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Putting Frank Lloyd Wright in perspective as architect - and man

Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Brendan Gill. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 554 pp. $22.95. The arts often produce celebrities whose reputations exceed disciplinary boundaries. Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O'Keeffe became public personalities. So did Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. The ubiquity of pop designer Keith Haring's T-shirts on college students testifies to society's willingness to lionize artists. In architecture, no one else in this century has been as renowned, or as notorious, as Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright's financial debacles, temper tantrums, and marital scandals, have left little residue in the public memory. Instead, Wright is remembered as a Whitmanesque dreamer, a norm-breaker whose prairie-style houses united form and function, morality and aesthetics, in a fundamentally American building. His individualism was celebrated in Ayn Rand's ``The Fountainhead.'' White-haired, craggy-faced, rooted in the earth like his houses, Wright is seen as the Robert Frost of architecture.

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In his new biography of Wright, Brendan Gill sets out to tell the public what architectural historians have known for a long time, that Wright was quite a scamp. Any popular book with the aim of demythologizing Wright will make people as uncomfortable as Frank Lloyd Wright furniture.

Gill is intent on exposing what he calls ``Wright's whoppers,'' the inconsistent narrative of lies, big and small, that Wright told to and about himself. He concludes that Wright ``was a virtuoso at bearing false witness ... he sometimes lied in the name of self-promotion or self-protection and at other times he seems to have lied simply for the pleasure it gave him.''

For a person who lived most of his professional and private life in the newspapers, Wright was surprisingly ignorant of public relations. One of his biggest gaffes took place on Christmas morning, 1911, when he held a press conference to explain why he had left his wife to live with another man's wife at Taliesin, the dream house he built near Spring Green, outside of Chicago. ``The ordinary man cannot live without rules to guide his conduct,'' Wright arrogantly proclaimed. ``It is infinitely more difficult to live without rules, but that is what the really honest, sincere, thinking man is compelled to do.''

Wright's words, alternately arch and gooey, only increased the press's avidity to learn more about the architect's private life. In addition, the statement reveals the ``self-aggrandizing, self-destroying'' tendency in Wright's character that Gill has so ably pinned.

From Gill's biography one concludes that Wright created in spite of, not because of, his character flaws. Gill is not given to simplistic psychoanalysis. Still, the question lingers: Is ``Many Masks'' really higher gossip, the revelation of private matters best left unrestored?

Surely there are better books on Wright's architecture, and despite its many pictures and Gill's perceptive comments, readers intent on learning about Wright's works would be better served by the profusely illustrated, continuing series, ``Frank Lloyd Wright'' (Tokyo: A.D.A. Edita).

``Many Masks'' is a small test of one's philosophy of history and human nature. Those who see this age as one that longs for heroes only to unmask them in the acid light of public scrutiny will dislike it. But those who believe that humans are frequently weaker than their works will understand that Gill's description of Wright's moral turpitude cannot alter the worth of Wright's architecture.

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Mary Warner Marien teaches in the Fine Arts Department at Syracuse University.

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