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WHEN TECHNOLOGY BECAME ART : The County Museum Looks Back at the Sleek Style of the Machine Age

August 16, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is The Times' art critic.

REMEMBER STREAMLINING? It was the wind-tunnel style that characterized the two decades between the world wars, and its various permutations are called everything from cocktail moderne to Art Deco. If you were crawling around on the carpet back then, you remember the hum of Grandma Knudsen's Electrolux and the pride Uncle Torgerson took in his new Studebaker. But these days you don't have to be venerable to appreciate the sleek reveries of the streamlined aesthetic. Its products are everywhere, from revivalist boutiques on Melrose to the modernist decor in late-night reruns of Boris Karloff films.

Los Angeles is a streamlined town. Familiar local sights are products of the epoch. The friendly torpedo-shaped Goodyear blimp was designed in 1927. Cedric Gibbons created the Academy Awards Oscar statue the same year. The city would not be itself without the steamship moderne design of Robert Derrah's1936 Coca-Cola plant, the Flash Gordon look of Wurdman & Becket's 1935 Pan Pacific Auditorium or the Austin Co.'s 1938 NBC Studio Building. Even new buildings fall in love with curved walls of glass brick. Consider the Anderson Building by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer at the L.A. County Museum of Art.

Now, as if inspired by its new architecture, the museum is presenting a show about streamlining that is as slick and entertaining as a Broadway musical. "The Machine Age in America--1918-1941," which originated at the Brooklyn Museum last winter, opens today and continues through Oct. 18. This stew of about 300 objects ranges from architecture and the fine arts to all manner of design. A parallel exhibition of about 250 works, "The Art That Is Life--The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1875-1920," is devoted to a previous era of homey idealism.

"The Machine Age" is about the upbeat dreams of a period when reality was deadly grim, and a few works hint at cultural malaise. But there was a persistent belief that industrialization promised Utopia when the Depression was over. In the meantime, society tried to keep itself distracted with world's fairs and Busby Berkeley musicals. Hope was inspired by skyscrapers, massive dams, suspension bridges and opulent train terminals.

It was also a period when the first great innovations of pioneer modernism, from Cubism to the Bauhaus, were largely accomplished, and their ideas were being domesticated into useful tools, commercial products and objects of pure decorative blandishment. There are shamelessly clever rip-offs of Constantin Brancusi.

The mysterious biomorphs of Abstract Surrealism became kidney-shaped coffee-tables. Visionary architecture was tamed into silver coffee urns.

No one who has watched the County Museum for more than two decades can remember the last time it presented one--let alone two--major design exhibitions. Design is the hot "art" of the moment because postmodernism is largely based on the proposition that the fine arts have run out of anything new to say. High tech, computers and robotics represent the current revival of the Machine Age aesthetic. Fine artists are building furniture, and major architects are designing dinnerware.

One may mourn the passing of the artist as a member of a cell of dedicated rebels, but history decrees that every aesthetic will have its day. At the moment it is a baroque souffle, and the museum is going to pack them in to look at the mannerists of the Machine Age and the exquisite sentimentality of the craftsmen.

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