Florsheim/Goldberg: an extended conversation

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“It's an unusual story,” said Richard Wright in the New York gallery for his Chicago auction house.

Indeed, the tale of the mother-in-law/son-in-law relationship isn’t one that’s often told. But the intellectual give-and-take between architect Bertrand Goldberg and artist/collector Lillian Florsheim takes elegant form in an upcoming auction at Wright Auctions in Chicago, titled Florsheim/Goldberg: an extended conversation. The auction is set to be held on Thurs., Feb. 15 at 12:00 p.m(central time).

Model for Health Sciences Center in Stony Brook, NY, by Bertrand Goldberg. Image courtesy of Wright Auctions.

At the New York exhibition preceding the auction there was perhaps the most telling, modest, and intimate of all the pieces for sale: a spice rack that Goldberg designed for Florsheim. Composed of perforated stainless steel and metal engine parts, the kitchen accessory is appropriately valued at $2,000 to $3,000, despite its humble media. The piece reflects what Wright describes as an “intergenerational and familial” relationship where “the influence cut both ways.” “They shared a lot of conversations about specific shapes of curves,” he said. “And they really did the deep dive into ideas of form and space.”

Spice rack for the house of Lillian Florsheim by Bertrand Goldberg. Image courtesy of Wright Auctions.

Goldberg married Lillian’s daughter Nancy Florsheim in 1946, thus beginning the conversation between the architect and the artist. Their shared interest in what Wright called “the dementiality of three dimensional curves” can be observed in some of the pieces by Florsheim, namely an untitled 1965 sculpture where clear acrylic rods poke through a black Plexiglas square. And while curves occupied a good chunk of their theory thinking, one can imagine color took precedence too, explicitly in works collected by the two, such as Josef Albers’ Dark (1947) from Goldberg’s collection, and Formation de la Matiére (1951) by Georges Vantongerloo—which Florsheim acquired directly from the artistan exploration of color and form in oil on panel.

“Lillian had a personal relationship with Vantongerloo,” said Wright, who described Vantongerloo as “one of the style artists right up there with Mondrian and company.”

Florsheim already had an impressive art collection evolving well before Goldberg met his wife.

Formation de la Matière by Georges Vantongerloo. Image courtesy of Wright Auctions.

“Later she made choices that were influenced by Bertrand, as he got her to look at and at some of the more challenging more avant-garde European material,” said Wright.

Of course, the auction includes plenty of architectural drawings, posters, studies, photos, and models, such as two models by Goldberg for the Health Sciences Center at SUNY Stony Brook, which can be appreciated as pure sculpture in their simplicity of form.

The collection also veers into other aspects of the family’s history. Nancy Goldberg’s development of a boutique hotel tower designed by her husband required a marquee restaurant. The family convinced Maxim’s de Paris owners to open their first franchise in the Astor Tower Hotel on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Decor from the former restaurant ushers in the more esoteric aspects of the collection, such as art nouveau posters, champagne buckets, and other ephemera that add an eccentric footnote.

Dark by Josef Albers. Image courtesy of Wright Auctions.

While the auction is primarily drawn from modernist collections, there’s also a keen appreciation of ancient Roman glass, an impressive amount of pre-Columbian sculpture, an Indonesian cowbell, and John Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel (Plexigram I).  

The catalogue’s perforated protective cover is reminiscent of Florsheim’s Plexi piece. It is written by Nancy and Betrand’s son, the architect Geof Goldberg, who respectfully distinguishes two independent thinkers that clearly appreciated each other.

“It’s not for us to say who influenced who,” said Wright. “But they were literally in conversation in a very direct way.”

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Untitled (Rods Through Plane form, H11) by Lillian Florsheim. Image courtesy of Wright Auctions.

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