By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Of all the towns that could have played host to New England’s first modernist building, Lenox, Mass., is among the least likely. When Mrs. Astor’s 400 finished summering at their extravagant, ironically named “cottages” in Newport, R.I., they would shift to Lenox, in the Berkshires, for several more weeks before returning to Manhattan in the fall. Lenox’s cottages embraced many architectural styles, but modernism definitely was not among them; one of the area’s leading museum attractions is Edith Wharton’s former home, The Mount, which has been restored and maintained as an example of Gilded Age aesthetics. Yet in 1930 George L.K. Morris, a wealthy New Yorker and budding artist, commissioned a copy of the sleek, white, high-ceilinged studio that Le Corbusier designed for French Cubist painter Amédée Ozenfant and installed it on his 46-acre portion of his family’s estate. At the time, he had recently returned from a stint in Paris studying with Ozenfant and Fernand Léger.
Morris had the studio to himself for only a few years. In 1935, at age 29, he married 23-year-old Estelle “Suzy” Frelinghuysen. Both came from prominent families; she counted a senator and a secretary of state among her relatives, and he descended from a signer of the Declaration. (He was also Wharton’s first cousin once-removed.) In 1940 they expanded his 1,000-square-foot workspace into a 4,000-square-foot two-story modern house. He funded the construction by selling The Poet, a 1911 Picasso he had purchased for $1,500 on one of his overseas trips, to Peggy Guggenheim for $4,500. (The painting now belongs to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy.)
Neither Morris nor Frelinghuysen intended it at the time, but like The Mount, their home evolved into a museum—the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, which opened in 1998 and welcomes the public annually from June through October. The more conservative townsfolk who saw the home soon after its completion in 1942 probably would have scoffed at the notion that this angular white structure, which blends in with the cottages of Lenox about as well as a flying saucer, should be preserved for the ages. In September 1943, Town & Country joked: “The Morris’ have not yet given it a name. Probably because they are waiting to select one of the epithets considered applicable by old residents.” But the couple paid the naysayers no mind. Frelinghuysen was especially disinclined to fret. She once duped the Social Register into listing her Pekinese, Rose, in its entry for the Frelinghuysens.
This talent for tweaking authority and refusing to care what others thought stood the couple in good stead as members of the Park Avenue Cubists, the moniker given to a quartet of aristocratic Americans who supported and promoted a native scene for abstract art in the mid-20th century. (Charles G. Shaw and Albert Eugene Gallatin, a distant cousin of Morris, rounded out the group.) In a privately produced 2003 documentary on Morris and Frelinghuysen, Park Avenue Cubists, art historian Barbara Rose summarized the problem that the couple and their compatriots faced: “It was literally impossible to be an abstract American artist. Both the Whitney and the modernists were against you. The Whitney believed that if you were an American artist, you couldn’t be abstract, and the modernists believed if you were a modern artist, you couldn’t be American.”
The couple’s Lenox house served as a respite from this maddening critical paradox and an embodiment of their commitment to abstract art. Murals by Morris decorate the home’s exterior and the wall that borders the winding staircase in the foyer, and the base of those stairs provides the perfect niche for Morris’ Configuration (1936), an aluminum sculpture that is plated in gold-colored chrome. “Most people experience abstract art as a confusing little puzzle,” says Kinney Frelinghuysen, the couple’s nephew and director of the museum, “but here it is part of the environment, part of the total sensual experience.” The experience is enhanced by a foyer console by Paul Frankl, a guest bedroom lamp by Walter von Nessen, a living room desk by Alvar Aalto and other modern furnishings that the couple purchased when they were new. While Morris and Frelinghuysen rearranged and restyled some areas, they moved things into storage rather than disposing of them, making it much easier for Kinney to later return the rooms to their mid-20th-century glory.
The living room and dining room, which are on the first floor, look out onto the verdant backyard; he did the murals in the former, and she in the latter. His irregularly shaped, colorful abstracts flank a fireplace and appear on a wall painted yellow; hers linger within a cool palette of blues augmented with black and white against a gray backdrop. Kinney sees the spaces as proof of the egalitarian nature of their union. “When Suzy met George, she turned to abstract art and took to it right away. I think George saw she was as strong as he was,” Kinney says. Morris supported Frelinghuysen in her second artistic career singing lead roles in Tosca and other operas in America and Europe. She performed under the name Suzy Morris, but stopped in 1951, only four years after her stage debut, after falling ill with bronchitis.
The house contains hints of the couple’s independence as well as their collaboration. They kept separate bedrooms, and she painted hers with a decidedly nonabstract mural of her favorite places in Europe. “In the public rooms, there was an effort on George’s part to have a modern aesthetic,” says Kinney. “It’s almost as if Suzy created a retreat from modernism.”
Selections from the museum’s collection of 6,000 artworks, almost entirely by Morris or Frelinghuysen, hang throughout the house. The works that were collected—mostly by Morris in his bachelor days and mostly for personal study—number about 100 and include paintings such as Picasso’s Dinard, a 1928 Cubist image of beachgoers frolicking in striped bathing suits; a Cubist still life by Juan Gris; and a 1903 Matisse titled Gleaner With Rake. Each year the museum staff arranges a new exhibit for display in Morris’ studio. The 2009 show, Faces of Modern Art: Images of the Artists in the Permanent Collection, pairs photographs—some of which were taken by Morris or Gallatin—of Picasso, Braque, Matisse and others with their artworks.
Morris died from injuries he suffered in a 1975 car crash, and Frelinghuysen died in 1988. In her will, she asked that the home be turned into a museum but gave little guidance on how to achieve that goal. Kinney and his wife, Linda, accepted the challenge of giving shape and form to his aunt’s wish by preserving the house and showing the artwork in it. “The public today still has trouble appreciating this group of artists because their work is so abstract,” he says. “We show the work in the context of the house, and it helps (people) get there. Almost every week, someone comes up to me and says, ‘I didn’t understand this stuff before, and now I’m starting to get it.’ It’s very gratifying to see them have the experience of pushing on the door and having it open for them.”
Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, Lenox, Mass.