Architecture on Exhibit

Frank Lloyd Wright's windows are touched with his fascinating modernity

To declare Frank Lloyd Wright a great architect is to overstate the obvious -- sort of like saying Catherine Deneuve is a great beauty (and actress) or Mikhail Baryshnikov a great dancer or Shakespeare a great writer. How, then, do we approach one of the most famous, occasionally controversial, architects of the 20th Century?

As an artist, of course.

Wright was born in Wisconsin in 1867 and died in New York in 1959 while finishing his astonishing Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Along the way, he went from being an architect to being the American architect of his time. He designed not just houses but also their furnishings, all executed with an immaculate eye for detail.

There are 750 pieces of glass in the deceptively simple design of Tree of Life
There are 750 pieces of glass in the deceptively simple design of Tree of Life

Details

On display through November 9. Call 561-392-2500.
Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Mizner Park, Boca Raton

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While it may be impossible to take one of Wright's classic houses on the road, the Boca Raton Museum of Art has what may be the next best thing: a show called "Frank Lloyd Wright: Windows of the Darwin D. Martin House."This small but deeply satisfying exhibition includes 40 or so of the original art-glass windows Wright designed for the Martin house, along with several drawings and site plans Wright did in connection with the project and some photographs of the house and the outbuildings linked to it. (A few reproductions of damaged windows are included, all labeled as such.)

The Boca show treats the windows with the respect they deserve. This marks the first time I've seen the museum clear all the dividing walls from its central first-floor galleries, leaving a substantial space for the glass to be displayed. And rather than display the windows in a random or arbitrary way, the exhibition is set up as a sort of cross section of the Martin house (which is in Buffalo, New York), with the windows displayed at the same height and in the same proximity to one another as they were in the house. Walking through these fragments from the house, you can imagine what surrounded them.

Work on the Martin house, which is now a National Historic Landmark, began in 1903 and was completed in 1906, and the result was a triumphant example of what came to be called Wright's Prairie Houses. For the first time in his young career, the architect created not just a single house but a complex of two houses, linked by way of an outdoor passageway to a conservatory and a garage/stable.

Sadly, most of the original structures have been destroyed and replaced by apartment buildings. On the brighter side, the main house is currently undergoing a $23 million renovation, and eventually the windows in this show will rejoin other windows -- there were originally 362 in the complex -- in their original restored places.

As for the windows themselves, they're simple but intricately worked-out designs that draw on geometric forms and a subtle range of mostly earthy colors. Among them is the Tree of Life window, one of Wright's most famous works, a deceptively simple set of symmetrical shapes. It's only when you get close to the panel that you appreciate the attention to detail in the tiniest of the 750 individual pieces of glass that make up the window.

If the dim lighting makes you wonder if the museum is stingy with electricity, consider that Wright much admired the soft half-light of Japanese interiors. And for a dramatic illustration of how even the subtlest changes in light levels can make a huge difference in stained leaded glass, check out the interactive exhibit that lets you adjust both the interior and exterior lighting as it might hit the window at various times of the day. The variations are nothing short of amazing.


An apt companion exhibition to the Wright show is "Surroundings: Elements of Landscape by Warner Friedman," which is off the main lobby in the gallery that sometimes doubles as an auditorium. It's not the Boca Museum's friendliest space for art, but Friedman's dozen or so large canvases, all in acrylic, are so arresting, it doesn't matter.

Friedman combines irregularly shaped canvases with a sort of trompe l'oeilstyle that puts the viewer in the position of looking at landscapes through architectural fragments. I'm Watching the Sea, for instance, uses a section of a lifeguard tower as a framing device so that we're able to look through its open spaces to the stretch of rocky beach beyond.

Other pieces put us at railings that provide views of the landscapes beyond: a meadow, a field with mountains in the distance, a stretch of ocean, a beach. The illusion is further enhanced by the way Friedman captures the play of light and shadows on these architectural details.

Perhaps the most mesmerizing of these serene paintings is Inside Out, which creates the illusion of a 90-degree angle in the corner of a porch. To the right is a rich verdant landscape, with shrubs near the house opening to stretches of meadow that in turn give way to woodlands and mountains beneath a cloudy sky. To the left, in stark contrast, we see past a doorway in the white clapboard wall into a room. An old-fashioned upright piano can be glimpsed along one wall, and there's another doorway leading to a room we can only guess at.

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