Collection 1880s–1940s


Ornament and Abstraction

Nov 14, 2020–Jun 11, 2023


Frank Lloyd Wright. Clerestory Windows from Avery Coonley Playhouse, Riverside, Illinois. 1912. Clear and colored glass in zinc matrix, Each: 18 5/16 x 34 3/16" (46.5 x 86.8 cm). Joseph H. Heil Fund. © 2017 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
  • MoMA, Floor 5, 511 The David Geffen Wing

Modern architects in the early twentieth century famously declared war on ornament, decrying it for being representational, superficially applied, and lacking in functional purpose—qualities they saw as insincere and at odds with the ethos of “honest” construction. What remains seldom discussed, however, is that the preceding generation of architects had relied heavily on the study of ornamental patterns in their search for a new language of form.

This gallery explores the double origins of architectural abstraction in both geometric and natural ornament. Architects such as Hector Guimard advocated a wholly new art—Art Nouveau—whose curvilinear motifs were derived from patterns found in plants. Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright looked to the intersection of nature and geometry in their quest to establish an American architecture freed from European traditions. Even proponents of the most radical geometric abstraction created surfaces and spaces that, while devoid of traditional moldings or historical decoration, applied form and color in novel, decorative ways.

Organized by Barry Bergdoll, Guest Curator, Evangelos Kotsioris, Assistant Curator, and Martino Stierli, Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, with Mallory Cohen and Paula Vilaplana de Miguel, Curatorial Assistants, and Anna Kats, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design.

76 works online


Installation images

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