An art display explores the history and struggles of Hollyhock House
After their legal disputes were resolved, Aline Barnsdall—oil heiress, philanthropist, and experimental theater producer—wrote Frank Lloyd Wright, her architect, a letter with these lines: “I hope we do not regard each other as enemies.” And that we may never try to work together again. This cannot be done. We are both cut from the same mold – selfish, dictatorial, and creative.
Although the full scope of her commission—a 36-acre art colony—was never realized, Barnsdall’s residence, the Hollyhock House, was Wright’s first major project in California. It is, in many ways, arguably the birthplace of modernism in California. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and located within Barnsdall Municipal Art Park in East Hollywood, the house, its dynamic history and the complex interactions between the dreamers who left their mark on it are explored in the exhibition “Entanglements: Louise Bonet and Adam Silverman at the Hollyhock House,” on view through June 24.
The exhibition places new works – two large paintings and a work on paper by Bonnet, and 11 ceramic vessels by Silverman – in dialogue with the house. “This is by no means a white box space – Wright, by nature, looms large and is present in the way he designs his spaces,” says Abby Chamberlain-Brush, curator of the Hollyhock House Museum and organizer of the exhibition.
The way Wright’s ambitious design clashed with Barnsdall and other famous architects—including his protégés Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra—who were enlisted to finish the house (long story short: Wright was fired) interested the artists enough that they proposed the show to Brach. “Wright brought Schindler here. They fought. Wright brought his son Lloyd Wright here, and they had problems. …And then, of course, Barnsdall was raising her young daughter here, too. There are all these connections between two people, success and failure,” Silverman says. And fighting.”
Brach responded with an enthusiastic yes, even though Hollyhock House has not displayed contemporary art since it became a museum in 1976. For Brach, the opportunity to have new art interpret the house goes back to Barnsdall’s desire for her home, originally conceived, to be Be part of a larger experimental arts colony, and be inspired by art.
It’s also the first time Bonet and Silverman, who are married and live in Silver Lake, have collaborated professionally. “We know our work is connected, but it’s not obvious,” Silverman says. “What was interesting to us was the reality of relationships and the difficulty of relationships — and the fruit that comes from that can be positive and negative and both at the same time.”
In house museums like Hollyhock, artworks compete for attention with other parts of the home interior, such as furniture (here, mostly by Wright), scenery, and even books on a shelf. In situ, Bonnet’s paintings and Silverman’s vessels highlight specific points where tensions—sometimes layers of them—are steepest. Their artwork brings heated conversations between objects back into the room.
A bustling example confronts visitors almost upon entry, in the long hallway known as the loggia. At the far end of the space, “Hollyhock Green,” a vibrant painting by Bonnet depicting a handful of fingers clutching a handkerchief, responds to the Roman relief in front of it — a replica of a work that Barnsdall installed in the room, much to Wright’s chagrin. He said that classical work had no place in his design. So Barnsdall improvised, bringing two Wright-designed tables together to set up a platform for herself, asserting herself in the space. To the viewer’s right, and precariously close to the edge of the ledge, Silverman has placed a stoneware vase titled “Dependents” that has a spherical insert at the top that looks likely to topple the piece at any moment.
Contemporary artists take different approaches to stimulating this multidimensional conversation. Silverman, a former architect, fuses his ceramics with materials from the site – excavating the site by incorporating some of his raw materials. Olive ash is used in glazes from trees on the grounds, which were formerly known as the “Hill of Olives.” In response to Wright’s evocation of the four elements in the living room—and the room’s expansive view extending to the Pacific Ocean—Silverman adds foraged clay, seaweed, salt, driftwood, and shells to his ceramic glaze, two of which surround Wright’s famous concrete base—the relief fireplace. Silverman’s towering ships couldn’t fill the expanses of Wright’s massive ambitions, including the empty moat surrounding the architect’s masterpiece, a remnant of a water feature that failed almost immediately after installation.
Bonnet intentionally placed her work in spaces where Barnsdall displayed artwork from her own collection. “I was interested in getting work where we knew she had work – in the exact same place,” she says. I looked at the few archival photos that existed from when Barnsdall lived there, which wasn’t that long. The house was completed in 1921; Barnsdall, a single mother who was frustrated by the house’s required upkeep (that water feature!), gifted the property to the city in 1927. “I thought a lot about domesticity — Dutch still lifes, paintings that are a performative display of wealth and abundance on elegant tablecloths,” Holbein photographed. of people in their homes pretending to be doing work. “I took that as a kind of structure and put these weights — the push and pull of emotions — into the form that sits on top of it,” Bonet says of how the site inspired her work for it.
When the artists, who worked alone in their studios, brought their works together on site, they were surprised that “the house absorbed the work in such a generous way,” Bonnet said. She was particularly concerned about the color of the walls in the alcove off the living room where she was going to install “Hollyhock Gold,” a large painting of clasped, outstretched hands. During Barnsdall’s time, the corner contained one of several Japanese screens purchased by Wright, who was largely absent during the construction of the Hollyhock, having worked in Japan at the Imperial Hotel. Strapped for cash, he started a side business importing art and sold several screens to Barnsdall for her home. The two eventually ended up taking to court on screens, among other things.
The weight and gravity of the figures in Bonnet’s paintings, “Hollyhock Green” and “Hollyhock Gold,” speak to the specific dynamics of place, from the personal relationships conflicted here to Wright’s use of a design principle he called “compression and pressure.” “Release”, where narrow passages open into wide and expansive passages. Her works explore domestic tension, its contraction and release. Likewise, Silverman, who has used a process called rolling stacking in many of his works where pieces are stacked on top of each other in a kiln, is interested in what pressure can do within a small space. “The pieces fuse together and fuse to form something new — they lose their independence in a way, they become completely dependent on each other and something completely different — just like a relationship does with you,” he says.
Bonnet and Silverman’s intervention in this sacred architectural monument posits that creativity—even when artists work alone—is rarely a solitary pursuit. It is a relational act in which multiple influences consolidate to form a new complex – the rambling accumulation of conversations, experiences and places.
Humans create chaos and masterpieces, and Entanglements posits that one is not possible without the other—or even that they are one and the same. Bonnet’s orange paint transforms the green wall behind him, and the room’s walls in turn take up the painting. It is an unlikely embrace where discord creates its own beauty, incongruous and real, where tension and conflict are not by-products, but essential to art.
The combination of the couple’s professional and personal lives became, according to Bonet, “a bit stifling.” Both artists admit that they are unlikely to undertake another joint exhibition any time soon. However, the couple credits the process of bringing their acts together with pushing each artist in a new direction. This is an example of entanglement as a generative force, creating its own kind of alchemy: “Doing[the show]here and doing it together changed the results,” Silverman says. “There is no doubt – if this had been a gallery or a museum, the work would have been different, even at the same point in our lives. If I had done this alone, or she had done it alone, it would have been very different.”
“Entanglements: Louise Bonnet and Adam Silverman”
where: Hollyhock House, Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles
when: Thursday – Saturday, 11am – 4pm Closed Sunday – Wednesday. Until June 24th
the tickets: $3-$7, advance reservations required. Buy in hollyhockhouse.org