Published: April 29, 2003
The Leaded Glass of Frank Lloyd Wright at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery
By W.A. Demers
WASHINGTON, DC – Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), America’s master builder and architect, once lamented about the “beautiful buildings I could build if only it were unnecessary to cut holes in them.” Wright’s leaded glass windows, or “,” as he called them, are dazzling viewers in an exhibit currently on view through July 20 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibit reveals how Wright triumphed, turning necessity into art through his innovative stained glass decorative windows.
“: The Leaded Glass of Frank Lloyd Wright” showcases 48 of the architect’s windows, along with original portfolio plates of his architectural designs. The Renwick Gallery is the last stop for the exhibit, which embarked from New York City’s American Craft Museum in 2001 and traveled to Grand Rapids, Mich., Allentown, Penn., and Newport Beach, Calif.
Among the many events accompanying the exhibition is an illustrated lecture by Richard Guy Wilson, curator, author and chair of the department of architectural history at the University of Virginia, who on Sunday, May 4, at 1 pm, will discuss Wright’s work within a broader historical context.
The exhibition tells the story in three sections, divided chronologically.
The first section, “A Vocabulary of Form, 1885-1899,” spans the formative years in Wright’s career during which he attempted to solve the challenge of how to integrate all of those “necessary holes” into an organic design. What Wright came up with was the Prairie window, which eschewed what he termed the “poetry-crushing guillotine” double hung window in favor of casement designs and bands of strip fenestration.
According to exhibit curator Julie L. Sloan, who stated that “for Wright, the window pattern was not an end in itself,” the architect set about to functionally integrate the window into the architecture. Sloan said, “The fully realized Prairie window would incorporate the vocabulary of rectilinearity, earthen colors and areas through which to see with the functionality of the casement sash and strip fenestration to create an organic whole with the architecture.”
“A Language of Pattern, 1900-1910,” explores how Wright employed his new vocabulary of straight lines, earthen colors and clear glass into a complex language of striking geometric forms such as rhombuses, chevrons and diamonds. The 1902-04 Susan Lawrence Dana House in Springfield, Ill., is a prime example of Wright’s developing virtuosity with leaded glass. With more than 250 windows, the house museum is a showcase of variety, complexity and color, with window designs representing prairie butterflies and sumac trees and green or amber iridescent chevrons shimmering throughout the dining room, library, living room, master bedroom and receiving room.
A prototype window from the Dana house commission displayed in the exhibit, which features clear, cathedral and iridized glass fitted together with brass cames, shows how the chevron pattern was used to form the green and gold “sumac” design. Also in this section of the exhibit, a photograph of the living room of the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Mich., 1908, reveals that toward the end of the decade, Wright was fully integrating the inside and outside of his architecture with window designs that soared from clerestories to skylights. Houses built for Darwin D. Martin in 1904-1905 in Buffalo, N.Y., and for Frederick Robie in 1909 in Chicago similarly exemplify Wright’s growing mastery with leaded glass.
The third and final section of the exhibition, “A New Poetics, 1911-1923,” examines how Wright’s exposure to modernist influences in architecture during a trip to Europe in 1909-1910 set him off in a new direction. From the Avery Coonley Playhouse in Riverside, Ill., four “balloon confetti” windows in clear and flashed glass show Wright at his most playful and innovative. Wright called the project a “kinder-symphony,” and the design incorporates images of balloons, American flags and confetti, done in bold, brilliant reds, blues, greens, yellows and black.
From the Chicago house of Emil Bach, co-owner of the Bach Brick Company and a great admirer of Wright’s, a newly discovered window in clear and flashed glass, on loan from Faigie and Allan Waisman, similarly delineates Wright’s later abstract syncopation.
The exhibition is accompanied by two books written by Sloan and published by Rizzoli International Publications: : The Leaded Glass of Frank Lloyd Wright (softcover, $24.95/ hardcover,$39.95), a 160-page exhibition catalog with 192 color illustrations; and : The Complete Leaded Glass Windows of Frank Lloyd Wright (hardcover, $175), a detailed documentation and appraisal of Wright’s more than 500 window designs. The book includes a detailed technical history of Wright’s leaded glass production from the 1890s to the 1920s.
The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum is on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW. Museum hours are from 10 am to 5:30 pm daily. Admission is free. For information, 202-357-2700 or www.americanart.si.edu.
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