Hiroshima, Con Amore

Vital Forms reconsiders mid-century America's atomic animus

An even more radical reinterpretation of domestic space, Frederick J. Kiesler's never-built "Endless House" (here represented as a concrete model) imagines the home of the future as a series of interconnected caves, all built on thick stilts. Evoking primeval habitat--perhaps a nice place to snuggle through a nuclear winter--Kiesler's design also suggests a return to the womb. It's not a particularly attractive abode--the model looks as if it would eat you if it could. But, along with Frank Lloyd Wright's fluid, site-specific houses, it is a testament to mid-century American architecture's discomfort with the idea of the home as an efficient, ordered "machine for living."

Indeed, there's a sense throughout Vital Forms that a lot of postwar American design was not only inefficient, but anti-efficient. You don't need a degree in engineering to know that a square is a more efficient use of space than an asymmetrical amoeboid form, after all. In architecture, Wright, Morris Lapidus, and Eero Saarinen created buildings with fluid curvilinear profiles--Saarinen's JFK terminal is a paean to the freedom and opulence of the jet age, a figurative flight of fancy. Their style was a counter-current, if not an outright rebuke, to the sleek High Modernist monuments that were already crowding America's skylines. Many of the domestic accouterments included in Vital Forms show the same disdain for brute utilitarianism: Form seems to have leapfrogged function. An early Philco television, for instance, in an apparent whimsical homage to the new medium's name, takes the shape of a cyclopean eye gazing back at the viewer. Eva Zeisel's darling salt-and-pepper shakers, meanwhile, take on the aspect of a mother and baby seal huddling together. Perhaps, after the deprivations of the war years, American consumers were ready to embrace a table service with a rich emotional life.

 

If the booming conspicuous consumption of the 1950s--epitomized by those chrome-armored, jet-sleek, almost Freudian automobiles--can be seen as a burst of pent-up desire for luxury, Vital Forms proposes that the decade's major art movement can also be viewed, at least in part, as a by-product of the war. There's a winningly democratic impulse in this juxtaposition of cultural flotsam and high art, and there is certainly resonance between the two. Like Claire McCardell's New Look couture, for instance, abstract expressionism represented a chaffing against European tradition, a rejection of conventions from a world that had failed. Even so, the paintings included in the exhibit demand to be viewed on their own terms. Pollock et al. may have been breathing the same anxious, dynamic air as the rest of America, in other words, but their genius remains strikingly their own.

Among the choicest examples of the new vibrancy in painting is a Lee Krasner canvas, "Upstream." Painted in forest green and uterine pink, the piece reflects Krasner's major preoccupation during her mature period--the evocation of fertility and renewal. (Even the title seems to refer to a fallopian-tube derby.) In recent years, Krasner has been emerging, albeit slowly, from her husband's monumental shadow. While her work may ultimately be less central to the abstract expressionist ethos than Pollock's, "Upstream" makes a strong case for her canonization. At the least, it seems to suggest continuity between the biomorphism of the 1950s and the feminized landscapes of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Pollock himself, meanwhile, is represented by "Echo Number 25," painted toward the end of his last prolific (and, not coincidentally, sober) year. No matter what the context, Pollock always seems to have sprung from the brow of Jove; his crazy American vitality breaks so radically from tradition, digs so deeply into the subconscious, that talking about it in historical terms is futile. Not surprisingly, and even with its generous breadth, Vital Forms can't quite accommodate him: The joy of "Echo," as primal as any cave painting and as unapologetically sensuous as the human body, breaks free of time and place. It's as though, beneath the omnipresent shadow of the A-bomb, Pollock simply decided to start over.

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