, where he was born in 1867. Wright also spent most of his childhood in Wisconsin (his family relocated briefly to Massachusetts when he was nine), and he attended both high school and college in Madison.
Wright left Wisconsin after college, jumpstarting his career as an apprentice for modern architect Louis Sullivan (American, 1856–1924) in Chicago, completing commissions throughout the United States, and even making an extended trip to Europe.
He ultimately returned home to Wisconsin in 1910 to build Taliesin, a sprawling 800-acre estate that became home, studio, and school for Wright, his family, and his students. Taliesin is a particularly significant project within the architect’s long career. It is often considered to be the most profound realization of Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture, which called for cohesive unity between buildings’ landscape, structure, and interior design.
The Milwaukee Art Museum has long been committed to preserving Wright’s legacy through exhibitions and acquisitions, and this year the Museum honors Wright’s 150th birthday with both. The exhibition on-view in the Museums’s Bradley Family Gallery through October 15, 2017 explores the early part of his career.
At the heart of the exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: Buildings for the Prairie is a very special publication known as the Wasmuth Portfolio, which the Museum acquired in 2014 through the generous support of the Demmer Charitable Trust. Wright prepared this set of 100 lithographs and accompanying monograph while living in Florence, Italy (having fled the United States in 1909 after a professional dry spell, not to mention a scandalous affair with a former client). Published in 1911, the portfolio was originally titled in German as Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright, but came to be known by the name of its Berlin-based publisher Ernst Wasmuth.
The portfolio’s lithographs fastidiously depict Wright’s work from the first period of his career—defined by the development of his Prairie Style. This approach drew inspiration from the famously flat landscape of the Midwestern United States, and is defined by strong horizontality, sloping roofs, and elaborate-yet-subtle ornamentation. Wright was not the only American architect working in this way at the time, but he is certainly the best remembered for it. And in this regard the Wasmuth Portfolio is especially significant, because it introduced European architects to Wright’s Prairie Style homes—and thus propelled him to international recognition.
This opportunity to view the Wasmuth Portfolio is special for reasons that extend beyond its historical significance. Wright’s insistence on printing some of the portfolio in gold ink meant that its publisher could only afford to produce a relatively small number of them. This initial financial limitation, combined with the subsequent loss of many sets of the portfolio in a 1914 fire at Taliesin, means that the Milwaukee Art Museum’s copy of the Wasmuth Portfolio is quite rare. Additionally, as works on paper, these lithographs are highly sensitive to light, and so in order to prevent them from fading they can only be exhibited for limited periods of time with years of rest in-between.
Visitors to the exhibition will get to see the portfolio’s images come to life in a particularly unique way, accompanied by examples of furniture, stained glass, and textiles that Wright and others designed specifically to fill his Prairie Style buildings. Wright’s vision of organic architecture dictated that a building be decorated and furnished in harmonious accordance with its overall structure and setting. Often, this was expressed through the repetition of certain forms throughout a home. For this reason, touring a Wright house today can feel a bit like a game of “I Spy,” as you notice similar forms appearing and re-appearing on staircases, furniture, and windows.
Along these same lines, our exhibition offers the chance to discover relationships between Wright’s different projects, as windows, lamps, chairs, and other objects together reveal the architect’s repeated use of simple geometric patterns that allude to natural forms. For instance, in the “Tree of Life” window from the Darwin D. Martin House (Buffalo, New York, 1904), thin rectangles topped by densely stacked arrows can be said to form a row of narrow trees.
Check back soon for Part Two of this blog post, which will introduce the Milwaukee Art Museum’s newly acquired Usonian Exhibition House Dining Chair, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1953. And make sure you see Frank Lloyd Wright: Buildings for the Prairie on view in the Bradley Family Galleries now through October 15, 2017.
Hannah Pivo was Curatorial Assistant for Design. She worked on acquisitions, gallery rotations, and exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century ceramics, glass, textile, graphics, industrial design, and more.