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THE WAY WE WERE : 'The Art That Is Life' and 'Machine Age' at LACMA

August 23, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

They say that when couples remodel or redecorate, the strain is often enough to cause them to break up. Sure, living with daily invasions of workmen and chaotic surroundings drives anybody crazy, but the real tensions may come from psycho-artistic problems caused by differences in taste. Fred wants to go High Tech. Ginger loves French Provincial. He thinks that if she adores that corny stuff she must not be the person he fell in love with. She thinks that if he likes all that cold gadgetry he must really be the heartless monster she had always suspected. Trouble.

Anybody inclined to this love-me-love-my-style kind of thinking is advised to exercise great caution in schlepping one's intimates to two new exhibitions at the County Museum of Art, "The Art That Is Life" and "The Machine Age." Each surveys a crucial period in the state of the American spirit expressed through its taste in everything from pencil sharpeners to world's fairs, from bookmarks to architecture. They are significant to Los Angeles because the two styles represented--the craftsy and the slick--form the backbone of the local aesthetic.

They are significant to the museum because they are marvelously installed blockbusters that reflect both LACMA's coming of age as a popular institution and the state of the current artistic Zeitgeist . Design and architecture are so hot today that we find them dominating the whole special exhibitions area of the museum for the first time in living memory. Viewers who also visit an important survey of contemporary American crafts currently at the Laguna Art Museum will get a good sense of the present state of Post-Modernism's entertaining, consumer-oriented blurring of the lines between fine and applied art.

The LACMA exhibitions bristle with such ramification that it is hard to know where to begin. Both are intensely personal in their appeal. Visitors of a certain age may well find a bike they rode as a kid or the corner of an L.A. bungalow that looks suspiciously like Grandma's house. People are going to kick themselves for not hanging on to their old Electrolux vacuum cleaners or the boxy old fridge that are now museum pieces.

But these are also exhibitions about such a very big question as, "How do people cope with the present when it is more than usually uncomfortable?" "The Art That Is Life" deals with one American reaction to the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution, namely the Arts and Crafts Movement as it flourished here from 1875 to 1920.

The movement had its roots in England in the thinking of the reformer A. W. N. Pugin, critic John Ruskin and the writer/craftsman William Morris. Their program was complex, but it boiled down to a reaction against both excessive industrialization and the excessive ornament of the time. The idea was to get back to the simple life, based on a medieval model where hard and careful work fed the soul of the artisan and joined him in brotherhood with the community. It was not just an aesthetic program but a program of political and social reform. It had a moral dimension. It believed that art could make people better through spiritual elevation.

It was, from present perspective, a rather quaint notion that resulted in a quaint product. A turn through the 200-odd objects on view in the Hammer Wing through Nov. 1 makes its own point. We are surrounded with warm, dark wood carefully fashioned into simple objects delicately elaborated, sometimes to the point of something severely ornate. Round about are ceramics that hint at folk art, slot-joined wood that recalls the Japanese, whiffs of Viennese Art Nouveau, bits of American Indian crafts.

Sensibilities range from the starkly understated soulfulness of Gustave Stickley to the delicate virility of Greene & Greene. Large doses of domesticated Romanticism appear in stained glass by John La Farge, Tiffany lamps and a carved desk by Charles and Lucinda Mathews. Mainly, however, we are in a dark pine forest cave sometime during the Middle Ages of the imagination. The Arts and Crafts Movement dealt with an awkward present by fleeing into the past.

Across the court in the new Anderson Building, "The Machine Age in America 1918-1941" remains on view to Oct. 18. We were between World Wars but the Great Depression made it a grueling time to survive. You would never know that, however, from looking at the show. If the crafts movement appeared to reject the machine (it didn't in practice), Jazz Age America positively embraced its cogs and wheels giggling.

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