The relationship between a classically trained, contemporary artist and the canonical, modernist architectural work he set out to paint is at the heart of Felix de la Concha's exemplary exhibition of paintings of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece at The Barn at Fallingwater.
- Where: The Barn at Fallingwater, along Route 381 between Mill Run and Ohiopyle.
- When: Through November 10.
- Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
- Admission: Free.
- Film: "Felix at Fallingwater," by Kenneth Love, runs continuously in the gallery (28 minutes).
- Other: Note cards of 6 paintings are available at $3 each; an exhibition poster is $10.
- Information: 724-329-8501 or www.paconserve.org.
I use the word "relationship" because de la Concha does not simply render his subjects. Rather, he studies them before he begins to paint, which is always done on site, through various conditions of weather and lighting. Each mark is a response to an observation made, his eyes moving constantly between subject and canvas. His is a dialogue, with nothing assumed.
The Spanish artist, who divides his time between Madrid and New Hampshire, visited Fallingwater for 10 days in early summer 2005 to scout the possibilities the venue offered. He returned several times during 2005 and 2006, spending a total of several weeks, spread over four seasons, looking and painting.
It wasn't the first time de la Concha had seen Fallingwater. He visited "as a tourist" more than once during the period he lived in Pittsburgh, from 1997 to 2000, "not having any idea that I was going to [later] paint there," he said recently by telephone from his New England home.
De la Concha had also come back to Western Pennsylvania a few years earlier, at the invitation of The Frick Art & Historical Center, to paint Clayton, the Henry Clay Frick home. It was at the summer 2004 reception for the resultant exhibition that Lynda Waggoner, vice president and director of Fallingwater, invited him to interpret Wright's celebrated work.
While the opportunity appealed to him, he wasn't "100 percent convinced" in the beginning, he says, wondering how he would approach such a subject. "It's one of the most photographed buildings in the world -- it's an icon," de la Concha says.
Waggoner says she understood his concern. "There's a lot of risk in trying to depict something that is so well known."
De la Concha says that his most recent subject had been an abandoned trailer in Appalachian North Carolina, where he was living at the time -- "the antithesis" of Fallingwater. But then he asked himself, "Why not paint something so prominent?" He'd learned during a Prix de Rome fellowship -- where there were "postcard" views everywhere -- how to individualize his vision, in part by developing a series approach.
Waggoner offered him use of a nearby guest cottage, access to Fallingwater and its grounds any time there weren't tours being conducted, and the assistance of maintenance and security staff. He'd be on his way to paint daily by 8 a.m., Waggoner says, sometimes "trudging through snow," and would often stay out until 8 at night.
It wasn't long before de la Concha became a site favorite. "They all watched him every day," Waggoner says of the staff. "Some would bring him food -- Felix would forget to eat."
"He was so intense" says Fallingwater security guard Marla Bates of Markleysburg. He had four or five paintings started at one time, she says, waiting for the perfect light to complete them. Once, she accompanied a Japanese film crew to an area below the falls that's off limits to visitors but where de la Concha was painting. "The producer kept trying to get Felix's attention. Finally Felix turned and looked at him, and then went back to painting. He wasn't going to break his concentration. The light was right. He was working."
"Felix had a sense of humor once you got to know him," says manger of security Jerry Burke of North Huntingdon. "I could razz him [about things]," such as the time that de la Concha, trying to dial an international number, mistakenly dialed 911. "Fayette sent the state police out here. It was a 'hang-up call' and had to be checked out." Another time, a "bug hatch" occurred when de la Concha was painting near the falls, Burke says. He called the guards to report numbers of bugs landing on his painting and sticking to it and asked what could be done about it. Burke says he answered "nothing" and advised the artist to leave and return the next day.
Once, de la Concha arrived at Fallingwater to find that a statue had been seasonally moved from the interior, where he'd previously begun a painting, to a terrace. He asked that it be taken back inside. Burke replied: "Felix, do you realize how heavy that Buddha head is?" In the end, however, the statute was moved, although it took three people. "I had fun with Felix, and I also have the utmost respect for his work."
Visitors can get a sense of de la Concha's experience from the 28-minute-long "Felix at Fallingwater," beautifully and intelligently filmed by Kenneth Love, which runs continuously in the exhibition. We see him, for example, painting at the base of the falls, his chair legs and feet propped on rocks, water swirling around the easel base; gingerly crossing the stream on a pliable plank, one boot in front of another, while carrying an oversized canvas; painting with gloved hands as snow falls.
"I have the largest studio in the world, which is the world itself. I paint what I find in it," de la Cocha says through subtitles in the silent film. He also comments, therein, on his focus on accuracy and details, as, in a way "alluding to the Buddhist path of losing oneself, an aesthetic of the ascetic."
"He's very honest," observes Justin Gunther, curator of buildings and collections. "There's such an intimacy to all of the paintings."
De la Concha is also a master in the traditional sense of the word, his brushstrokes exquisitely formed, his compositions elegant. The eye is seduced into seeing not dabs of paint but glass, rock, water, wood, foliage and more.
He gives such formal perfection a contemporary aesthetic by structuring meditations upon time into each work. For de la Concha, time is bonded with light, the latter creating tangible manifestations of the former. A shadow cast in a vignette suggests imminent change; a multi-part work, longer cycles.
"What he's done is provide insights into the building that photography can't," Waggoner says. "The key to Fallingwater is to understand the temporal nature of the building. And he caught that."
It's one reason de la Concha is determined to paint before his subject rather than from sketches in the studio. "There are real differences to working on the spot, conceptually, but also perceiving the light, working with the elements." Think of what is lost when communicating by phone or e-mail versus talking in person, and you begin to appreciate the significance of sensory nuances.
Lighting is most dramatic in night scenes, where a brush has the advantage of degree and subtly over a camera. Nocturnals range from the first painting the artist made, of the "most classical view [the southwest elevation], but at night," to a breathtakingly delicate twilight terrace scene that required many sessions to complete because of the "very fragile light" that lingers only briefly at that time of day.
De la Concha knows well the tricks of perspective, and the double-entendre of the show's title -- "Fallingwater en Perspectiva: Felix de la Concha Paints Frank Lloyd Wright's House on the Waterfall" -- plays out, especially in the "Great Room Panorama," hung in an eclectic manner inspired by the house's signature cantilevers, and in the "Waterfall Series," seven 83 3/4-by-37 1/2-inch paintings, their formal qualities a nod to Japanese art, in which Wright had an interest.
The former painstakingly scans Fallingwater's main room through eight canvases, some of them painted askew. Through quiet variances in season and in the relationship of objects to one another and to their spatial planes, de la Concha addresses both the moment and history. The room, which once served vacationing family and guests, and which visitors now flow through by day as steadily as the stream below, is sans people, a repository of presence and of absence.
Public tour supervisor Denise Miner, who's been at Fallingwater for 20 years and lives in nearby Mill Run, noted how detail-oriented the artist was as he painted the panorama. He placed tape on the floor to mark the positions of his chair and easel so that he returned to the exact spot each day, she says. One day, she began to re-position a chair and he said "no, no," requesting that she leave it exactly as it was.
The sublime intermingles with Wright's showmanship in the falls series. Beneath a terrace's bold thrusting rectangle, Bear Run fans into gossamer veils that create material records of passing time. By changing lighting and perspective, de la Concha rotates the scene from hillside to a bowl in the streambed that the water, in measured rhythm, has scoured out of solid rock. Contextualized within evidence of time's relentless passage, the house itself becomes more vulnerable, as does the viewer.
De la Concha says that verbal descriptions frequently fall short because what is most important is "ineffable." It is his capacity to infuse these paintings with that undefinable and elusive presence that distinguishes them.
The late Edgar Kaufmann Jr., who entrusted Fallingwater to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, was eager to have artists at the site, Waggoner says, to create new lenses through which to view it. De la Concha's lens provides visitors with a focus that they may apply to their actual experience of the house. And as the exhibition travels, it will present Wright's vision anew to the broader world.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas may be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1925.