Brendan Gill approached the writing of Frank Lloyd Wright’s biography with the advantages of long study of what he has called “the robust and necessary irrationality of architecture,” personal and respectful but not reverential acquaintance with Wright, and absolute command of vigorously clear English prose gained over a long career as writer and editor for The New Yorker. These advantages have enabled him to write a biography at once personal, intimate, affectionate, and critical. The breadth of Gill’s mind has further enabled him to raise his criticism from the personal to the general level. Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright achieves genuine distinction as a cultural history of Wright’s America. What could have become a catalog of the events, including architectural successes and failures, of Wright’s life becomes an integrated story of a self-willed Peck’s Bad Boy creating himself and his art from his American experience and constantly resisting the social and aesthetic pressures of his times.
Many Masks is detailed, based upon a thorough knowledge of Wright’s personal and professional life, and Gill has unsparingly separated the facts of that life and its legacy from the architect’s own largely unreliable account of himself and his philosophy. Gill recognizes the bombast of Wright’s self-advertisement and of his self-justifications in the face of public outrage at his unconventional private life and his irresponsible business practices. Although Gill refuses to join the worshipers, he does not find cause to debunk Wright, whom he recognizes as a legitimate American genius. He does, however, insist upon new perspectives from which to view the phenomenon of Wright’s continuing influence upon American and world culture.
In the end, Many Masks proves to be an unabashed tribute, made palatable by the author’s cheerfully ironic acceptance of the paradoxes, the utter contradictions between Wright’s professed principles and his practice. When Wright changes his mind about a cherished, piously proclaimed dogma, Gill does not fail to point out the contradiction, often with amusing sarcasm, but he draws neither moral nor aesthetic conclusions from such about-facing. Because he regards Wright as human, Gill does not demand, or expect, consistency; instead of making judgments, he tends to examine the effect of Wright’s abandoning a principle. He evaluates the building in relation to its setting and intended function; sometimes he concludes that the effect is good.
Gill comes close to the central contradiction in Wright’s work when he treats two of the architect’s late works—the Beth Sholom synagogue in Philadelphia and the Guggenheim Museum in New York (the construction of both of these buildings was completed after Wright’s death). Gill confronts head-on the “old and vexatious distinction between architecture, defined as having a function, and art, defined as being functionless.” Gill considers the ramifications of that conflict only after expressing his subjective opinion, which he calls a “transcendent and unprovable claim.” In the Guggenheim, Gill says, one is “conscious of the formidable ego of the designer,” but in Beth Sholom, “one senses that the ego of the designer has been subsumed into the work, which in Wright’s case amounts to a near-miracle.”
The biography’s title is more than a gimmick. Masks are the metaphor on which Gill constructs his book, and masks of varying sorts reveal not the façade but the essence of the stages of Wright’s life. The masks helped Wright to find himself and to identify himself to others and to himself. Masks enabled him to deal with levelheaded businessmen and to secure the confidence needed to realize his designs in concrete form. They also enabled him to live in opulence and to drive the best and newest cars, while he was in debt beyond limits which would worry most millionaires. Facing personal and financial disaster regularly, Wright enjoyed “the melodrama of near-catastrophe with his accustomed zest.” Constants in Wright’s life were his theatrical flair, though he knew little about the theater, and his propensity for rhetoric, which, as Gill reminds the reader, William Butler Yeats said was “the will attempting to do the work of the imagination.” Wright was profligate with imagination in his work as an architect, but his speech and writing, no matter how charming or how forceful, regularly lacked evidence of rigorous thought.
A chief virtue of Gill’s book derives from his determined use of research and his equal determination to avoid weighting down his portrait with evidences of that scholarship. The effect is to draw the reader into Wright’s life but at sufficient remove that the reader participates in the final assessment of the century’s most colorful and celebrated artist-architect—and con man. Yes, Gill dares to combine those seemingly disparate and irreverent...
(The entire section is 2034 words.)