LOS ANGELES — Modernism may be dead, yet we spend an awful lot of time in its clutches: talking about it, building it, watching it, exhibiting it, and acquiring its graceful artifacts for our homes. Our culture is in such a thrall to some of the movement’s architectural and artistic manifestations — Barcelona chairs! Case Study houses! paintings by Piet Mondrian! — that it can be hard to imagine a time when the very idea of its stripped-down forms inspired either passionate shock or jaded exhaustion.
Two exhibits currently on view in Los Angeles, however, provide an interesting lens with which to look at the movement. The first, Hans Richter: Encounters, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), catches Modernism in its ebullient, early 20th century infancy. The second, titled Everything Loose Will Land, at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in West Hollywood, looks at the movement’s decay in the 1970s, when artists and designers of all stripes were grappling for a new type of visual language. Both exhibits represent a bookend of sorts. Both also reflect an intensive dialogue between artists and architects.
The LACMA show is a broad survey of the life and work of Hans Richter (1888-1976), an artist’s artist and polymath who evaded easy categorization because he never stuck entirely to one thing. Born in Germany, he settled in New York at the dawn of World War II, and, over the course of his life, created woodcuts, portraits, ink drawings, abstract geometric scrolls, assemblages and mixed media collages (some of which are better than others). Richter dabbled in Dada and hung with the surrealists. And the exhibition chronicles his endeavors, showing his work alongside that of the many figures he collaborated and associated with (think: Marcel Duchamp and Hans Arp).
But the heart of the show, and to some degree, the heart of Richter’s career, can be found in the galleries that display the artist’s experimental film works from the 1920s. Early on in the decade, he produced a three-minute abstract film that shows a series of black and white squares and rectangles zipping on and off the screen. Rhythmus 21 was the ultimate exercise in stripping filmmaking down to its most basic elements. Richter wasn’t interested in depicting some fictional reality on screen — some screaming girl tied to the tracks. He wanted to display the simple absence and presence of light, in which the architecture of the screen becomes as important as the film that is projected on it. (LACMA is displaying the piece on a broad stretch of gallery wall, which makes for a satisfyingly immersive viewing experience.)
This section of the exhibit also includes other artifacts from the period — by Richter and other artists, too. There are storyboards for experimental abstract films, pages from the magazine G (which Richter co-edited, at one point, with architect Mies van der Rohe), documentation from a 1929 Stuttgart photo exhibit that featured works by the likes of Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy displayed in geometric structures constructed by El Lissitzky, and an architecturally-inspired plaster sculpture by Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich. The latter is a positively beguiling arrangement of rectangular prisms that could double as a massive Modernist wedding cake or a maquette for some dictator’s insane tomb. Overall, it’s an exciting stew of design, architecture, film and art, filled with a sense that in Modernism’s tidy form-making, humans would somehow find a recipe for a better world.
As we now know, that was not to be. Half a century later, Modernism’s orthodoxies — evident in infinite glass towers, boxy warehouses, and austere housing projects — had grown oppressive, lacking all sense of human scale. “Everything Loose Will Land” at the MAK perfectly captures the moment in which it all began to crumble. The show, part of the Pacific Standard Time series of architecturally-themed exhibitions, explores the running dialogue between artists and architects in Los Angeles in the 1970s — when the U.S. economy was in the crapper, white flight had left urban cores riddled with blight, the Vietnam War was coming to its ignominious end and the very definition of art and architecture seemed to be totally up for grabs. (Christopher Hawthorne has an insightful review of the show in the LA Times.)
Like the Richter show at LACMA, this small exhibit reflects an intense dialogue between various areas of cultural production. There are architecturally-inspired projects by artists — a proposal by Judy Chicago to construct a volcano-shaped structure to house her installation “The Dinner Party” — and artistically-inspired projects by architects — an eerily prescient schematic by Robert Mangurian that imagines that the ways in which humans will incorporate technology onto their bodies. There’s a backyard environment by Bruce Nauman, a proposal to fill a small town shop with cement by Ed Kienholz, and a model of a fish-like building by Frank Gehry that is spectacularly phallic in form. (Schwing!) Many of the objects show evidence of being handmade or unfinished — a reaction against Modernism’s machine-like qualities.
As explained in the exhibit’s well-researched catalogue (seriously, lay your hands on it once it comes out — curator Sylvia Lavin’s essay is an illuminating guide to LA history), this was a time when artists and designers were rethinking the nature of their materials, considering questions of environment and creating experiences that required the viewer to participate rather than just stare passively at some object on a wall. Ultimately, it is a show that looks at the ways in which humans were trying to take their environment back from the machines.
“Everything Loose” not only provides a giddy peek at works and proposals that have rarely seen the light of day, it provides an essential understanding of the early roots of so much of what we see today — ways of thinking that came into being as Modernism was slowly unglued.
Hans Richter: Encounters is on view at LACMA (5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles) through September 2.
Everything Loose Will Land is on view at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture (835 North Kings Road, West Hollywood) through August 4.