Gene Summers at Wright auction house

Spotlight on the sculptures of Mies van der Rohe’s associate

As a close associate of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the American modernist architect Gene Summers was directly involved with landmark creations such as New York City’s Seagram Building, the iconic steel-and-glass Farnsworth House in Illinois (now a historic house museum) and the National Gallery in Berlin. Later, as design supremo at architectural firm CF Murphy Associates, he worked on Chicago’s huge McCormick Center, which is notable for a cantilevered roof extending 75ft beyond its supporting columns. A subsequent partnership with architect and real estate developer Phyllis Lambert resulted in the restoration and development of numerous buildings including the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. With modernist architecture comprising such a significant part of his creative output, it’s a surprise to find that Summers also turned his hand to much smaller, more personal projects in the form of hundreds of bronze sculptures, which are now the focus of a selling show at Wright’s gallery in New York (March 23-April 2).

Texan-born Summers created these sculptures, furniture and decorative objects ($1,250-$42,000) while living in France at his home-cum-studio in Saint-Paul-de-Vence and his Monaco apartment between 1985 and 1989, after which he returned to the US as dean of the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. These artistic creations offered a counterpoint to the demands of his architectural work. In comparing the disciplines, he once said of sculpture: “You don’t have to talk to clients; you don’t have to talk to employees. It’s all in your own hands.”

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The results speak for themselves. Here are elegant armchairs (estimate $32,000, first picture) supported by sculptural bronze framework, a side table with Picasso-like zig-zag legs and a stool whose legs and seat echo the elliptical shapes favoured by Matisse, plus curvaceous vases, quirky andirons ($6,850, third picture), and tall, slender candlesticks and floor lamps (such as second picture, $18,500), whose forms are reminiscent of Giacometti’s attenuated figures.

“The beauty and power of Gene Summers’ sculpture and objects lies in the directness of expression they offered him,” says Brent Lewis, Wright’s New York director. “He was not working through blueprints and planning – he was working alone as a modern artist. He was able to draw on a different set of influences from those he held when he worked with Mies. He was able to sculpt with his hand. It is that quality which gives these works their soulful and timeless quality.”

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All these works in bronze are created using the ancient method of lost wax casting – a process that captures and replicates the precise details of Summers’ original models. Each is created in a limited edition of between eight to 12 pieces and, at most, no more than 20 castings.

Summers died, aged 83, in 2011. Three years later Wright, the Chicago-based auction house, partnered with Gene Summers’ estate to bring the late designer’s work to market through Wright Now, the company’s online art and design retail outlet. As the exclusive source for buying Gene Summers’ work, it will continue to offer the designs until all the editions are sold out.

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