"Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature"
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, through Dec 4.
Even if the works displayed at this exhibit didn't offer ample evidence of her talent as both designer and draftsman, Marion Mahony Griffin would hold a solid place in the annals of architectural history as arguably the first female licensed architect in Illinois (sec-ond in the U.S.). It even seems reasonable to claim her as a protofeminist heroine; she was the only woman on staff during the Prairie years of Frank Lloyd Wright's Oak Park studio (1894–1909).
Her role as a designer there (and later, when working with her husband, Walter Burley Griffin) is muddy. The notoriously egotistical Wright often disparaged the importance of her contributions, admitting only that she was a "capable assistant," even though it's generally acknowledged that she took over primary design responsibilities after Wright's departure in 1909. And—maybe in deference to contemporary mores, when a woman stood by her man—she deflected most of the credit when working with her husband. But you can't look at her illustrations for Wright's famous Wasmuth project without seeing the portfolio of a great artist. If you appreciate architectural presentation drawings as an art form, you'll realize that Griffin's deliriously beautiful interpretations of building and landscape essentially defined, and brilliantly expressed, the aesthetic of the Prairie style. The real revelations of the show are the many rarely seen landscapes Griffin painted while in Australia, where she went in 1914 with her husband after he won a competition to design the new Australian capital in Canberra.
Griffin's vivid colorations and decorative expressiveness put them in a category that approaches pure pattern and abstraction. The only downside: The Block's small main-floor gallery is cramped and dimly lit. Surely such beautiful works deserve a technically superior presentation.—Philip Berger