Are you hungry for some meaty text on art?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Collecting on a Dime...

so to speak. That’s what the Vogels did. They were hoarders in a way. But instead of a snarl of clothes, broken-down household items, out-grown toys and cast-off fast food containers, the Vogels hoarded art. Beginning in the 1960s the Vogels acquired over 4,000 works (paintings, drawings, sculptures) by mostly Minimalist and Conceptual artists ( Sol LeWit, Donald Judd, Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Lynda Benglis, to name a few). The collection, much of which was literally kept under wraps, was crammed into the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment they shared with turtles, fish and a cat named Archie.

The Vogels are considered among the most important art collectors of the 20th century. Certainly they are it’s most unusual: an unassuming couple: Herb was a postal worker, Dorothy a librarian. Self-taught, they collected what Chuck Close called “the most unlikable, the most difficult art.” And the best thing is they did it all on a shoestring.

To be fair, the Vogels, did rely on a certain amount of creative financing, particularly when buying more established artists’ work. As the Vogels’ stature as collectors rose, artists naturally wanted to be part of their collection and so cut deals or arranged barters. For instance, the Vogels accepted a collage in exchange for taking care of Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s cat while they were away building Valley Curtain in Colorado.

I love the Vogels because they are obsessed and passionate and they show that challenging art is indeed accessible if you are willing to put in the time to develop an appreciation of it. Decidedly un-chic they went about the business of collecting in a quiet, modest way and managed to show up other pretentious poseurs. By the time I encountered them in New York in the early '80s they were well-known bellwethers, watched like hawks for what emerging artists caught their fancy.

The Vogels were not speculators, "buy what you love" was their motto, and they never sold anything to improve their humble lifestyle. They began working with the National Gallery in the early '90s and In an act of mostly selfless largesse, ended up giving their entire collection to it (832 works were donated outright; 268 were promised gifts; in 2008, 2,500 were distributed throughout the nation, with fifty works going to a selected art institution in each of the fifty states http://vogel5050.org/) in a combination of partial purchase and gift because as Dorothy has said, the collection was “built on the generosity of artists.”

The Vogels are the subject of the documentary, Herb and Dorothy (2008) by Megumi Sasaki.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Abby Kasonik

Abby Kasonik is a calm, centered presence. You get the sense she’s one of those people who’s always had a clear vision of what she wants out of life. Kasonik lives with her boyfriend (antiques dealer, Roderick Coles owner of The Curious Orange Shop) in the charming house she bought when she moved back to the Charlottesville area after college. 

Abby Kasonik is a calm, centered presence. You get the sense she’s one of those people who’s always had a clear vision of what she wants out of life. Kasonik lives with her boyfriend (antiques dealer, Roderick Coles owner of The Curious Orange Shop) in the charming house she bought when she moved back to the Charlottesville area after college. It’s a chic setting with an unpretentious elegance that suits both the architecture and its owner.

The common theme is clouds in a sky that takes up most of the picture’s real estate. This low horizon line emphasizes the infinity of space and engenders a sense of contemplative peace. It is so exaggerated that it keeps the paintings from being mere derivative iterations of traditional landscape,
though there are certainly elements that remind you of van Ruisdael and Turner.

Another unifying element is the rivulets of water Kasonik overlays on the paint. My first impression was rain on a window and thought of being on a train passing through countryside. But the rivulets perform a more important role than evoking precipitation; their real purpose is to keep the work contemporary; to remind you these are not your garden-variety landscape (Kasonik dislikes the classification) paintings. Indeed the “landscapes” aren’t literal; they’re mystical, dreamlike vignettes of the inner topography of the artist’s imagination.

It is telling that Kasonik studied sculpture at VCU as the paintings are so textural with surfaces composed of so many layers they almost appear three-dimensional. Fresh out of college, Kasonik worked as a furniture restorer using faux finishing techniques to disguise mars and says that she found inspiration in the aged patinas she came in contact with.

Kasonik’s process is laborious. She builds up her surfaces with alternating layers of acrylic paint and a glaze of clear pigment. In between layers she uses water almost like an eraser to help form clouds, trees, land mass, etc. When she’s satisfied with the image, she takes a squirt bottle and sprays water in a pattern of even lines that run down the panel before sealing it within the glaze coat. She repeats these steps through many, many layers. The results are luscious. Both surface and depth are emphasized; the image remains intact and smooth behind a watery undulating curtain of line.

Kasonik says she wants to achieve the effect of hard candy, which has a shiny exterior but is translucent so you can see into its depths. Like the candy she references, her work is beautiful but it has a psychological weight that takes it beyond mere beauty and makes it so very satisfying.

High Art/Low Art

I couldn’t sleep last night and for some reason thought again about the amazing sand animation portraying life during the USSR’s Great Patriotic War against the Third Reich in World War ll (in which it's estimated that 20 -30 million soldiers and civilians died) Ukrainian sand artist, Kseniya Simonova that went viral on the Internet last year. If you missed it, it's worth a look:


It really got me thinking about High Art vs. Low Art because it is so appealing, beautiful to watch and very moving. It shares some compelling similarities with William Kentridge (chronicling potent episodes of human suffering, whether through political oppression or war with graphic images that shift from one to another by “erasing” and “re-drawing.” Granted Kentridge is really drawing and erasing, while Simonova is moving sand around—with incredible control I might add. And lastly, both artists use powerful musical scores to add dramatic effect.) Yet, I hesitate to put them in the same league. There’s something undeniably Vegas about Simonova’s work. First of all the setting, Ukraine’s Got Talent screams show biz, and Simonova is almost too perfect: show girl-gorgeous with a dancer’s grace.

Though she manipulates it masterfully, the medium is undeniably gimmicky in a David Copperfield, sleight of hand kind of way. A quick survey on the Internet shows that there are other (less comely) sand animators out there and though it looks hard, Simonova only took sand animation up a year before the video was shot. Meanwhile, Kentridge has been practicing his oeuvre for years. His pieces are much more labor intensive, requiring hundreds of drawings and stop-and-go animation. While he works, he is making countless artistic decisions; Simonova’s work is more about chance. At the end of the day, Kentridge has something to show for all his effort whereas Simonova’s work is completely ephemeral. True, videos exist, but they aren’t part of the piece, just a means to record it. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, much of conceptual/performance art is ephemeral, but Simonova’s goals seem different from those artists.

That said, I love to see Simonova at work, watching her fingers tease recognizable objects out of the sand (not so unlike Bob Moss, who I’ve always found somewhat irresistible) and I admire her dramatic flair when at the climax she throws sand across the light board to evoke exploding bombs. One only has to see the audience’s reaction to grasp how effective Simonova is.

And as for Ukraine's Got Talent? Not surprisingly. she won.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


When mentioning memorable noses in art in my review of Megan Marlatt’s show, I completely overlooked Piero della Francesca’s portrait of the Duke of Urbino (c. 1472). Talk about nasal character! And character in general, since the story goes that the duke, who had many enemies and was blind in one eye, had the bridge of his nose removed, in theory, to improve the peripheral vision on his blind side. I can’t imagine the surgery would have worked, but years before any real anesthesia, it must have hurt like a mofo.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Toys and Tondos

I went to the Athenaeum in Alexandria, Virginia this week to see Megan Marlatt’s show, Molded from Complicated Mixtures, which includes her tondos of various cartoon characters, and drawings and large-scale paintings of toys.

You can tell from looking at the work that Marlatt has a really good time making it. There’s a joyful exuberance that shines forth from each piece. Painted in oil in an Old Master style and using a shape usually reserved for religious paintings, the tondos of Olive Oyl, Pinocchio, Captain Hook and others are both spare and rich, funny and serious. Though her tongue is firmly planted in her cheek, Marlatt knows when to pull back. Her images never devolve into the overly cute level of dogs playing poker in the back room. Part of this is her restraint, part of it the beauty with which they are rendered and part is because there’s frankly, something a little creepy about the vintage puppets with their just a-tad-too-jovial expressions she uses as subjects. Marlatt is well aware of this and uses it to her best advantage.

As far as I’m concerned there are two real stars of the show. Portrait of Pinocchio is one. There’s something about the position of the figure, the palette and the retro lighting that makes this painting so very appealing. Though it has already grown a bit, Pinocchio's nose looks twitching and ready to shoot out some more. (It's a nose that vies with Ghirlandaio’s for most nasal character in a painting.) Coupled with the mirth in Pinocchio’s eyes, these two features convey perfectly the mischievousness of this most famous junior prevaricator.

I also love the three-quarter view Portrait of Ms. Oyl. Again, the lighting and palette are superb. The sitter’s position is what gets me. It recalls the glamorous studio portraits by say a Horst of some starlet or other. Here, this “glamour shot” perspective adds a poignancy to Olive Oyl’s image because she’s such an ugly duckling, clearly doesn’t know it and is reveling in her movie star moment.

Special mention must go to the Portrait of Ms. Oyl as a Rembrandt, which Marlatt said was inspired by a real Rembrandt of a woman who resembled Olive Oyl. It was perhaps natural for Marlatt to take the work to this point and she almost goes too far into the poker playing dog realm. What saves it is the incredible Rembrandt-like virtuoso painting of the ruff and the laugh-out-loud bulbous shadow of Olive Oly’s nose falling upon it.

Marlatt has been painting mounds of toys for several years now. They are fun to collect, fun to arrange and fun to paint. Large assemblages are both visually interesting but also offer so many opportunities to flex one’s artistic muscles painting soft and hard, shiny and dull, masculine/feminine, animal/machine and so on. Plus there’s the eye-popping color that comes with the territory. (Marlatt uses acrylic in addition to oil paint because she simply can't reproduce the toy's colors with oil alone.)

But fun aside, by focusing on toys Marlatt forces the viewer to confront other issues. The jumble she paints seems to reference the chaos in our personal over-stimulated lives as well as the larger conflict-ridden world. The junk heap of cast-off toys points to our consumer culture where endless giant container ships arrive bearing fodder for the yawning shelves of Walmart and Toys R Us. The toys are both ephemeral and permanent. Interest in them is short lived—the child grows up and moves on, yet the toys are made from materials that will never degrade, ensuring we’ll be stuck with them for eternity.

My favorite is Orange Slinky whose luscious DayGlo slinky of the title commands front and center attention. There’s so much here to look at and enjoy in the busy snarl of toys at the bottom of the painting. A riot of color and form, it’s tempered by a refreshingly empty background. But empty is not boring and here the layers of hue that produce the shimmering pink and the prominent brushstrokes create a stand alone authority that holds its own against the more clamorous toys.

Marlatt’s work is so satisfying on so many levels. A storyteller, art is her medium and her passion. Though her work is not as overtly political as some, she is concerned about the human condition and the current state of the world. She confronts these issues gracefully with beautifully painted images that are rich in humor and metaphor.

Good news for all you locals: Megan Marlatt will be showing this body of work at Les Yeux du Monde in January, 2011.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sally Mann: The Flesh and the Spirit

More than just an exhibition of sublime photographs, Sally Mann’s The Flesh and the Spirit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts also reveals the measure of the remarkable person behind the extraordinary images and the courage and conviction with which she operates. 

Mann burst on the scene in the ‘80s with her achingly beautiful, honest, yet provocative portraits of her children. The VMFA show includes some of these early images, but focuses primarily on her new work. Mortality is the underlying theme. It’s a natural subject for someone passing the half-century mark and it has particular resonance for Mann given her husband’s diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. 

She turns her lens unflinchingly on him, recording his once vital body now showing the ravages of the disease that will eventually kill him. They are elegiac images, thrumming with the sexual pull between sitter and artist. Shot by a female these beautiful nudes aren’t prurient but stand as Mann’s unsentimental, yet poignant love letter to her husband and their conjugal bond. Further exploring the theme of mortality, Mann also turns the camera on herself recording her neck, chest and face without vanity and unflatteringly (in real life Mann is a striking woman) capturing wrinkles, bags and blemishes that are the souvenirs of advancing age. These are powerful works. Indeed, the opening piece, a series of self-portraits on glass got my “best in show” award.

A number of years ago, an escaped convict was shot and killed by the police on the Manns’ farm. After his body was taken away, Mann went to the spot where he died and found a “chocolate syrup-like” pool of congealing blood. She reached out to touch it—if there’s one thing Mann isn’t, it’s squeamish—the blood seemed to retract away from her hand as if “the earth took a sip.” 

It got her thinking about those places where thousands have died. And so she set up a darkroom in the back of her Suburban and began to travel around the south shooting Civil War battlegrounds. She decided to employ the wet plate collodion process used between the 1850s and 1880s (so what contemporary CIvil War photographers would have used). The process is both arcane and challenging involving cumbersome equipment and various toxic chemicals. 

Photographing outside means the work is always subject to conditions (wind, dust, a falling leaf or twig) beyond Mann’s control. She welcomes these serendipitous incursions which bring visual interest to the work. In some prints the image is pitted by flecks of light, created by dust motes on the print, others have ripples radiating across them from how the chemicals were applied and in still others the image seems eaten away. 

Mann is interested in capturing the unseen spirit of the place and producing grave images that seem to whisper of the enormity of what occurred there. The process requires a long exposure time (six minutes), which means many things can happen to affect the outcome. It also means that with living subjects, you get those penetrating stares of sitters who must remain still for the exposure’s duration, or blurry effects if they happen to move. In the excellent documentary, What Remains, on view at the end of the exhibition, we see Mann pose with glazed eyes for a self-portrait straining not to blink. She describes the sensation of posing like this as being almost in a state of beatification.

The large format wet plate collodion photographs of her children are haunting. Especially placed in a room adjacent to the one containing her early color photographs of the (much younger) children gamboling in the river by the Manns' cabin. Looking at these closely cropped head shots with their corroded looking surfaces, one immediately thinks of death and decay, certainly unsettling given the children’s youth and beauty and the fact that their mother took the pictures. But "unsettling" adds weight and interest and the approach is in keeping with Mann’s exploration of mortality. 

Given Mann’s flintiness it was perhaps natural that she would move beyond this metaphoric treatment to the very extreme tactic of photographing real decomposing corpses at the University of Tennessee “body farm”. These photographs are not for the faint of heart. Hard as they are to look at, you have to admire Mann for looking death straight in the eye.

Watching What Remains which chronicles Mann’s working process and her near-perfect life in rural Virginia, I was struck by what a contrast this full-color, unedited world is from the restrained and plaintive one Mann creates. It’s a wonderfully revealing portrait of an artist with many scenes that expose Mann’s character and mettle. She is likable, articulate and down to earth, an ordinary woman making extraordinary art. 

One vignette stood out for me. Mann is taking one of the affecting photographs of her husband that are at the beginning of the show. In the real life scene captured on film, the gravitas of the resulting print is completely absent. It’s a funny scene. They’re in the bathroom; he’s wrapped a navy blue towel around his waist that keeps revealing a little too much as he bends to clip his toenails. She wants their Greyhound in the picture. They joke around as she smears bacon grease on her husband's leg for the dog to lick. She makes sure the stitches closing a large wound on the dog's flank are visible. Filmed in color it’s such an unexceptional, even banal scene of the easy interaction between a long-married couple. But in her hands it will be transformed into a profoundly moving image far removed from the everyday circumstances of its creation.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Well it happened again, I’m at a party minding my ps and qs and some man (it’s always a man) hearing what I do, decides it’s his role, in a supercilious and patronizing way, to disabuse me of my illusions and set me straight about how bogus Abstract Expressionism and/or Contemporary Art is. All I can say is I’m tired of it. Note to these individuals, who consider themselves so knowledgeable about art, even though they’re usually not even in a field remotely artistic: just because you have eyes in your head and can see, doesn’t make you equipped to pass judgment. It’s an insult to those who have spent years (in my case about 45) putting in the work, honing their eyes. Don’t get me wrong, there is much that is popular these days in Contemporary Art that I do think is bogus, but it takes someone who's developed real expertise to separate the wheat from the chaff. To dismiss all Modern and Contemporary Art out of hand is silly and lazy. I firmly believe Modern and Contemporary Art are something that are accessible to anyone who is willing to put in the time. They're languages that like any language must be studied to be understood.

Holding fast to artistic principles developed in the Renaissance is incredibly out of touch. I want art that reflects the issues and times in which it was created and that speaks to the human experience in an immediate and profound way. I think Jackson Pollack said it best in defense of his work (I’ll paraphrase): “You can’t use the language of the Renaissance to describe a world in which nuclear weapons exist.”

As an art historian, I love many periods of art, but I don’t want my contemporaries regurgitating old ideas. Developing artistic skills is the easy part. What’s hard is developing the imagination. If all you’re doing is aping what came before, than you’re not doing that much and your output will be pretty soulless. Soon you end up with Thomas Kincade or Arthur Ashe’s statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Schlock, schlock, shlock.

Years ago there was an essay in the New York Times by Tom Wolfe that made my blood boil. Now, I have a lot of respect for Tom Wolfe, but for him to step outside his area of expertise and wax eloquent on what’s wrong with Contemporary Art struck me as so arrogant. His essay focused on his sculptor friend, Frederick Hart, known for the creation series on the west façade of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Hart is undeniably a skilled technician and his work is well suited for this traditional ecclesiastical setting. However, Hart also made the representational statue that a Vietnam veterans group, unhappy with Maya Lin’s sublime Contemporary memorial, demanded. You know what Tom? NOBODY (and we're talking a broad segment of the population, not just the "art elite" you vilify) visits that statue; they all go to Lin’s monument because at the end of the day it’s about emotion and concept and not some antiquated Iwo Jima memorial wannabe that is leaden, hollow, out-of-date and just plain icky.

So my suggestion to those folks who think Rothko is a rip off or that their three-year old could easily recreate a Pollack: button your lip and before you buttonhole me, start looking at the work and I mean really looking. Then, we’ll talk.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

New York

I had two writing assignments in New York. One was to interview an art personage for a profile and the second (not actually in New York, but New Canaan) was a profile of Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which actually consists of a campus, if you will, of The Glass house and 13 other structures. I picked Jack Tilton for my profile. He's been at the forefront of the Contemporary Art market for over 30 years and is an old family friend. I met with him as soon as I got off the train, so my art week started off with a bang.

I got up early the next morning to head over to the Metropolitan Museum to get in the Big Bambú line when it started to form at 8:00 am fortifying myself with Dean & Delucca coffee and bran muffin. I had another bonding experience with the woman in line behind me as I waited for Tim to join me. By the time the museum opened and we got our BB tickets we only had to wait another 30 minutes before going up. While nothing can compare to that first visit it was still exhilarating being up on Big Bambú. It’s much bigger than it was and were able to go quite high up (150+' from street level). There were three of the band of climbers already working on its dismantlement; they gave off that boarder (surfer/snowboarder/skater) vibe. I loved seeing all the “improvements” they’d made: a bona fide recliner made out of woven ropes, hollow bamboo stalk cup holders, coolers and a monster all-weather boom box were lashed into the bamboo at points. It had a party on. frat house/surf shack air about it and you realized how much fun they must have had creating the piece. My only regret is that I dint go into the park and look at it from the ground (you can’t see it from the front of the museum.

From the Met we made our way to the Abstract Expressionist show at MoMA. I found it disappointing for several reasons. First, it was packed, always distracting. It also seemed choppy perhaps because it’s displayed on three floors off to the side in what seemed like second tier galleries. It didn’t flow well; when you finished one floor you had to go out into the crowded hallway to the escalator and then wend your way back into the galleries down below—a jarring and confusing experience. There was only one small Helen Frankenthaler, but two large Lee Krasners, no Morris Louis, nor Kenneth Noland, which I thought was peculiar.

Day three I went to the Drawing Center to see the incomparable Gerhard Richter’s drawings at one of the last Soho art bastions, The Drawing Center. (See separate post). Afterwards, I went uptown to the Asia Society to see the Yoshitomo Nara exhibition lured there by the giant sculpture in the Park Avenue median, hough I’m not a huge Japanese anime fan. I tried to like them and was intrigued by the Japanese concept of "creepy-cute" that Nara seems to explore ad nauseum, but I came away thinking they were really just too decorative and superficial for my taste.

Next stop was the Museum of the City of New York to see their show: Notable & Notorious: 20th Century Women of Style. I’m a sucker for costume shows. This was a modest effort as compared to those Diana Vreeland extravaganzas of yore, but fun nonetheless. My favorite moment occurred when I was next to a group of women in front of a Tina Chow dress and overheard one say to the others in a thick “New Yawk” accent: "She used to come into Hermès...she was nothing to look at.

The next morning I went to the “Why Design Now?” show at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. It's a must-see show. I was totally blown away by the inventiveness and the problem solving accomplished (in most cases) with such simplicity and panache. The show reveals a parallel universe to the one occupied by Climate Change naysayers David Koch and the tea party where actually innovative (and hello, David) money-making solutions are put forth. From the beautiful and efficient water-powered H2Otel in Amsterdam, to a bionic arm, to an incubator made from recycled car parts to a biodegradable casket, there are so many interesting and creative products and one feels excited and inspired about the human imagination. They even made LED lights look good! It made me hopeful on the one hand about mankind and also kind of depressed thinking that we in the U.S. will be left behind in the dust while others lead the charge forward.

I wound up my New York art whirl with a visit to the Jan Gossart aka Mabuse exhibition at the Met. Influenced by classicism, he painted scenes from mythology, lots of Madonnas and childs and many portraits. His understanding of anatomy is very good: there’s a sexy painting of Hercules and Deianira their legs entwined in what the New York Times called “a pretzel of desire.” He paints with self-assurance and produces well-founded compositions in rich palettes. But I found his faces in the mythology and religious paintings, in particular, unappealing—Hercules looks like a simpleton—the weakest link in his oeuvre although he does better with the portraits, perhaps because he was dealing with flesh and blood subjects. I loved the portrait of what possibly was Dorothea of Denmark.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"The lines which do not exist"

When I told a friend I was planning to go to the Gerhard Richter show at the Drawing Center he said he thought of Richter as a painter and wasn’t particularly interested in his drawings. I was a little taken aback, wondering to myself given Richter’s brilliance how could you not be interested in anything he did?

True, the drawings don’t have the star power of his paintings but they are gems nonetheless and so interesting in what they reveal about Richter, the artist. First off, you can see he takes the business of drawing seriously. Though for the most part, they’re studies and exercises, they are fully realized and complete. Richter gives himself free rein to experiment with different subjects (landscape, mechanical, schematic, abstract and autographic) and techniques, flexing his artistic muscles through arpeggios of line and form. As he explores representation and perception, he draws tenuous hair-like squiggles, great Lichtenstein angry hatches, delicate snail trails that meander across a page. He rubs and then erases graphite or charcoal to create depth, modeling and highlights, and in one seascape, masterfully creates with his eraser the greasy aureoles of stars on a hazy night.

7.1991, 1991 a China ink brush on paper abstract work that looks like something was glued on and then pulled off leaving remnants behind is a favorite. Also, R.O., 22.1.1984, 1984 (above), a 5” x 7” dynamo of highly saturated red watercolor and slashing pencil that demands attention from across the room.

The works seem like such trifles and yet have such presence. There’s a self- confidence about them, perhaps because Richter clearly respects the artistic effort and the result. You know this because he signed and dated every one. Some might argue that even back in the 80s he was aware of his legacy and was being savvy. I suspect he signed them as an indication that the work was completed; he’d taken it as far as he wanted it to go and was satisfied.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Headin' Home

I am looking forward to my trip to New York next week. On the agenda is a return visit to Big Bambú to see it finished (hope I can get a ticket to go back up on it and I'd like to see it at night as it's lit), the Gerhard Richter show (natch) at the Drawing Center and the Abstract Expressionists at MoMA.

I also hope to make it out to New Canaan to see Philip Johnson's Glass House for which I have been asked to write a story. Right now, I'm trying to line up an interviewee--a Contemporary Art maven--for another story for Artillery. But I will be posting here my impressions of Richter and AE which don't have a buyer.

If I get my act together I may weigh in on Nazi art and Maurizio Cattalan both in the news this past week....

Friday, October 15, 2010

And again...

My magnificent obsession strikes again. Blue Bands by Robert Stuart, a 14" x 11" gem. It will be mine in December.


I made a pilgrimage to Fallingwater on Tuesday. It’s a five-hour drive from Charlottesville that is if you don’t make any wrong turns (which unfortunately we did thanks to my defective navigating) so it is an undertaking to go. In my book, it’s up there with Monticello as required viewing.

It was my fourth visit. I first went as a young girl of 16. I had accompanied my parents on a white water rafting expedition to the Youghiogheny River. But it was spring and the water was high and the river was closed. So here we were in the backcountry of western Pennsylvania casting about for how to fill our weekend when we discovered that Fallingwater was just down the road from the unfortunately named, Ohiopyle.

My first impression was of walking on woodland paths lined with tall rhododendrons and mountain laurel. It was a gray day and as I came around the bend I spotted the house. I remember being totally bowled over because it wasn’t the white that photographs had led me to believe, but a glowing peach—a perfect foil to the lush foliage surrounding it. The “Cherokee red” of the window trim (which I had thought was black) was another unexpected delight. The colors gave the house such vitality and transformed it from iconic old chestnut to fresh, dazzling magnet.

Entering the living room with its riverine slate floor, nearly wrap-around windows and rich autumnal colors, I felt immediately as if I’d come home. With the exception of the replacement dining chairs (looking at them you realize why Wright was such a dictator when it came to the interior design of his houses) and one or two tchotchkes, I loved everything in the house and the rich pastiche of diverse ethnic fabrics, artwork, objects that seem to be a common thread among Wright’s clients (following his lead, no doubt). But perhaps the most magical quality of the house was the constant background noise of rushing water.

On this latest trip I am again in awe. Fallingwater teaches you so much about architecture, nature and sheer gutsiness. It’s such an audacious design, a complex confection of intersecting planes that hangs against the hillside. Visually, it’s so different from the landscape that surrounds it and at the same time so in sync with it. Like some bright exotic bird in a rainforest.

One of my favorite views is not the famous one shot from below which makes Falingwater appear monumental, but from the bank across a narrow chasm from the house. You can almost reach out and touch the terrace wall and certainly could call to a person standing there and, on certain months when the water is low, carry on a conversation. From here you get a real sense of Fallingwater’s intimacy. Though it’s larger than life in so many ways, its scale is human. For all its elegance and superlative design it is in essence, cosy. The low ceilings, narrow halls, small bedrooms and liberal use of warm, rich materials enhance this coziness. I think about what bliss it must have been to live in such a house, to have it to yourself, wandering about the empty rooms, walking down the steps to dip one’s toes in the stream, sleeping with the windows thrown open to the air and the sound of the falls…

It is rare when something manmade enhances a beautiful natural setting. But Fallingwater does. As I gazed at it from a distance, I tried to imagine the landscape without it and I was faced with an appealing but otherwise unremarkable scene of water spilling over rocks: with Fallingwater perched over it, it’s launched into the realm of the sublime.