Painting toward architecture (1947-52) in 2017: Three works, three histories, three Modern mysteries

frank lloyd wright meteor crater Design for a garden Roberto Burle Marx Miller Co Meriden Mondrian
From left to right: Design drawing for Meteor Crater, Frank Lloyd Wright (this drawing not in MoMA exhibition); Design for a garden by Roberto Burle Marx, (1948), in DB KunstHalle show in Berlin; Victory Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian (1943-44).

This past summer, three exhibitions at museums in New York, Berlin, and The Hague featured three works / projects from the experimental 1947-52 Painting toward architecture exhibition organized by the Miller Company and Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine. (The Tremaines were recently married and the company’s CEO / owner and / or majority stockholder, and art / design director, respectively.) The 28(+) venue PtA exhibition began at the Wadsworth Atheneum in December 1947, seventy years ago this month.

The works on view in summer 2017 include, first, an unbuilt project for Meteor Crater, Arizona with a drawing commissioned by Frank Lloyd Wright (1948) exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the archive (12 June - 1 October 2017). Second, on view at the DB KunstHalle in Berlin was a commissioned goauche work by Roberto Burle Marx showing a garden design related to an Oscar Niemeyer architectural proposal, for the unbuilt Tremaine House in Montecito, California, in the exhibition Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (7 July - 3 October 2017). This show originated at the Jewish Museum in New York (6 May - 18 September 2016), which also exhibited Niemeyer’s maquette and a drawing. Third, Victory Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian, the lead artwork in Painting toward Architecture, was exhibited in The discovery of Mondrian at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, The Netherlands (3 June - 24 September 2017), which displayed its "entire 300-strong collection of Mondrians simultaneously". [1]

The earlier roots of these works / projects, and their relations to the Miller Company and Tremaines, have over the years often been overlooked in the discourse concerning the works. I’d argue this has partly been caused by the lack of clear, detailed and accessible information about the Painting toward architecture exhibitions and associated design activities, and partly based on the various, overall remits containing Painting toward architecture mentions. (For example, consider a focus on the artist or the designer in a large survey). I’d also argue this has been caused by often hidden and widely dispersed primary source documentation concerning the c. 1945-55 era of the Miller Co. / Tremaines’ work. Fortunately, the recent waves of mass digitization of historical material in general, as well as more archival information sources listed online, and the ability to receive copies of documentation remotely from a wider variety of institutions and organizations, is enabling more to be known about the Painting toward architecture-era work in particular, among a variety of historical topics more generally. [2]

As a result, more is now known about the ins and outs concerning the three works / projects involving the architectural designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and Oscar Niemeyer / Roberto Burle Marx, and Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie, and their role and impact across the 28(+) venues showing a highly variable art exhibition run (1947-52).

Short recap of Miller Company and Tremaines activities (c. 1945-55)

The elements of the overall Painting toward architecture-era Miller Company and Tremaine activities (c. 1945-55). Bauhaus-like in a corporation? Contributing to the construction of Modernism in America?

painting toward architecture era overall

The three works / projects— the architectural designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and Oscar Niemeyer / Roberto Burle Marx, and Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie— were part of the cross-disciplinary art/design organizational work by the Tremaines and Miller Company (c. 1945-55). Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote the key essay in the book Painting toward architecture, referring to the assembled Miller Company Collection of Abstract Art. However, as can typically confuse, in this case, the book was not a definitive exhibition catalogue. According to a letter dated 8 January 1948 from Henry-Russell Hitchcock to Alfred Barr— who offered advice on proposed revisions to Hitchcock’s core essay in the Painting toward architecture book— Hitchcock saw his essay primarily as separate from the exhibition. He describes his essay as a stand-alone text with reference to the collection, so not a definitive accompaniment. [3]

The Painting toward architecture exhibition across 28(+) venues, however, arguably largely maintained Hitchcock’s theme and framing, but gradually, new works entered and replaced other works that are not listed at the end of the book. Based on surviving checklists and packing lists from that era (which can be imprecise), by the 24th venue in Madison, WI, about 25% of the artworks changed from the inaugural exhibition at the Wadsworth. Found newspaper articles covering the shows, not searchable in standard university library databases but instead available in museum archives, local libraries, and/or mentioned online, also show evidence of a highly variable exhibition run. [4]

It is important to note that photo murals of architecture appear to enter the exhibition by December 1948 at the 11th venue, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, shortly after the publication of the Painting toward architecture book with Hitchcock’s essay, assumed to be in c. November 1948. Before this, it is assumed that only artworks were exhibited. While no primary source documentation has been yet located, one can perhaps assume that the book and related conversations inspired the introduction of including photo murals of architecture in the exhibition to better show the artwork-to-architecture connections. [5]

Hitchcock’s essay talks about relations of artworks to architecture including a Japanese print by Kunisada (1805) pitted against Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hickox House (1900), with reference to geometric expanse of white color and perhaps compositional shapes. He also talks about c. 1920s artwork and iconic architecture from that period. Also, other works, including then-contemporary, are discussed and act as reference points for c. 1948. In a following section, other works are detailed, offering discussions brilliantly related to visual problem-solving. Looking back, it’s like a recap of today’s art/design school foundation year, with discussions about visual elements, principals of design, and materials, which also apply to architects.[6]

Concurrently, the Miller Company press release template, as of the second venue at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (January - February 1948), generally aligns to Hitchcock’s book, and concludes with the stated mission of the touring exhibition, "The Miller Company are manufacturers of modern lighting equipment and since 1840 [sic] have been leaders in the field of lighting. With the advent of the fluorescent tube as a source of light, they believe that lighting is no longer merely an afterthought to be installed in a building after it has been built, but a functional and structural element which should be ’designed into’ the building by the architect. They have, therefore, become interested in contemporary architectural design. This interest has led them to make this collection of painting and sculpture which has had such a bearing on architectural development and may be of future use of architects." [7]

So, in other words, one of the objectives of the travelling exhibition was to encourage visiting architects and related decision-makers to becoming more familiar with Miller Company lighting and generate those aesthetic and business discussions.

Moving to the middle section of the graphic above, the Painting toward architecture-era initiative also included graphic design, product design, and interior concepts. At this juncture, not a great deal is known, but there are impressive glimpses into the c. 1945-55 work. (This documentation recovery is in ongoing development. Also see the next section of this article for two graphics with embedded interior concept illustrations.) [8]

Completing the picture via the graphic above, I’ve added the entrepreneurial character of the Painting toward architecture-era initiatives, the impressive marketing and media communications results shown in the primary sources compilation, and also the title of the 1984 exhibition and catalogue looking back at the Tremaine’s art collecting over five decades. Entitled "The Spirit of Modernism", the show was on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum. The works on view stretched back to when the Tremaines’ work began, with many on view that were featured in Painting toward architecture.

With this background framing, let’s look more closely at the three works / projects on view in museum exhibitions this past summer in New York, Berlin and The Hague, and their Painting toward architecture-era contexts.

5 - A: Painting toward architecture: Three works, three histories, three Modern mysteries | B: Frank Lloyd Wright project for Meteor Crater | C: Niemeyer and Burle Marx - Tremaine House | D: Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie

[FN1] See (a): (c. 2017). Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the archive (12 June - 1 October 2017), public announcement page. Museum of Modern Art website: (Viewed 29 December 2017.)

(b): (c. 2017). Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (7 July - 3 October 2017), public announcement page. DB KunstHalle, Berlin website: (Viewed 29 December 2017.)

(c): (c. 2016). Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (6 May - 18 September 2016), public announcement page. (Viewed 29 December 2017.)

(d): (c. 2016). Exhibition checklist and object labels document for Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (6 May - 18 September 2016). Jewish Museum, New York.

(e): (c. 2017). Exhibition checklist for Roberto Burle Marx: Brazilian Modernist (7 July - 3 October 2017). DB KunstHalle, Berlin.

(f): (c. 2017). The discovery of Mondrian (3 June - 24 September 2017), public announcement page. (Viewed 29 December 2017.)

[FN2] Researchers should note that the Emily Hall Tremaine papers at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, that were donated in 2006, do not have a specific Painting toward architecture-era section. However, related papers from that era concerning Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie, for example, have been identified by Nancy J. Troy in her 2013 book, The afterlife of Piet Mondrian, (University of Chicago Press), in Mondrian-related files. Also, no Miller Company (Meriden, CT) corporate archive from this— or the wider era since 1924— is known to have survived.

[FN3] (a): (8 January 1948). Letter: Henry-Russell Hitchcock (96 South Main Street, Middletown, CT) to Alfred Barr, Museum of Modern Art. Alfred Hamilton Barr papers, [ca. 1915-1983]. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (New York site; original papers at Museum of Modern Art, New York).

(b): Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers in the Museum of Modern Art Archives. The Miller Company (Folder: I.A.194; mf 2174:1135) (1948). Correspondence with: Henry-Russell Hitchcock.

[FN4] (a) First, "28(+)" indicates that 28 shows have been identified. This includes the 24 venues that end with the Madison, WI, venue (May - June 1950). Sometimes known, a "25th venue", the Farnsworth Art Museum at Wellesley College in 1952, is included. Further, mass digitization and online visibility revealed three additional venues in 1951. More shows, particularly during 1951, may reveal themselves in due course.

(b): (16 June 2016- ). The Painting toward architecture exhibition (1947-52) by the Miller Company Collection of Abstract Art: Documentation and historical information. This is a compilation of primary sources involving the 28(+) exhibitions in ongoing development.

(c): Based on this 28(+) venue compilation of primary sources, also see (29 August 2016- ). The Painting toward architecture exhibition (1947-52) by the Miller Company Collection of Abstract Art: The artworks and designs.

(d) See a 2500-word overview summary: Preece, Robert. (July-August 2017). Rethinking "Painting toward architecture" (1947-52). Sculpture magazine, 36(6), pp. 18-21. (Linked above is an online reprint of this article.)

[FN5] Ibid.

[FN6] Miller Company. (1948). Painting toward architecture [Essay by Henry-Russell Hitchcock; foreword by Alfred H. Barr, Jr.; introduction by Burton Tremaine; acknowledgements by Emily Hall Tremaine; book design by Bradbury Thompson.] New York; Duell, Sloan and Pearce; 118 pp.

[FN7] Miller Company. (c. January 1948). Painting toward architecture press release template. Walker Art Center exhibition archive, Minneapolis. Click for the press release reprint online.

[FN8] (a): For a developing compilation of Painting toward architecture-era graphics, product design, interior concepts, and lighting installations see: (2016-). Miller Company design catalogues and historical information.; and (2016-). Miller Company product design in collections and historical lighting installations.

(b:) See a sample interior concept embedded in a 1948 advertisement in Architectural Forum.

Overview: Emily Hall Tremaine / Collection overview page | 1: Painting toward architecture - Miller Co. press release | 2: Painting toward architecture: Documentation and historical information | 3: Painting toward architecture - artworks and designs | 4: Article - "Rethinking ’Painting toward architecture’ (2017)" | 5: Article - "Painting toward architecture: Three works, three histories, three Modern mysteries" (2017) | 6: Article - "Van Doesburg artworks in PtA" | 9: Miller Co / Tremaine art & design in exhibitions (1945-present)