Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard-copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

ESTHETICS W/OUT POLITICS: APPLIED ART AT THE NEUE & GREY

November 9, 2017

Tags: Josef Hoffmann, Kolomon Moser, Alfred Barr, Philip Johnson

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Barcelona Chair, designed 1929. Stainless-steel and leather, 30 7/8 x 29 x 30 in. (78.5 x 74 x 76 cm). Produced by Knoll International, New York. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Liliane and David M. Stewart Collection, gift of Trevor F. Peck, 1963.Df.1. Photograph by Denis Farley.
I can’t say why I so much prefer the fine arts to the applied arts—maybe because I’m so hipped on meaning (even in abstraction)? But if you want a maximum of esthetics with a minimum of politics this autumn, formalism is doing very well, thanks, at two Manhattan exhibitions of interior design: “Weiner Werkstätte 1903-1932: The Luxury of Beauty,” at the Neue Galerie (through January 29, 2018) and “Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson" at the Grey Art Gallery (through December 9).

“The Luxury of Beauty”

Of course, silly me – I always thought that modern interior decoration was like modern architecture in its insistence on functionalism – form follows function (as Louis Sullivan had it) and all that jazz.

But the earliest objects produced by the artists and craftspeople who had banded together in this remarkable Viennese communal workshop to create “simple” furniture, tableware, graphic design and so forth in the early years of the 20th century don’t in retrospect look all that functional. They do, however, often look beautiful.

The main show is laid out on the third floor of the Neue Galerie in three sections that correspond to the gallery space on that floor. These sections are “Founding Years, 1903-05,” “Harvesting Years, 1906-14,” and “Years of Reinvention, 1915-32.”

A smaller, fourth gallery deals with the workshop’s outpost in New York, and there are textiles, further furniture, and a fine selection of working clocks on the second floor as well, but (though the furniture is often impressive) the second floor exhibits look more familiar, as the Neue Galerie often displays decorative arts in these areas anyway.

As curated by Dr. Christian Witt-Dörring, curator of decorative arts at the Neue Galerie, “The Luxury of Beauty”’ is a pleasure to walk through if you don’t have to write about it or care about who made what.

Instead of labels next to every one of the more than 400 objects displayed or even groups of labels next to groups of works, the only way you can figure out the authorship of anything is to thumb through one of the fat little booklets hung in brackets at the entrance to each gallery.

For me, the most exciting gallery comes right at the beginning, when so much of the work on display was created by the two principal founders of the workshop, the architect-designer Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) and the artist-designer Kolomon Moser (1868-1918).

This was the period when the designers were actually executing their own designs, and charging the equivalent of prices at the time for fine art, paintings and sculpture.

Although the silverware in the glass cases to the right of the entry in that first gallery was nominally for use as coffeepots, teapots, flatware, candy dishes, and so on, the shapes are often anything but useful or functional.

I mean, is a square coffee- or teapot any more useful than a round one? I should think less so (especially when it comes to polishing them). And one little spoon is so short and so wide that only a frog could get its mouth around it. Delicious!

Later on, the workshop ran into financial difficulties—among other reasons, due to the expense of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk in its signature style, the Palais Stoclet in Brussels.

The workshop also separated its design and execution functions, and, for whatever reason, the displays in the later galleries on the museum’s third floor become less interesting.

By the 1920s, the insidious but vapid style of French Art Deco seeps into the work on display, dealing its quietus. But that first gallery is really extra-special.

“PARTNERS IN DESIGN”

The show at the Grey Art Gallery is officially about interior design, and comes to NYC from Montreal, where it was organized by the Liliane and David M. Stewart Program for Modern Design.

However, its silent partner (here in New York anyway) is architecture (the only applied art I’ve admired right along).

The official stars of the Grey Gallery’s exhibition are Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902-1981), first director of MoMA, and Philip C. Johnson (1906-2005), MoMA’s first director of its architecture department.

But the show – and the concurrent book -- that really put MoMA on the map, back in 1932, as an arbiter of design was not a design show. It was an architecture show, with interior design playing a complementary but subsidiary role.

That show was called, “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, New York February 10 to March 23, 1932.” It was co-curated by Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987).

Like Johnson, Hitchcock was another recent Harvard graduate but unlike Johnson, he really knew a lot about modern architecture, having already published one book on it.

Hitchcock wrote all but eight of the nine essays on the nine principal architects dealt with in the 1932 exhibition’s catalog; Johnson wrote only one (on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of Germany).

And Hitchcock also seems to have written most of the concurrent book, which was entitled “The International Style: Architecture since 1922.” It was published by W. W. Norton, and has been reprinted as recently as 1996.

According to Terence Riley, a latter-day MoMA design curator, in the catalog accompanying a 1992 exhibition held at Columbia University, and commemorating MoMA’s 1932 exhibition, the 1932 book was conceived of before the 1932 exhibition.

The book was moreover conceived originally by Hitchcock and Johnson, but then Barr got into the act, suggested the exhibition and (with what seems to have been his customary messianic zeal) wound up dominating the entire proceedings.

He contributed introductions to both catalog and book. In both he outlined the three cardinal principles of the International Style in architecture, as practiced initially and most famously in Western Europe by Mies, Le Corbusier of France, J. J. P. Oud of The Netherlands, and Walter Gropius, also of Germany.

Like Mies, Gropius was closely associated with the Bauhaus, that cardinal German school/workshop propounding principles of modernism that had been founded in 1919 and shut down in 1933.

The Bauhaus conflated the fine and applied arts, offering instruction in both and promoting ways to integrate the one with the other.

Barr was fascinated by all of it. His prime interest was painting and sculpture (and, despite his admiration for the Bauhaus, he had enough sensitivity to collect the greater paintings of the Dutch Mondrian in depth while indulging merely in tokenism as regards similar but lesser abstract work by Bauhaus artists like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy).

However, the fledgling museum of which Barr was director had -- from its start in 1929 and at his insistence -- incorporated departments of architecture, cinema, photography, design and so forth – homage to the echt Germanic concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Barr’s three cardinal principles defining the International Style in architecture also applied to interior design. They amounted to a manifesto for what the Bauhaus was turning out in the 1920s and what Barr dreamed could be imported into the U.S.

(And indeed, already was, if to a very limited extent, by a few architects like Richard Neutra. One of Barr’s strongest arguments for calling this “the International Style” was the fact that it was already a global phenomenon. The Norton book included more than 100 pages of photographs of buildings done in this style all over the world).

The first of these three principles was a shift from “mass” to “volume,” a principle that applied particularly well to architecture. Older architects had built with bricks and mortar, and strove for a strong, heavy look.

Newer “modern” architects used new materials that created a lighter, more transparent look, with steel skeletons to encase interior space and be cloaked themselves only in lighter-looking stucco or curtain-glass walls.

Whenever possible, International-Style chairs and other elements of interior design would share in this lighter, airier look.

The second principle was “regularity” as opposed to “symmetry” or other kinds of obvious balance. This is the murkiest of the three principles, but seems to refer to the practice among older architects of encasing structural elements in nonessential masonry or bricks to create an artificially balanced look.

Barr implied that architects like Mies and Le Corbusier were doing away with all that.

The third principle was the one with the widest number of potential applications, and the one with most relevance to interior design. This was “dependence on the intrinsic elegance of materials; technical perfection and fine proportion as opposed to applied ornament.”

This is not so far from the concept espoused by modern American sculptors like William Zorach of “truth to materials.” And it was one in the eye for Art Deco, the 1920s French style of supposedly modern design that cluttered up its artifacts with tedious ornaments and embellishments.

Barr hated Art Deco, which, he said, was not “modern” but only “modernistic.”

Although this third principle in particular could be held to suggest functionality, Barr seems to have carefully avoided any references to the functionality of the International Style. Its visual appeal was all that really mattered to him.

He wasn’t interested in sociology, or the practical applications of these new buildings (or their interiors), nor did he care about finding a rationale for their construction in recent technological breakthroughs.

“Process” was a concept blessedly irrelevant to him. What interested him was Results.

This was a Style for the sake of Style, a purely esthetic breakthrough that he wanted – with evangelical urgency – to put across to the American people. How refreshing!

And how incredibly remote it seems in this day of apologias for art works that have little or nothing to do with how the pieces under discussion actually look.

Maybe you have to be very young to be as revolutionary as Barr and even Johnson were. Barr had only just turned 30 when the 1932 exhibition went on view; Johnson was still only 25.

Hitchcock was only three years older than Johnson, but seems to have already been more into modern architecture as an evolutionary process, with roots in the 19th century.

Barr and Johnson, on the other hand, both apparently saw the International Style as a revolution against 19th century propriety; anyway, they acted with more radical fervor.

Johnson, too, seems at that point to have been more involved with and knowledgeable about interior design.

He wouldn’t actually study architecture or get his license to practice it for many years, but already he had commissioned Mies to decorate his own Manhattan apartment.

He also designed some furniture on his own, and acted (or tried to act) as an interior designer both for his own family, and for Edward Warburg, a fellow Harvard graduate and MoMA trustee.

Actually, Johnson’s apartment was mainly decorated by Lilly Reich (1885-1947), a designer in her own right and a close collaborator with Mies. This apartment was furnished, among other items, with the celebrated “Barcelona Chair.”

This sleek but relaxed & elegant easy chair had been designed in accordance with Mies’ celebrated dictum of “less is more” for the German Pavilion at the International Exposition of 1929, which was held in Barcelona (a version of this chair is still manufactured by Knoll today).

Johnson also advised Barr on furnishing his apartment, and may have helped him acquire some of its furniture, but unlike Johnson, Barr wasn’t independently wealthy.

He had to rely on his modest MoMA salary, so he and his wife, Margaret Scolari Barr, furnished most of their apartment with less expensive International Style furniture and accessories designed by Americans like Donald Deskey and made in the USA.

Both the Johnson and the Barr apartments (with one bedroom apiece) were initially located one floor above the other in the brand-new high-rise Southgate apartment complex in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan at 424 East 52nd Street.

Both men would move to other Manhattan addresses over the years, but they continued to furnish their new homes in that original modern style.

At the Grey Gallery, the installation is centered on these two apartments, with various pieces of furniture standing on low platforms in the center of the gallery, and photographs of various kinds on the wall partitions surrounding it.

Among these photographs are some (either from the 1930s or in the form of an autostereoscopic loop manufactured for this exhibition) of the original Barr and Johnson apartments.

Among the furniture on display, along with the Barcelona chair, are a number of items built mainly out of tubular steel. The steel is bent in graceful but not especially comfortable-looking shapes.

Thus we have a rather hard-looking canvas-seated armchair designed by Johnson and Alfred Clauss, an étagère designed by Marcel Breuer, a rosewood and metal chest designed by Mies, a rigidly rectilinear dining table and four chairs designed by Deskey, and so on.

As I say, this is the centerpiece of the current exhibition, barren of any reference to the 1932 show or the 1932 book about the International Style in architecture.

Yet most of the rest of the Grey Gallery show is divided up into sections that allude to later exhibitions of modern design held at MoMA.

One section reconstitutes elements from ”Machine Art” (1934). This show was organized by Johnson and offered objects with a neat, clean machine esthetic in six categories: industrial, household and office equipment, house furnishings and accessories, scientific instruments, and laboratory glass and porcelain.

At the Grey, the most conspicuous objects in this section are a rather curiously-shaped shiny white stove designed by Warren Noble & Emil Hubert Piron, and a long, narrow Monel nickel kitchen sink, designed by Gustav B. Jensen.

Another section combines features from the series of “Useful Household Objects” shows held at MoMA from the later 1930s to the mid-1940s (when Johnson was no longer at MoMA), together with objects and memorabilia relating to other design shows outside of New York.

These “Useful Object” MoMA shows seem to have emphasized practicality and good design at modest prices. They featured objects that were currently in production and available for purchase in stores. In at least some of these shows, museum-goers could handle the displays.

Nearest the entrance to the Grey Gallery is a section devoted to the Bauhaus, which became the subject of a MoMA exhibition in 1938, five years after Nazi pressures had forced it to close.

This placement, of course, means that the Bauhaus serves as the introduction to the section on the two apartments, but – unlike that section – it includes an architectural element, with a model of the building itself.

Scattered around on the walls are samples of abstract paintings that (the show’s organizers evidently hoped) would suggest a machine esthetic: geometric abstractions by Moholy-Nagy, Fritz Glarner, & Jean Xceron.

Never heard of the latter two? Well, don’t be surprised. This is the weakest part of the show: no Kandinsky, no Klee, although they were the real star artists of the Bauhaus. And no Mondrian, despite Barr’s passion for his work.

This momma is old enough so she can remember – not clear back to 1932 but far enough so she can offer a few comparisons between this show and what early domestic International-style modernism was really like.

Certainly, some of the individual artifacts in the “useful objects” section look familiar. I can remember the double-funnel shape of a glass Chemex coffee maker reposing on my mother’s stove, and I even learned how to make coffee with it.

I can also remember how a schoolmate with whom I kept in touch after we graduated wanted Russel Wright earthenware place settings (plate, saucer, cup, etc.) as wedding gifts (she was the daughter of Egmont Arens, another early modern designer whose work is not included in this show).

However, the main section of the show – with the Barr/Johnson furniture piled on platforms --- is just too pure, too simple and even sterile-looking to qualify as genuinely modern.

It might qualify as minimal, maybe, but it more nearly resembles a showroom at Ikea or Crate & Barrel than an International Style interior.

As for the “Machine Age” part of the show, with its stove and sink, it looks more like a P.C. Richards showroom.

The photographs of the two apartments, though small and all in black-and-white, are better. Here you can at least see that the tubular elements and severe furniture profiles have been softened & gentled by the addition of floor-to-ceiling curtains, vases of flowers and bowls of fruit on tables, and less doctrinaire art on the walls.

I spotted what looked like a small late Cézanne drawing/watercolor in one shot of the Barr apartment and at least one small, curvy sculpture of a cloaked female figure.

In the photo of the Johnson apartment that was used in the 1932 exhibition, the books that line the floor-to-ceiling bookcases are of many different heights and widths, suggesting that these are individual books that Johnson actually bought & read.

My favorite photo of the lot is a view of young Alfred, sternly upright & ascetic like some modern monk, sitting over the breakfast table, with plates and cups and so forth on the table in front of him, and a crumpled newspaper on a smaller table at one side.

These photos struck me as more evocative of International-Style interior design than those ultra-pure stacks of furniture. Why? Because I spent a significant portion of my childhood in a true International Style environment. Between 1942 and 1947 I was a student at North Country School, a progressive elementary-level boarding school in Lake Placid, NY.

Its main building, where I ate, attended classes, and (for three of my five years there) slept, had been built in the 1930s (the school’s first academic year was 1938-39).

This building was such a fine example of modern architecture that it was included in a MoMA booklet listing outstanding examples of modern architecture in the northeastern USA.

The building had been designed under the direction of Douglas Haskell (1899-1979), an architectural critic who crusaded for modernism in the 1920s and 1930s and has been considered important enough in retrospect to rate a dissertation.

Doug’s sister-in-law and her husband, Leonora & Walter Clark, were the founders and directors of NCS, so Doug designed an ultra-progressive building for them.

Although the roofs were flat, and the classrooms and bedrooms were designed on the then-new modular system, the building wasn’t at all sterile or overly pure. Instead, and despite its fidelity to the International Style canon, it was a very warm and humane place.

In both classrooms and the dining room, big plate glass windows let in a lot of light and sunshine, together with great views of the lovely Adirondack mountain scenery -- but there were also warmly colored curtains to draw over those windows at night.

The pictures on the walls weren’t dogmatic abstracts, but related to the farm on which the school was situated—reproductions of Franz Marc’s red horses and the Van Gogh harvest at La Crau.

The desks and chairs in the classrooms and the tables and benches in the dining room were simple and practical – but bare, light brown wood, not tubular steel.

The exteriors weren’t stucco, but darker brown wood siding and – best touch of all – next to the two sets of stairs from the second floor to the first were slides, so that children could whoosh down to class or dinner.

That, kiddies, is my experience of the International Style. There are many handsome reasons to visit the show at the Grey Art Gallery, not least to pay homage to those two militant young esthetes, Barr & Johnson, but bear in mind that it’s only a show and at its best only hints at the possibilities of International Style interior design.