The Unsolved Mystery of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Earth’
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation | Oct 1, 2021
A mural, a mosaic, and a drawing: uncovering the origins of ‘Earth,’ our October Liberty Cover.
Starting in May, each month we have shared one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s proposed designs for Liberty Magazine, a once-popular, weekly, general-interest publication. The magazine was then known for its “continuity” covers—Rockwell-esque, Americana illustrations that when looked at side by side began to tell a larger story. In the end, publishers had little interest in the distinct, abstract drawings Wright had submitted to them.
The inclusion of ‘Earth’, our featured October cover, comes to us via snippets of correspondence, scribbled notes, surviving artwork, and some healthy conjecture. All suggest ‘Earth’, in some form, was submitted to Liberty. It is believed the drawing was a derivative design based on a mural Wright had created for his epic Midway Gardens, in Chicago, years earlier. Did Wright merely repurpose a drawing of the Midway mural? Or had he adapted it into a more formal, rectilinear abstraction to fit the formatting of the cover illustrations he was submitting to Liberty? Though we will likely never know the exact details and nature of the ‘Earth’ drawing, surviving artwork points us toward its general likeness, thanks to the surviving drawings of the Midway Gardens mural, and a mosaic tile Wright later commissioned later.
Shop the Midway Gardens Collection at the Frank Lloyd Wright Store.
Wright began his relationship with Liberty by writing an article on the Imperial Hotel, published in December 1927. Following this publication, Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, in a letter to a friend, wrote that Wright had submitted drawings to Liberty, in the hopes that they would contract him for a year’s worth of covers. Being a weekly magazine, this would have amounted to 52 covers in total.
Though there is no known record of Liberty’s reaction to the proposal, the submitted cover designs were never used by the magazine. Wright’s correspondence to Architectural Record, a publication he pitched the covers to after Liberty said enough of their decision. “…I don’t see any reason why the cover of an architectural magazine shouldn’t concern itself with some decorative patterns rather than some academic stupidity supposed to be dignified. … Every infernal magazine cover in the United States is either trash or stupid.” Despite this, Wright continued working with Liberty, publishing an article on Taliesin, and eventually submitting another proposal for an article to tell the ‘Tale of Midway Gardens’–accompanied by a drawing “made as a decoration for the title page.” The piece was never published, and Wright wrote to request the return of the drawing he had submitted for it, though it is unclear the magazine did so.
‘Earth’ was originally designed nearly 20 years prior, as a mural for Midway Gardens. Midway Gardens was a 360,000 square foot entertainment center in Chicago–a sturdy, short-lived structure, that was torn down in 1929, bankrupting the demolition company hired to raze it in the process.
Though the mural is long gone, photographs, sketches and a presentation drawing of this mural exist to this day. In An American Architecture, Wright wrote on the abstract nature found in the Midway Gardens designs:
What they now call non-objective art can be seen in the patterns we designed for the Midway Gardens in 1912. But I had been making such abstract designs for fifteen years. The principle of design was natural, inevitable for me. Whether in glass or textile or whatever, it is based on the straight-line technique of the T-square and the triangle.
THE MORGAN MOSAIC
In 1929, Wright commissioned several mosaic tiles from an associate, Charles L. Morgan, for another article he was proposing, this time on the demolition of Midway Gardens, writing that this article “might be embellished with one of the cover designs we worked out.” One the back of one finished tile, Morgan wrote:
Dear Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect.
I do hope you like what my girls have done with this mosaic. Any variation from your original sketch was not intended.
With my compliments, Chas. August 12, 1929.
Several of these tiles survive today, including the ‘Earth’ tile, featuring a design matching a segment of the Midway Gardens mural, adapted from its original pentagram shape into a rectilinear image.
In 1930, a year after Wright submitted the cover designs to Liberty, the Art Institute of Chicago mounted a show entitled, “The Work of Frank Lloyd Wright: 1893-1930”. Few photographs remain of the exhibition, but in one image Wright’s March Balloons Liberty cover is tacked to a presentation board in the foreground. If you look closer at the scene, nestled amongst drawings tacked to the far wall, a drawing of the Midway Gardens mural hangs, a quiet reminder of the mysteries of Earth.