Mid-century museum adventures
Jul 29, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This pandemic has impacted so many aspects of daily life. One of the traditions I miss most is my weekly trip to a local art museum. But one of the joys of writing is that it has an awesome super power. The written word has the ability to transport people to new locations. With a little imagination walls don’t confine and possibilities expand. So I’ve made a choice – I’m going to live vicariously through this feature and embark on mid-century museum adventures. Won’t you join me?
If I could travel back in time and attend one exhibit, my choice would be easy. The Good Design exhibit hosted in 1952 at the Museum of Modern Art showcased some of my all-time favorite designers. In this special place Charles and Ray Eames‘ creations happily intermingled with Edith Head’s masterpieces. There were over 100 artists featured in this landmark exhibit. Scrolling through the list reads like a who’s who of mid-century icons. We’ve had the pleasure of discussing some of these great minds in the Cause A Frockus archives. Firms like Dunbar Furniture, Cambridge Glass, Knoll, and the designer Raymond Loewy transformed post-war optimism into thoughtful, fresh ideas. Could you imagine strolling through the museum, seeing all this artistry on display? Only seven years had passed since the Second World War ended and this was a generation who could still recall the Great Depression. This historical context meant that both the makers and the marketplace were ready for something hopeful. This exhibit paved the way for an unprecedented movement, which sought to make good design accessible to all.
My perfect adventure would include not only walking around the exhibit multiple times, but also sitting in for the panel discussion. The evening’s events were focused on the topic of how good design could be better. The moderator was Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. and the panel included titans such as Edward Wormley and George Nakashima. Even when you factor in inflation, attending the event would have cost less than $20 and I find that to be a very worthwhile expenditure. If my adventures could extend to dinner at The Colony, then this trip back to glamorous New York would be perfect!
As epic as my first choice would be, the MOMA hosted many other iconic exhibitions during the 1950s. While Good Design was decidedly family-friendly, the retrospective of Jackson Pollock’s work in 1956/1957 proved to be quite controversial. Pollock and his abstract expressionism were already polarizing, but MOMA hosting an exhibit less than a year after his death drew criticism. I can appreciate this opinion, but for someone who views Pollock pieces as more historic than cutting-edge, it would be interesting to appreciate his catalog of work closer to when it was first created.
Thanks to avant-garde artists like Pollock, our definition of art is broader than it used to be. However, museums weren’t always as inclusive. (In fact the controversy around fashion as art rages on to this day!) Now, let’s imagine the year is 1951. Pretend that you have donned your best Dior outfit and are sashaying to the MOMA for an afternoon of artistic appreciation. Next, imagine that you see the sign in front of the building declaring 8 Automobiles. For the mid-century art lover this did more than furrow a brow, it caused confusion and distress. Yes, automobiles were marketed alongside haute couture gowns, but no one saw mere cars as elevated design – certainly not worthy of holding court in a museum. Yet the legendary Philip C. Johnson would not be swayed. He was quoted as saying “automobiles are hollow, rolling sculpture, and the refinements of their design are fascinating.” Perhaps this perspective helped pave the way for Good Design that following year. Recognizing the beauty in cars helped the public see the artistry in everyday objects. Designers like Russel Wright carried this concept from the art gallery to the American kitchen and today we see echoes of his legacy in the Michael Graves teapot or Dyson fan. Tell me, dear reader, what artistic adventures would you go on if time or place wasn’t an issue? Please share your itinerary with us in the comments…