Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Creation and the Politics of Gender: Modernism's Messengers - the Art of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli

 Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli -click images for larger view
The new show at the Chicago Cultural Center, Modernism's Messengers: The Art of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli, echoes two current controversies - immigration and gender in artistic partnerships - in telling a fascinating story with two compelling, parallel hooks: rediscovering the work of sculptor and artist Alfonso Iannelli, and uncovering the vital, often inseparable role that his wife, Margaret Iannelli, played in its creation.

To begin, the story of Alfonso Iannelli is a portrait of the American immigrant experience.  Late in the 19th century, his shoemaker father had left Andretta, Italy to seek his fortune in the United States, and a few years later was secure enough to bring over the rest of the family, including ten-year-old Alfonso.  Soon, Alfonso was studying art in New York, and in 1906 he became an apprentice to Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who would later go on to create Mount Rushmore.

(click to watch on YouTube in a larger window)

According to the Tim Samuelson, Chicago's official Cultural Historian and the curator of the exhibition, young Alfonso was ripe for assimilating Borglum's philosophy, which was all “about the idea that America has to to find its own artistic voice.”

“Iannelli,” says Samuelson, “was very much an advocate of collaboration in all things, that society was full of strong individuals who work together to create a harmonious society.  He believed in the idea of democracy.  I think this all came out of his immigrant experience - the freedom of the individual to create out of himself, but then the ability of the individual to have interactions with like-minded individuals.”
By the time Iannelli decided his future lie in the Great American West and moved to Los Angeles, Margaret Spaulding was already there.  Another transplant from New York - she was born in Mount Vernon in 1893 - Margaret's family settled in L.A. in 1903.  “Even as a teenager,” says Samuelson, ”she was getting every foreign fashion and art magazine that she could. ”  By the time she was 16, she was teaching art, and shortly thereafter had carved out a career as an illustrator for fashion advertisements.  She continued her outside work even as she joined Alfonso's L.A.  studio in 1913.
“Margaret talked,” says Samuelson, “in a breathy voice and the men would be mesmerized by this beautiful blonde, dressed in these stylish clothes and talking about art in a whisper.”

The Iannelli Studios had gotten a commission to do posters - at $5.00 a piece - for the Orpheum vaudeville theater in downtown Los Angeles.
“The earliest posters,” says Samuelson, “were done on tinted cardboard, starting in 1912.  You see how they were made to read as a panel.  They had to crank these out, but they made these studies.  They knew what acts were coming and so they would try to plan to make sure that when they were placed in the cases the posters would relate to each other.”
It was a job ‘perfectly suited to Alfonso Iannelli's desire to put modern art in highly visible public places.  The posters conveyed the spirit and energy of the performers, instead of simple caricatures.’

The posters got the attention of Frank Lloyd Wright's son, John, and in 1914, Alfonso accepted an invitation to come to Chicago to work with Wright on Midway Gardens, at 60th and Cottage Grove.   During the five months he was away, Margaret continued work on the posters, and the designs began to show more of her artistic influence. “ She was looking at Art Nouveau,”, says Samuelson.  “She was looking at Secession.  Especially if you look at the Orpheum posters, there's nothing that's Wrightian in those at all.  If there was an article in The International Studio on Japanese art, she tore it out and she'd file it away.  The whole use of line and negative space, it's very much that.”
Alfonso Iannelli, studies for Midway Garden sprites
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Alfonso was working with Wright to create what the long-vanished Midway Gardens remains most famous for today - its striking ‘Sprite’ sculptures.  Several of the originals, plus a group of studies, are on display at Modernism's Messengers.  The Sprites are displayed on a raised platform that gives you a good idea of their original relationship to the viewer.

“They were never on the ground,” says Samuelson. They always looked down at you.”
“This one had a mast that came out of the concrete, and cubes of glass, kind of like those light fixtures at Fallingwater, and the light bulbs would stagger up.  They called this one the totem.  In an early description, it's also called the gift-giver, that it's greeting you and bringing you cascading flowers in a vase.  Midway Gardens was an experiment in merging art and culture.  Of course, it quickly went broke.”

The downturn at the start of World War I saw the gardens sold in 1916 to Edelweiss Brewing
Margaret Iannelli
click for larger view
Company, which converted Midway Gardens into a beer garden. “They painted the sculpture.  The gift-giver, instead of looking like she was bringing you flowers, was painted to look like she was bringing you foaming beer steins.”

The changes - and cheapening - gained only a temporary reprieve.  Not even an appearance by the legendary Pavlova could save Midway Gardens from the ravages of Prohibition.  It was demolished in 1929, bankrupting in the process two demolition companies who had underestimated the solidness of the construction, “Wright actually said he was happy to see it go.”

When the work at Midway Gardens was published, Iannelli was appalled to discover that Wright claimed all the credit for the sculptures himself.  A contentious correspondance ensued, resulting in a rupture that precluded any further collaboration.  When Alfonso returned to Los Angeles, however, the Orpheum posters ‘displayed a new aesthetic of geometric complexity deriving from Alfonso's experiences with Frank Lloyd Wright.  Flat geometric areas of solid color predominated the designs, often contrasting with areas of gold and jet black.’  While both Ianelli's embraced strong geometries in their work, that of Alfonso tends to be harder and more abstract.  Margaret's have more of a pulse of life.
On Valentine's Day, 1915, Margaret and Alfonso were married in Santa Ana.  Soon afterward, they moved to Chicago, setting up their studio at the top of Holabird and Roche's Monroe Building on Michigan Avenue.  By the time the Iannelli's, now with two children, moved the studio for a final time, to Park Ridge, Margaret was showing signs of mental illness. 
At times she would erupt into episodes of rage.  Periods of intense productivity alternated with times when she could make nothing at all.  On occasion she would disappear for days.
After a major breakdown in 1923, Margaret was institutionalized, first at a sanitarium in Wisconsin, then on farms in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  She continued to take on projects, but she never fully recovered, finally being committed to Elgin State Hospital in 1929, where she would remain 38 years - more than half her life.  Her last works were a series of colorful illustrations for the hospital newsletter, painstakingly created by running the pages through the mimeograph once for each color.  The last known issue to include her work was in 1948.  “Details of Margaret's last nineteen years remain sealed in the medical records of the institution.”  She died, two months after breaking her hip, on November 29, 1967.  No one claimed her body.  She was given a pauper's burial in an unmarked grave.
It's uncertain if she even had known of Alfonso's death two years before.

After Margaret was institutionalized, Alfonso began to take on studio assistants, including Edgar Miller, Bruce Goff, and Ruth Blackwell, who would also become his new life companion.  His studio remained active during the 1930's, with a lot of work at the 1933/34 Century of Progress Exhibition. There were also the theaters - the Catlow in Barrington, and Pickwick in Park Ridge- but as the thirties came to a close, work dried up.  (Be sure not to miss the arrow pasted on one of the Cultural Center gallery's high windows, pointing to the view towards Iannelli's last major commission.)

“The irony” says Samuelson, “is he was trying to be the voice of modernism, but to the new voices in modernism - the Institute of Design and Moholy and the movements of the 20th century -Iannelli's work was much too figurative.  They were taking modernism into an entirely another direction.”

“In the end,” Samuelson says, ”there weren't many people seeking him out in the studio, and then suddenly he becomes the spokesperson for the Prairie School.  Instead of people coming to discuss the new trends and the philosophies of modernism and life, almost everyone was coming to talk to him about Frank Lloyd Wright and 1914.”  His last known poster was for an exhibition of the work of Adler and Sullivan at the historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, the former K.A.M Synagogue that burned to the bare walls in a 2006 fire.
When he died in 1965, Iannelli's ashes were buried anonymously in a Park Ridge cemetery.  He became news again in 2011, when his former design studio was threatened with demolition.  It was saved at the last moment when it was purchased by the Kalo Foundation and has now been preserved as The Iannelli Studios Heritage Center.

2013 is a year of discovery for the Iannelli's.  In addition to the show at the Cultural Center, next month will see the publication of Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design, a lavishly illustrated monograph by David Jameson.

Samuelson is a master storyteller, and in the Iannelli's, he has a great story to tell.  First, the Americanization of Alfonso - how, even before he came here, he was shaped by American culture, and soaked up its values and reshaped them with his own work.  And then, Margaret's story, which the Pritzker Prize's announcement that it will not redress its slight of Denise Scott Brown makes especially timely.  Samuelson's wall text lays out the story of Alfonso and Margaret in compelling and illuminating detail.  Hints are placed as to who was the dominant designer in certain works, but the observer is also often left to decide for themselves.

There is no question that the backstory of the rediscovery of Margaret and her role in the work of the Iannelli Studio lends a special poignancy to the exhibition.  Ultimately, however, the art must stand for itself, and here, it does.  This would be a great show even if the walls were bare of text.

It's a very sweeping display of many types of work, from graphics to sculpture, architectural renderings and ornament, illustrations, advertisements, furniture and even Iannelli's industrial work, including a patented design for a blender's glass container.
Tim Samuelson and appliances designed by Alfonso Iannelli
I don't want to oversell it.  We're not rediscovering a lost Picasso or Rodin, but as they said of Dvorak, if  the Iannelli's aren't necessarily at the top of the food chain, they are still second-rate artists of the first order.  In itself, their work is pleasurable to encounter.  In fostering an understanding of the history of early 20th-century art and architecture in Chicago and America, Modernism's Messengers: The Art of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli is deeply rewarding.

Modernism's Messengers: The Art of Alfonso and Margaret Iannelli, in the 2nd floor Chicago Rooms of the Chicago Cultural Center, continues through August 27.


Esther said...

A wonderful exhibit. Thanks, Tim (and Lynn).

Unknown said...

We were at the exhibit yesterday. Beautiful work by the Iannellis and what a tragedy Margaret's life ended and no one came to claim her body. I found myself deeply saddened by this. Great exhibit.