"Looking at abstract art can feel like drifting at sea, without a recognizable object, landscape or figure to cling to.
The Frelinghuysen Morris House gives landmarks.
George L.K. Morris was the child of a wealthy New England family, and Suzy Frelinghuysen was a high-society girl talented enough to sing with the New York City Opera.
And they were both talented artists -- members of the American Abstract Art movement who championed the cause of Cubism long after its heyday.
In their house and studio, Kinney Frelinghuysen, Suzy's nephew and curator of the museum,
and his wife, Linda, have ensured that George and Suzy's legacy lives on. Each year, they display different works by Frelinghuysen and Morris, along with a permanent exhibit of works from their collection of modernist art -- by Fernand Leger, Juan Gris, Ben Nicholson, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, among others.
"Everything that George bought, he bought for his own instruction as an abstract painter," Frelinghuysen explained.
This summer's exhibit will focus on "Exploring Shapes." The tour begins with a simple exercise, using a finger to trace shapes in the architecture.
"Looking at shapes is a way to pay closer attention," Kinney Frelinghuysen explained. "Shape is an easy way to access abstract art. I've always felt that this group of American Abstract artists had a beautiful vocabulary of shapes, that they evolved over decades of working."
The Cubists included representations of figures and objects in their paintings, but Frelinghuysen and Morris did not.
"You might think that Cubism had run its course by the end of World War I, but George studied with Fernand Leger in 1929. By doing pure abstraction, George and Suzy felt they were going beyond where Cubism stopped," Frelinghuysen said.
They were drawing on "graphic, psychological force of the shapes."
But analyzing the shapes isn't so simple. A circle or a rectangle does not each have a single meaning."Squares and triangles have a lot of potential, just like eggs and vanilla extract have a lot of potential for a baker, but it depends what the artist does with them," Frelinghuysen said. "For example, imagine you have a painting with a lot of airy, round shapes and a lot of sharp, spiky shapes, reminiscent of balloons and pins. The painting could either have a humorous tone -- someone pops the balloon, and everyone laughs -- or it could be dark and ominous."
Walking through the Frelinghuysen Morris House, visitors see the art in the setting the artists designed. In the living room, a stylish and quirky space, light pours in from the windows, books line the walls, and the walls are covered in art. Buddha figures from George's trip to Thailand stand on the mantelpiece, and the furniture is upholstered with zebra fur.
Two of Morris' murals flank the fireplace.
"I like to call them gentle giants," Frelinghuysen said. "They have a lot of activity and a lot of dynamism, but it's all quietly controlled and reserved. Brilliantly, they make you feel welcome in the room."
The dining room was Suzy's artistic playground, with blue-themed frescoes covering the walls.
"Suzy had a lot of cues for different possibilities," Frelinghuysen said. "Some people feel music when they look at these."
After passing through the upstairs bedrooms, he enters the large studio that Morris built for his painting. Here he offers new exercises.
"Take a square and a circle, and overlap them. You get a pretty weird polygon. When you look at them, chances are that your brain will say that it's a square and a circle, because your brain is looking for the simplest explanation. Your mind has organizing powers. But look at this work by Ben Nicholson. There's a little bit more poetry to it."
He brings out a paper cut-out of a Morris painting hanging on the wall. The cut-out shapes slide back and forth, to show how the work of art changes as the shapes move.
"This stuff is meant to have you respond to it, in the freedom of your experience," Frelinghuysen said, as he examined a small work by Picasso. "This is a lovely little work. We certainly get a sense of the head from the ovals. But what George was interested in was the overlapping shapes. The more I look at it, the bigger the spaces look. ... I think this arrow is a symbol, a direction. It's pointing up, into the space of the mind. It's an airy area, an expression of a person. There's more to a portrait than a likeness.
"We read it one way, come back another day, and read it another way. This is an experience, as if you were watching dancers on the stage. Look how the painting opens up.
"To me that painting is more alive than it was last week, and I've been looking at it for 20 years."
If you go ...
What: 'Exploring Shapes'
Where: Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, 92 Hawthorne St., Lenox
When: Open weekly Thursday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with hourly guided tours.
Admission: $12 adults, $10.50 seniors, $6 students with valid ID, children under 12 free
Information: (413) 637-0166 www.frelinghuysen.org