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a restaurant with yellow tiled walls
Geometric yellow tiles hung in a restaurant

Crowner's tile installation in the Guggenheim Museum's Wright Restaurant.  Photo: David Heald / Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

For a September 1957 New York Times article, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, then 90 years old, took the architecture writer Aline B. Saarinen on a tour of the museum he had designed to house Solomon R. Guggenheim’s collection of modern art on the Upper East Side of New York City. Even if you’ve never been, you probably know the Guggenheim, which looks a bit like what might happen if a gorgon stared down an alien spaceship and petrified it to stone in the middle of a ritzy stretch of Fifth Avenue. Life magazine, more than a decade earlier, had already dubbed Wright’s design “New York’s strangest building.” Over the years, it has been compared to many things, among them “an inverted cupcake,” “a giant Jell-O mold,” and “a washing machine,” or so brags the museum’s Facebook page. For her part, Saarinen thought the building, mid-construction and still two years from opening, resembled a “concrete snail.”

Of course, Wright’s strange exterior houses an interior that’s just as unusual. “What we wanted to do was create an atmosphere suitable to the paintings,” the architect told Saarinen of his gallery space, a long, spiraling ramp that works its way around an open central atrium, with a curved perimeter wall for hanging art. “Each one would exist in the whole space, the whole atmosphere, not within its rectilinear frame in a rectilinear room.” Wright added, “and once he stops having to think in terms of rectangles, the painter will be free to paint on any shape he chooses—even to curve his canvas if he wants.”

Make that a she, and you could be talking about Sarah Crowner, the Brooklyn-based artist who, 60 years on, has, at least indirectly, taken the architect’s provocation very much to heart. The museum recently asked Crowner to make her mark on a small piece of Frank Lloyd Wright’s imposing creation: The Wright, the architect’s namesake restaurant, tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of the building’s ground floor. She’s not the first to do so. In 2009, architect Andre Kikoski, with the help of British artist Liam Gillick, reimagined the interior of the space, transforming what had been a sort of drab cafeteria into an artfully appointed fine-dining destination. Their intervention won glowing reviews and industry awards. But years later, it was time for a facelift. Enter Crowner, whose work, like Wright’s, reflects a keen interest in freeing painting from its conventional frame.

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