Friday, January 22, 2010

Unseen Art Glass

By EJF, Art Glass Groupie 

With the publication of our new book Frank Lloyd Wright Art Glass of the Martin House Complex (Pomegranate, 2009), as well as previous documentation of Wright's art glass such as Julie Sloan's Light Screens (Rizzoli, 2001), it starts to feel as though "it's all been done" - as though every one of the nearly four hundred pieces of art glass from the Martin House Complex has been well-documented and interpreted.

Well, guess again.

Whereas every window, door, cabinet door, skylight and laylight in the Martin and Barton houses is documented via original example, photograph or drawing (or some combination thereof), the ill-fated conservatory and carriage house still harbor some secrets.  We believe that there are various pieces of art glass from these once-demolished buildings that are not documented in any form.  Thus, there will be a degree of guess-work in establishing their pattern in order to reproduce these pieces.  Some examples include:  The three-part window in the east arm of the conservatory "crossing," facing the Barton House, the two-part windows in the north bay, flanking the cast of Nike, and a series of six narrow windows on the second floor of the carriage house, facing east (in the bathroom and above the stairwell).

With the well-known consistency of the art glass pattern in these two buildings - variations on a single, signature pattern for each - there's little doubt that the mysterious windows do not represent a totally new pattern.  Rather, they must be variations of the typical pattern for the building in question.  But this supposition only takes us part way.  The guesswork is in determining how the conservatory or carriage patterns might have been divided to fit the undocumented openings.  In the case of the conservatory art glass, with its somewhat more pictorial floral motif, it's a question of just how many "flowers" fit a particular width of window - or, in the case the narrowest examples on the east, whether they would accommodate even a single stem.

In 2008, Canisius College intern Katie Brobeil pursued the exercise of mocking-up possible solutions to some of these art glass mysteries.  Using the known patterns and dimensions, she extrapolated various options for the unknown window patterns and represented them via Photoshop.  Below are the two options she presented for the series of narrow carriage house windows, shown singly and in series:
Ultimately, it's a question of how the implied continuity of these patterns played-out across these odd-sized openings.  In the parlance of traditional pictorial composition, are the colored squares in the carriage house pattern to be viewed as "figure" or "ground?"  Or does an attempt to apply such terms to these compositions only muddle our understanding of their lost progeny? 

At the end of the day, this decision may come down to some meditation on how Wright deals with other, documented examples of similar windows in series, and which version "feels" right (or "Wright") in the context of the dazzling array of Martin House art glass.

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