Modernists mingle at Frelinghuysen Morris House

Paintings by Picasso or Miró hang casually on the walls — an early Matisse, or Jean and Sophie Tauber-Arp in the hallway. But the marble tiles in the round lobby come from a quarry in Lee, and the murals on the spiral stair were painted here.

When their work came to this house, these European and American Modernist artists were alive and barely known, and some of them came here themselves to see George L.K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen, artists and art critics who took an early lead in the Modernist movement in America.

In 1930 George built a studio on the grounds of his family’s estate, and when they married he and Suzy expanded it into a Modernist house.

Today their nephew, T. Kinney Frelinghuysen, acts as director and and his wife, Linda, as communications director of the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, a museum to preserve George and Suzy’s frescoes, murals, collages and paintings, the Modernist artists they collected and the design and architecture they loved. Kinney rotates new works from their collection into the house and studio every summer.

Today George and Suzy are well-known. In the dining room, one of Suzy’s murals, a 1942 small abstract, still has the original $75 price tag on the back — Kinney remembers a similar piece selling recently for $40,000, and he has seen her vintage work go for $100,000 or more.

But in their lifetimes, he says, George and Suzy fought for Modernism when even Modern art museums turned away.

‘In their lifetimes, (they) fought for Modernism when even Modern art museums turned away.’ — Kinney Frelinghuysen

George met Modernism in Europe, and Suzy would come to it through him. While she sang with voice teachers in Venice or Verona, preparing for a career in the New York City Opera, he was studying art with Fernand Léger in Paris. Years later he remembered standing on the steps at Fontainbleu with his cousin, the Modernist artist and collector A.E. Gallatin, whoencouraged him to take Léger’s class — and changed his life.

Back in New York, George felt the U.S. had no Modern art tradition, Kinney says. Painters had studios scattered around the city, and no one knew each other. George became a co-founder of the American Abstract Artists to support them and his own work.

The Whitney and the MoMA were getting started, Linda says, but no one showed abstract art until Gallatin brought it to the city — no one could see a Picasso in the U.S. until he hung one in an informal gallery at N.Y.U. Gallatin became George’s mentor. By the mid-1930s, Kinney says, George was buying art for the MoMA as well as collecting on his own. His choices often surprised them.

“They wanted Cézanne,” he says, “and he bought them a Mondrian for $300.”

‘They wanted Cézanne, and he bought them a Mondrian for $300.’ — Kinney Frelinghuysen

As he and Suzy explored their own painting, they stood up for the emerging movement. George and Suzy “were artists fighting against critics who didn’t understand what they were doing,” Kinney says. “… at the time they were not seen as … an outgrowth of European art movements.”

In time the balance shifted. After the war, in 1950s, Jackson Pollack and Theodore Roethke became quintessential new American artists, and America took a leading place in the art world. But George and Suzy led the Modernist movement from its earliest days, in their own work and in the artists they collected

After Suzy Frelinghuysen died, the family established the a nonprofit foundation which owns the house, and the museum opens for tours in the summer and fall. They have to be guided tours, Linda says, to protect and preserve the property and the collection.

The recession may have hit small museums across the county, she says, recalling conversations with many local organizations, but the Frelinghuysen Morris House has seen their numbers of visitors grow in the last few years, with more younger people and a substantial increase in group tours. Its programming has expanded at the same time with vintage 1930s films and a series with local professionals artists who paint on-site on Fridays and talk about their artwork and their techniques with anyone who stops by.

‘(They) were artists fighting against critics who didn’t understand what they were doing.’ — Kinney Frelinghuysen

An interactive conversation about the art also ends each tour, and Kinney offers longer “Has Your Creativity Been Hiding?” workshops on select Saturday mornings — and visitors have responded, Kinney said, with an excitement that surprises and fulfills him. They begin simply with paper and a marker, drawing from a painting before they know who painted it. Kinney wants them to approach without an automatic recognition.

“You can convince yourself you know all about Picasso because you’ve heard the name so often,” he says, “… or you think ‘that’s a wine glass’ — you recognize his style and you move on.”

He wants people to take time with a painting. When they begin to draw, people calm down the “what is it” impulse that often frustrates them when they first see a Modernist painting, he says. They feel their way into one of Suzy’s early collages in blues and greys and newsprint, with a curve like a still-life bottle, or a painting of George’s in sunrise colors and black lines, invoking the Stockbridge Mission and the Mohicans.

In two minutes, he says, the tension and emotion in the work touches people, and they tell him they have not had this kind of experience with a painting or a museum before.

“People keep coming up afterward,” he says, “and saying ‘I feel free.’


In the photo at the top, George L.K. Morris’ mural follows the curve of the spiral stair in the foyer at the Frelinghuysen Morris House Museum in Lenox. Image courtesy of Kinney Frelinghuysen. This story first ran in Berkshire Magazine in summer 2016. My thanks to Anastasia Stanmeyer.

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