George and Suzy, an Avant Garde Pas de Deux
The on-going ArtBerkshires exploration of the enduring influence of 20th-century modernism on 21st-century architecture, art, and crafts puts a well-deserved spotlight put on the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio in Lenox. The first modernist building in New England, the house is only part of the story there. The couple who built it, Suzy Frelinghuysen, an accomplished opera singer and painter, and George L.K. Morris, an artist and among the earliest champions of modern painting in the United States, were American aristocrats, every bit as glamorous and fascinating as Gerald and Sara Murphy, yet far less well-known, even here in their own backyard.
They both came from a class that no longer exists, a stratum of society, founded on statemanship, that predated—and peered down upon—the robber barons and New York’s 400. Suzy Frelinghuysen grew up at Oakhurst, her family’s estate in Elberon, New Jersey. George L.K. Morris’s family country seat, Brookhurst (left), is here in Lenox, a location his mother had chosen over Newport expressly because she believed it to be a more wholesome environment in which to raise three boys. Having thus struck a blow for sound child rearing, Helen Schermerhorn Morris departed for Paris, seldom to return. Her sons were sent to boarding school at age 7, and would return home to Broadhurst for holidays with their father, Newbold, or, if they preferred, join their mother in her travels.
As a young man, George, the middle son, joined his mother in Paris to study painting with Fernand Leger in a studio designed by LeCorbusier. It would be a turning point in his life. In his search for an authentic American cultural tradition to inform his work, George had only to recall the Lenox woods that surrounded his childhood home, where evidence of native American life was rife. In some of his paintings, the primitive past merges with the (then) futuristic look of abstraction.
Back in the states, George continued to paint. Through friends, he and Suzy found each other and began to navigate their way through the no-exit maze that was the New York art scene of the 1930s. At the time, the art-buying public snidely referred to abstract painting as, “Ellis Island art.” At the Whitney, where it was essential for an artist to be American, abstraction was viewed as an alien enemy. At the Museum of Modern Art, where abstraction was an artist’s ticket in, no one believed Americans capable of doing it right. George was accustomed to rejection. Early on, his mother had made her feelings about his work clear. “You may not put any of these terrible paintings in my house.” With no pressing need to earn a living, he soldiered on.
Fortunately, George’s father was somewhat more indulgent, permitting his son to built a studio in a remote corner of the Brookhurst estate. The first avant garde building of any kind in New England, its design was inspired by the one by LeCorbusier at which George had studied in Paris. Much later, he and Suzy would add an International Style house to the studio. For the remainder of their lives, Suzy and George spent summers and weekends there.
Today, the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio is open to the public, and it is where most people are introduced to Suzy and George. We get to see their taste in furnishings, the frescos George painted in the living room, the murals Suzy did in the dining room. We see the couple’s art and their enviable collection, filled with the best in early abstract painting, including many Cubist masterpieces. We learn of Suzy’s gifts as an opera singer, a career cut short by choice because of chronic bronchitis and a reluctance to endure the rigors of “the road.”
What the tour of the house alone fails to make clear is how history now views Suzy and George. For that, one must view a beautiful and riveting documentary, Park Avenue Cubists, that plays on continuous loop in the Classroom at the edge of the woods. (It is long and as every minute of it counts; allow an extra hour for the film alone.) Suzy, a skillful painter who had little interest in showing her art, did early work that is now considered too familiar—it speaks a language fluently, that was, alas, invented by Braque and Gris. Later, after George’s tragic death in a car crash, Suzy’s brushwork loosened up and her paintings became more original, her talent as a colorist more evident. For his part, George L.K. Morris, while not in the first rank of modern painters, is nonetheless considered art historical, as he may have been the first American abstract artist (though certainly not the last) to connect modernism to native American art. Their work hangs in many major museums, including the Metropolitan, the Carnegie, the Philadelphia Museum, the Smithsonian, the Naples Museum of Art and the Whitney.
Perhaps more significant, George’s tireless efforts to further acceptance of abstract art led him to the Partisan Review, which for three decades was the politically and artistically progressive chronicle. In this publication, George finally found a platform where he could champion abstract art and capture the attention of an influential audience. He also kept the chronically impoverished periodical afloat with infusions of cash. It is through Partisan Review that George L.K. Morris cements his place in history as a key figure in American intellectual life.
Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio
92 Hawthorne Street