When he was building the Museum of Non-Objective Painting for Solomon Guggenheim, Frank Lloyd Wright’s private little chuckle was to spend earnings from his commission on traditional Japanese art. From his first trip to Japan in 1905 and for the rest of his life, Wright collected prints, paintings, and textiles, and from 1910 to 1922 he was America’s foremost dealer. Working at the Met twenty years ago, Julia Meech, curator of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan: The Architect’s Other Passion, noted that a certain “F. L. Wright” was the source of 400 woodblock prints. Today, she calculates that Wright sold some $300,000 worth of ukiyo-e prints at a time when his 10 percent commission on, for example, the Henry Allen house of 1918 yielded only $2,700. At the Japan Society Gallery, she exhibits prints, textiles, and paintings that passed through his hands, including two darkly vaporous seventeenth-century paintings acquired by Wright during the Guggenheim years.
Dealing amounted to more than a second career that kept him afloat during lean times. There’s an intimacy about this show, a kind of obsessive love confirmed by Wright’s words cited at the beginning: “It is no secret that prints choose whom they love and there is then no salvation but surrender.” This art seeped into the architect’s subconscious, fueling his design sensibility like aesthetic oxygen: We’re wandering here in Wright’s mind.
In Meech’s accompanying book, Curtis Besinger, a former Taliesin fellow, says the prints, which reach out into the space beyond their margins, taught that a house can extend past its own boundaries and site. Wright transformed his cherished prints into another form of the sublime, regularly producing such stunning visions as the Imperial Hotel, among the lesser-known buildings he did in Japan (the chromatic and geometric complexity of a study for one hotel mural shows that Wright didn’t need to drop acid). The artifacts that reveal the most about the Asia of Wright’s imagination are photos of his Wisconsin home, where he arrayed textiles, screens, Buddhas, and Chinese rugs in a brilliant collage. They are integral to the architecture. This intelligent, focused show frames its subject tightly, weaving all the parts into a visual tapestry that is surprisingly whole. Surrender to the beauty.