Sunday, November 24, 2013

Symposium in American Art

Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in the 2013 Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque Memorial Symposium in American Art sponsored by the Yale University Art Gallery.  Entitled Tell as a Whole, the symposium examined collaborations between artists and architects from the late nineteenth century to the present.
Nebraska State Capitol
The American muralist Edwin Howland Blashfield used the phrase “tell as a whole” in 1898 to refer to the combination of all elements of art and architecture into a decorative interior of seamless unity.  The theme of the symposium was inspired by the murals painted by Blashfield in 1893 and 1894 for the Fifth Avenue mansion of Collis and Arabella Huntington and now owned by the Yale University Art Gallery.  These recently conserved works are on view in the museum’s American art galleries.

One of the bison reliefs designed by
Lee Lawrie  for the sides
of the parapets at the main entrance to the Capitol
The symposium began with a keynote address by architectural historian extraordinaire Richard Guy Wilson of the University of Virginia, who spoke about the American Renaissance as reflected in the interiors of Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library.  Other speakers examined Blashfield’s work at the Library of Congress, Diego Rivera’s ill-fated mural for Rockefeller Center, and Mark Rothko’s commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s Building.  Michele Oka Doner, an artist known for her public art installations, ended the symposium with a discussion of A Walk on the Beach, her remarkable installation at the Miami International Airport.
My topic was the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln, built in four stages between 1922 and 1932.  Hildreth Meière designed much of the decoration for that building’s interiors, but she was not the primary subject of my presentation.  Rather, my objective was to “tell as a whole,” to explain how the team of four assembled by architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, his so-called quadrivirate (Goodhue, Meière, sculptor Lee Lawrie, and architectural iconographer Hartley Burr Alexander), worked together to produce a building with a unified and cohesive theme. 

The top of the Capitol’s tower with the Thunderbird mosaic 
on the drum and The Sower mounted on the dome.
The architect for the building was chosen by a competition.  Most of the ten firms invited to participate submitted designs inspired by the U. S. Capitol—classically inspired buildings dominated by a dome.  But Goodhue won with a design that deviated from tradition, emphasizing clean, simple geometric forms and replacing the dome with a soaring 400-foot tower.  He likened the horizontal base of his design to the flat, horizontal topography of the Nebraska plains and he envisioned the tower as a landmark visible for miles (if you’ve ever been to Lincoln, you know that it indeed is).
Dr. Hartley Burr Alexander, the head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Nebraska, designed the decorative program for the building, which sprang directly from Goodhue’s design—the horizontal base and vertical tower.  He provided a philosophical interpretation of these design elements.  Lawrie’s sculpture on the building’s exterior progresses from the historical and concrete on the base to the symbolic and abstract at the tower.  This same progression is apparent, although in a richer and more complex manner, in Meière’s designs for the interiors.   
Lincoln may not be at the top of everyone’s “must see” list, but those who make the pilgrimage are not likely to be disappointed.
Karen Wagner
Thanks to Pat Kane of the Yale University Art Gallery for inviting me to speak.  And another big thank you to Karen Wagner, the archivist at the Nebraska State Capitol, for guiding me through the Capitol archives and providing digital files of key documents and images of original drawings and sketches.

Details from the bronze doors designed by Lee Lawrie

Hildreth Meière’s design of the cosmic sun or central star (left), the source of energy and a symbol of creation, for the marble mosaic floor of the Nebraska State Capitol vestibule. 

 A detail from Vital Energy designed by Hildreth Meière for the marble mosaic floor of the foyer of the Capitol (right).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

How I Came to Know Hildreth Meière

Prior to May 2005, I had no idea who Hildreth Meière was.  In fact, I don’t recall ever hearing her name. That all changed when I attended the 8th World Congress on Art Deco in New York City.
The Art Deco Society of New York, headed at the time by Kathryn Hausman, organized an outstanding conference with a great roster of speakers, including Meière’s daughter Louise Meière Dunn, who spoke about her mother’s life and work. I was mesmerized! I wanted to learn more about Meière, perhaps write an article about her. But only weeks after the World Congress, Bob Bruegmann, a well-respected architectural historian and one of my former graduate school professors, invited me to become involved in a book about the late Chicago modernist architect Harry Weese. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn and write about Weese (a talented architect and complex personality once known internationally but largely forgotten in the years following his death in 1998) and to work with Bob. So Meière was placed on the shelf.
Four years later, the research and writing for the Weese book was essentially complete and the book was in production. And at that same time, longtime editor of the Chicago Art Deco Society (CADS) Magazine, Kristan McKinsey, was stepping down. When CADS President Joe Loundy asked me to take over as editor, I decided that my first issue would feature an article about Meière and her work in Chicago.
I was delighted to discover that Meière now had a website,, maintained by the International Hildreth Meière Association, an organization established by Meière’s family to preserve her legacy. I sent an inquiry asking where Meière’s archival materials were held. In the message, I explained that I had first learned about Meière at the World Congress, put her aside to work on the Weese book, and now, as editor of CADS Magazine, wanted to feature her in my inaugural issue. received a reply from Louise Dunn, who told me that the Meière papers were housed in New York (since moved to Washington, D.C.) at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. A few days later I received a phone call from Catherine Coleman Brawer who was curating an exhibition about Meière, Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière, scheduled to open in September 2009 at the Regina A. Quck Center for the Arts of St. Bonaventure University in Olean, New York.  Louise had given her my name because we had two things in common—first, we were both interested in Meière, and second, Catherine had once worked at the Elvehjem Art Center (now the Chazen Museum of Art) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which was designed by Harry Weese! 
I met Catherine when I went to New York to cull through the Meière archive for the article. We continued to share our experiences learning about Meière and eventually the idea of a book evolved . . . and evolved . . . and evolved . . . and finally became The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Do You Know Hildreth Meière?

Thanks to my friend Samantha Hoffman for getting my website and blog up and running. Never thought that I’d have my own website!

The impetus for its creation is The Art Deco Murals of Hildreth Meière, a book I’ve co-authored with art historian Catherine Coleman Brawer scheduled for publication by Andrea Monfried Editions in April 2014.  

Hildreth Meière was a talented and prolific muralist of the first half of the twentieth century who completed approximately 100 commissions for office buildings, churches, government centers, theaters, restaurants, cocktail lounges, world’s fair pavilion, and ocean liners. Despite her extensive body of work and the accessibility of the majority of her designs to the public, her name is not instantly recognizable, even among art and architectural historians.  

Each year, millions of people pass by the circular medallions representing Dance, Drama, and Song that Meière designed for the 50th Street façade of Radio City Music Hall, yet I’d venture that only a handful could tell you the artist’s name. Hopefully, this book will help to bring her more recognition.

Meière’s colorful dynamic sculpture of Dance, will be on the book’s cover. Graphic designer Yve Ludwig and photographer Hildreth Meière Dunn, Meière’s granddaughter, are currently tweaking the image, but I hope to post it soon.
In future blog posts, I’ll explain how I learned about Meière and came to write this book.