Modernism Remembered


Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas, eds., Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society
Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012; 305 pages, $35 paperback.

Richard Meyer, What Was Contemporary Art?
Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2013; 361 pages, $35 hardcover.

The current century is only slightly more than a decade old, yet there are already signs that the cultural community has come up with substantially new ways of assessing art and the aesthetic experience. Two recently published books provide clear evidence of this shift. In Chicago Makes Modern: How Creative Minds Changed Society, edited by Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Baas, the principal figures are a social worker, Jane Addams (1860-1935), creator in 1889 of the Chicago settlement facility Hull House; a philosopher, John Dewey (1859-1952), central in the development of the late 19th-century Pragmatism movement; and the painter, photographer, designer and teacher László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), key faculty member at Germany’s Bauhaus and leader of a similar school transplanted to Chicago.

The editors, both veteran curators, argue that art can have a variety of identities. Dewey, they note, regarded art as an experience rather than a collection of objects, while Addams recalled occasions in her own life when art’s primary value lay in its ability to lift the spirit of Hull House immigrants and their children. Moholy-Nagy, encouraged by Walter Gropius, the director of the original Bauhaus, was chiefly responsible for formulating the school’s renowned foundation course, which sought to elevate photography, film, graphic design and typography to the level of painting and sculpture.

Something was in the air. In What Was Contemporary Art?, Stanford art historian Richard Meyer relates how, in 1927, Alfred H. Barr Jr., a professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, made his way to Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Berlin and finally Dessau, where he spent four days at the Bauhaus. The future museum director was already offering the first college course in America on the subject of contemporary art. While Barr expected his students to acquaint themselves with the art and architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he also required them to consider photography, typography, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, display windows in department stores, and the design of goods available in five-and-dime emporiums. Barr was forthright in his acknowledgment of intellectual precedent: “Gropius’ ideal of bringing together the various visual arts influenced my course in modern art at Wellesley in 1926-27. It included architecture, industrial design, graphic arts, painting, sculpture, films, photography. A few years later the Bauhaus also influenced my plan for the Museum of Modern Art.”

Meyer evokes the long battle for widening the range of interpretation and scholarship in the very first pages of his book. Art critic Rosalind Krauss, he reports, vividly recalls circumstances at Harvard University in 1969, when she was deciding on a dissertation topic: “I knew they [my professors] would never allow me to do a dissertation on somebody who was still alive.”

Some four decades later, the preference has almost totally reversed. Historians and critics, in droves, are now basing their research and writings on living artists. Evidence can be found in dissertations, conferences, journal articles, blog postings and university press publications. The shift, which occurred at the turn of the 1990s, was accompanied by the contention that a new period had begun. Meyer quotes Alexander Alberro of Columbia University: “The years following 1989 have seen the emergence of a new historical period. Not only has there been the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states and the heralding of the era of globalization, but technologically there has been the full integration of electronic or digital culture, and economically, neoliberalism, with its goal to bring all human action into the domain of the market, has become hegemonic. Within the context of the fine arts, the new period has come to be known as ‘the contemporary.'”

Meyer’s view of present and past is more complicated: since all works of art are or have been at one time contemporary (“a condition,” he notes, “of being alive to and alongside of other moments, artists, and objects”), an examination of the present can lead to looking backward as well, thus providing the basis of a record—a history—of contemporary art. The past tense in What Was Contemporary Art? then becomes clear.

While Meyer broadens the aesthetic arena by drawing attention to Alfred Barr’s wide-ranging eclecticism, Jacob and Baas reach a similar end by concentrating on recent history in Chicago. Having established Addams, Dewey and Moholy-Nagy as leading figures, the editors cite supportive testimony from more than two dozen artists, architects, landscape designers, photographers, filmmakers, urbanists and curators from around the world.

Tricia Van Eck, with a widespread curatorial background in Chicago, contributes an essay on Buckminster Fuller that is well researched, deftly informative and considerably easier to digest than her subject’s notorious, hours-and-hours-long lectures. It is instructive to contrast Fuller’s Dymaxion House of 1927, a brilliant use of energy-saving residential technology, with the unsophisticated craftsmanship of Addams’s Hull House.

“From Chicago to Berlin and Back Again,” by Kathleen James-Chakraborty, historian at the University College Dublin, is a model example of history related fully but concisely. The author provides the standard summary of modernist architecture, which features early Chicago figures like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright as well as Germans like Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn and Mies van der Rohe. But she adds vital information about Eliel Saarinen, Frank Gehry, Helmut Jahn, Jean Nouvel and Renzo Piano, without neglecting the modernist qualities that unite them despite their stylistic diversity.

Moholy-Nagy’s legacy surfaces in Michael J. Golec’s recollection of György Kepes, the Hungarian émigré who headed the light and color department of Moholy-Nagy’s School of Design (now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology). One of Kepes’s principal achievements while in Chicago was the highly inventive study Language of Vision: Painting, Photography, Advertising-Design (1944), a book that concerns itself with the role of the eye, both functional and metaphorical. The success Kepes enjoyed in Chicago led him to accept positions in several other U.S. cities, including Cambridge, Mass., where he founded what is today called the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

These three essays are characteristic of the high quality of most of the contributions to Chicago Makes Modern. In sum, the book adds significantly to the historiography of Chicago modernism. No thanks to Ben Nicholson, associate professor of architecture at the city’s School of the Art Institute and author of what is surely the worst piece of writing between the covers. Nicholson, constantly in search of instances of the Golden Mean, is so committed to the idea that he drafts Mies into his quest. Writing of the master modernist’s Crown Hall, Nicholson claims that “Mies . . . utilized the Fibonacci series to resolve difficulties in the measurements within the façade.” No creditable Mies scholar has ever made such a fanciful, and undocumented, claim. Moreover, remembering 9/11 and its legacy, Nicholson even congratulates himself with a reference to Muslim sectarianism. “It should be no surprise, then, that the old-time, Shia Miesians dismissed a scholarly investigation from a Sunni Miesian like me, because critical analysis disturbs the divine spirit of Mies and suggests that he was mortal.”

The praise warranted here by Chicago Makes Modern must be qualified by two other notable drawbacks. One is strictly technical, but no less worthy of attention. There is no bibliography and no explanation for its absence. Even more serious is the book’s failure to consider Chicago’s modernist literature. Why is there no mention of Studs Terkel or Saul Bellow? Or Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, James T. Farrell or Gwendolyn Brooks?

Yet, overall, these books reward the reader with a strong sense of the similarities and differences between Alfred Barr’s modernism and the Chicago variety. Both forms drew heavily on European sources, which Barr worked tirelessly to venerate, promulgate and preserve, while his Midwest-based confreres unhesitatingly transformed formal experiments to pragmatic American ends. The intellectually refined Barr was, in his museology, a teacher par excellence to generations. But Chicago was and is a city of builders. The two studies, taking today’s widened purview as a given, suggest that the postmodern landscape of the 21st century, observed as if from the air, appears broader than ever-stretching in all directions through a variety of climates and cultures—yet, given our nearly exclusive emphasis on the present moment, artistically and critically flatter. 

FRANZ SCHULZE is the author of Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography (1985/2012) and Philip Johnson: Life and Work (1994).