22 September 2010

Edward G. Robison's Art Gallery

As an art collector and director at the Art Institute of Chicago, Samuel Marx was constantly in contact with galleries, dealers and collectors of 20th Century modern art. One of the most extensive collections Marx worked with belonged to Edward G. Robinson who was an obsessive collector.

Edward G. Robinson with some of his prized art works. Photograph from LIFE magazine online digital archive.
In 1941 Robinson commissioned Marx to design an art gallery attached to his home at 910 North Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. Robinson's home was a picturesque Tudor style and the actor contemplated selling it after  building a new home that would better accommodate his growing art collection. Marx convinced Robinson to stay in the house which was then remodeled to display his collection to its greatest effect. Ultimately, they decided to construct a new free-standing windowless art gallery. While the exterior was plain with a peaked roof, the gallery's interior was modern to the core.

New art gallery at the south end of the house has skylights set into its peaked roof. Courtesy of Google Maps.
The gallery addition replaced an existing badminton court at the south end of the house. A porte-cochere was constructed linking to the existing structure.
Samuel Marx's clean modern design for the interior of Edward G. Robinson's art gallery.
While the above black and white image represents the fundamental architecture of the gallery, the color photograph published in an issue of LIFE magazine provides a richer sense of the character and palette of the space. For Marx, architecture and interiors formed an interconnected whole. He would typically refuse projects for which the client requested his architectural design services only. He believed the interior fixtures and finishes were an essential aspect of a project's experience and integrity.

Color photograph of Robinson's art gallery published in the March 1, 1948 issue of LIFE magazine (page 66).
Marx employed fossil-encrusted stone (a favorite material) as the primary structure organizing the space. Sets of stone slabs support a floating ceiling plane above and allow filtered natural light to wash the gallery walls.

Marx's cross-section through the new art gallery. Image from Ultramodern: Samuel Marx by Liz O'Brien.
Marx had a keen understanding of the requirements for displaying art from aesthetic, practical and technical viewpoints. The skylight prevented any direct harmful rays of the southern California sky from reaching the works. A scrim was installed above the floating plane diffusing the light further while directing it toward the gallery's outside walls.

Use of fossil stone is consistent and considered: surrounding entry, fireplace and free standing partitions.
Marx also provided an ingenious artificial lighting configuration approximating the daylight configuration in intensity and orientation, while keeping the fixtures concealed from view.

In some ways the design suggests Louis I. Kahn's later design for Fort Worth's Kimball Art Museum.

Louis I. Kahn's Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas at captured in a photograph posted on Flickr by tim_buk2.
• • • • •

I'll be giving a talk on the Morton May House in Saint Louis designed by Samuel Marx this Sunday  26 September 2010 at 3pm. The slide talk will be held at Landmarks Association of Saint Louis.

My talk is part of a series on mid-century modern architecture being held this fall. Reservations are required as the talks are quite popular and only 50 people can be accommodated.

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