If you had to pick the image of the 20th Century, you might do worse than to take a look at the August 9, 1945 photograph of Fat Man exploding over Nagasaki. In that terrible, beautiful orgasm of fire, the terms of cold-war détente were set, and America's imperial ascendancy certified. Even at this relatively safe historical distance, the image hasn't lost its iconographic wallop: For the first time since crawling out of the primordial broth, humankind had surpassed its gods.
Although Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, a new Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition visiting the Walker through May 12, locates its ground zero at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, little of the work on display relates explicitly to nuclear holocaust. But the specter hovers anxiously: The mushroom-cloud profile, replicated in painting, sculpture, and architecture, becomes a sort of macabre leitmotif. The temper is far from nihilistic, though: Rather, Vital Forms proposes that mid-century American art was largely an implicit response to the questions posed so insistently by the A-bomb, a brave reassertion of Eros in the face of World War II's overwhelming Thanatos. Viewed in that context, even the exhibit's most abstract expressions of anxiety and hope seem bracingly human. Call it the frisson of fission.
Like most thematically conceived shows, Vital Forms' reach is bound to exceed its grasp. An exhibit proposing a comprehensive survey of two decades of American art and design would, after all, need to stretch from the Walker halfway to St. Paul. But the exhibit, the third in the Brooklyn Museum's ambitious series on 20th Century American art, follows a particular line of aesthetic evolution. Beginning as an indigenous reaction to European surrealism--and aided in no small part by an influx of artists fleeing World War II--this strain, characterized by curvy, organic imagery, became the dominant vocabulary of 1950s American art, influencing everyone from Jackson Pollock to Frank Lloyd Wright to automobile designers. (A 1954 Corvette, one of the exhibit's centerpieces, holds its ground nicely as a symbol of postwar American joie de vivre.)
In a typically lucid catalog essay, University of Minnesota cultural historian (and aficionado of 1950s Americana) Karal Ann Marling, describes the ascendancy of "the amoeba": "Although patterns of blobs and droplets adorned factory-made goods cranked out by the millions, the symbolic values conveyed by this range of elusive, hard-to-describe shapes are antithetical in spirit to mass production, military regimentation, and straight-ahead business thinking." The rise of soft, fluid biomorphism was, in other words, as much a rejection of bland 1950s conformity as it was of Internationalism and the baleful symmetry of Mutual Assured Destruction.
Confusing, right? To its infinite credit, Vital Forms makes its points without a lot of art talk. Walking through this intelligently designed show, one can trace a line of descent from the raw response of artists to World War II, to the commercial design vernacular of the 1950s, to the streamlined "high style" characterized by the Corvette. It's an instructive example of what we might call the American Process: Utilitarian demand--in this case, for war materiel--is drafted into commercial, decorative, and finally artistic, service. As Vital Forms points out, many tools of war--the acetylene torch, aerial topographic maps, molded fiberglass, and camouflage patterns, for instance--also introduced new technical possibilities for postwar art. Even the humble Slinky, it turns out, began its life aboard a navy ship.
The war and its aftertaste figure especially strongly in the exhibition's first gallery, which is largely given to surrealist work from the 1940s. In paintings by Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, the human form is dissevered and torturously distorted, recalling not only the atrocities of the war in Europe, but also the catalog of bodily horrors recorded by John Hershey in Hiroshima. Gottlieb's "The Prisoners" is especially bleak: Painted in black and rust-brown, abstracted bits of anatomy are wedged into cage-like boxes. A pair of discarded shoes in one corner seems an explicit reference to the Shoah. Still, if the postwar mood was somber, these pieces do not convey hopelessness: The use of the human form seems, rather, to communicate a profound understanding of the fragility of flesh.
Sharing a gallery and a philosophical bent with Gottlieb and Rothko, Alexander Calder's "The Root" also expresses anxiety over the Faustian potential of technology. Constructed from curving planes of sheet metal, with the seams left purposely visible, the piece depicts a flowering plant turned on its head, with delicate wire-formed blossoms reaching toward the floor and an imposing black root pushing upward. Peace may grow tentatively, Calder seems to suggest, but the potential for destruction always threatens it from below. Calder is well-represented in Vital Forms, but his other major piece, a jovial red mobile that simulates looking up from the bottom of a pond at lily pads, is in his more familiar, and much mellower, key.
In fact, as one enters the second gallery, which is largely concerned with decorative arts from the 1950s, the entire timbre of the exhibit seems to soften. The psychological turbulence of the war gives way to the self-assurance of the Pax Americana, and even the iconography of the A-bomb enters the popular vernacular. (American culture has always had a way of appropriating our fears, and, by rendering them familiar, disarming them.) "The House of the Future," for instance, sponsored by Monsanto ("Better Living Through Chemistry") and built at Disneyland in 1957, actually takes the fungoid shape of an atomic plume as its inspiration. It's a disarmingly naive notion: In a photo, a smiling housewife is standing below her futuristic home, just a few feet from what would be ground zero.
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.