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Contours of an era

The 'Vital Forms' exhibition evokes mid-20th century art and design through curving lines and spinning electrons.

November 03, 2002|Scarlet Cheng | Special to The Times

The task was daunting -- to capture an American era in a couple of hundred objects, to trace the mid-20th century in art and design.

Brooklyn Museum of Art curators Brooke Kamin Rapaport and Kevin L. Stayton eventually settled on 240 artworks and objects in their exhibition "Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960," which opened a year ago at the museum and landed in San Diego last week.

They chose paintings and sculpture by Willem de Kooning, Ellsworth Kelly and Alexander Calder along with Eva Zeisel china, Claire McCardell dresses and boomerang-patterned Formica. They found links between Jackson Pollock's abstractions and a 1953 Corvette; the Slinky and Eero Saarinen's TWA airport terminal in New York.

"The basic idea is that every time period has a visual expression, a vanguard aesthetic that was an indicator of the times," says Rapaport, project director for the exhibition.

And the "vanguard aesthetic" for the Atomic Age? "The softly curving line, the contour that evokes the human body," writes Stayton in the book that accompanies the exhibition.

"Just as the machine seemed to be the source that informed art and design between the wars," Stayton adds now, "the rejection of that coldness in favor of a more naturalistic, biomorphic form seemed to be what the postwar era had to offer as its most original contribution."

"People realized that the machine's promise didn't pay off, that it was destructive as well as creative," Rapaport says. So artists and designers turned "to shapes based on nature, the human body, back to the handmade and the man-made."

Not that such a strategy could erase the anxieties of the era, as many of the works attest.

"No art is produced in a vacuum," Rapaport says, "and the works we've chosen for this exhibition really relate to the historical context."As the show was being installed in San Diego, we asked the two curators to make one more pass at summarizing the era. If they could choose only two or three objects to make their points, what would they be? Rapaport, now an independent contemporary art curator, whittled the artworks to two exemplary pieces. Stayton, a decorative arts scholar who is currently the Brooklyn museum's chief curator, selected three objects.

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Leg Splint (1941-42)

Charles Eames and Ray Eames

Designed for the U.S. military during World War II, it is, to Stayton, a beautiful embodiment of biomorphic form following function -- with new technology tossed in. "It encapsulates what so much of the show is about," he says -- a point where design meets history.

The Eameses pioneered an assembly-line method to mold compound curves into laminated plywood, and then made it conform to the human leg. "This wasn't just a search for curvy lines and flashy, strange shapes," Stayton says. "It really comes out of a search for making objects that make sense. It's about a search for a practical solution to a real problem -- how to move a soldier that has a damaged leg. It looks biomorphic because it is biomorphic."

Ray Eames was so enamored with the medical devices that she transformed a few into artworks -- the so-called Splint sculptures -- one of which is in the show, as is the device itself.

The Eameses subsequently expanded on the theme in their contoured mass-produced postwar furniture designs, most famously in their molded-plywood "potato chip" chairs.

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`Predicta' Television Set (1959)

Catherine Walker, Severin Jonassen, and Richard Whipple, Philco Corp.

Talk about biomorphic. Stayton calls Philco's Model 4654 a "big eye that was looking at you."

The Predicta was simply a television tube encased in a plastic and brass housing and set atop a pedestal that contained the controls and a speaker. "It looks like a science-fiction creature, a one-eyed monster," Stayton says. "Most televisions from this period look like the rest of your furniture; here is television that is self-consciously modern. It's not trying to hide what it is, bringing you this new medium, but at the same time it's a little ominous."In 1950 there were a million television sets in American households; 10 years later, there would be 50 million. "It presents this image in the American home that begins to homogenize culture," Stayton says. "It symbolizes the dichotomy between the promise of modern technology and the parallel threat that it brings."

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`Entombment #1 / The Entombment' (1944)

Mark Rothko

"When we think of Mark Rothko, we usually think of his later large canvasses, velvety masses of color," Rapaport says. "Here, in the 1940s, he created a number of paintings with Christian content, focusing on the emotional and psychological complexity of the times."

She considers it a particularly eloquent example of the way artists rejected the traditional figure -- no longer relevant to the era's urgent issues -- but still made reference to it.

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