Toward a Concrete Utopia: Yugoslavian Brutalism at MoMA

We at CatSynth are admirers of brutalism, as anyone who follows us on Twitter can attest.  We love the geometric forms, how it screams “modern”, and how it makes such an intense break with tradition.  And I will admit, I also have a little fun using it to poke fun at the architectural conservatism prevalent in places like San Francisco.  But above all, it provides a singular beauty to built spaces.

Brutalism perhaps reached its zenith in the former Yugoslavia during the period between the end of World War II and 1980, a period that is highlighted in a current exhibition at the MoMA, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980.  It highlights the work of several Yugoslavian architects in the period and pieces ranging from prosaic apartments to public arenas to monuments.  The buildings themselves are, of course, not on display in the museum, but their stories are told through models, photographs, and examples of interior objects.


Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

A convergence of factors came together which allowed these modernist experiments to flourish.  Yugoslavia broke away from the Soviet bloc in 1948 and began to forge its own socialist path and identity.  It constituted itself as six republics in a federation in which traditional regional identities were subordinate to a new and modern whole.  At the same time, the country was devastated by World War II and needed massive rebuilding.  Finally, new ideas in architecture were emerging along with new materials, notably advances in concrete, steel, and glass allowed a new built environment to take shape.

The simple forms and surfaces were used for everyday buildings, such as apartment complexes, schools, and medical facilities.  But rather than just one-offs, they become part of a unified cityscape, a grand plan.  This was perhaps no more so than in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which was devasted by an earthquake in 1963 and largely rebuild using modernist design and principals.

Janko Konstantinov. Telecommunications Center. 1968–81. Skopje, Macedonia. View of the Southwestern Block façade. Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016
MARKO MUŠIČ.  Photograph by VALENTIN JECK
Ss. Cyril and Methodius University Campus, Skopje, Macedonia 1967–1974.  (Gotta love an architect named “Music”)

There are, of course, numerous rectilinear designs, sometimes in steel and glass, and sometimes dominated by concrete.  But concrete also allowed for the exploration of curved structures and organic shapes.  We see this in many of the large civic arenas, but also in the brutalist monuments built in the post-war period.  This “cell-like” structure in Macedonia takes it to the extreme, looking at once like an organic organism and a spaceship.

Wandering through the exhibition, one cannot help but imagine being the real spaces.  For me, the modernist, severe style brings a sense of calm and welcome that more traditional styles don’t always provide.  Ornament can be beautiful, but it is rarely ever calming in the way that simple texture and geometry is.  The calming nature of simple forms can extend to the interior spaces as well as the exterior, and the exhibition includes examples of everyday objects and furnishings.

Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Sadly, the Yugoslavian experiment ultimately failed, with country breaking apart and the entire region plunging into extreme nationalism and devastating wars in the 1990s.  This is a cautionary tale as we watch the plague of nationalism rising around the world, including in the United States.  Many of the architectural works in this exhibition did survive the wars.  But they do face continued challenges to their survival, including maintenance and a push to return to more “traditional” forms.  The “Skopje 2014” initiative, for example, is both farcical and tragic.  Despite these challenges, I hope the countries of the region will recognize and preserve the legacy of their modernist period for years to come.

This article only scratches the rough, hardened surface of the wealth in this exhibition.  It was truly a wonderful experience, even if so much was in my imagination through the artifacts.  Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 13, 2019.

Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a large exhibition of works by Robert Rauschenberg, billed as the “first 21st-century retrospective of the artist.” In 1999, I attended what was probably the last major 20th-century retrospective at The Guggenheim, which resulted in mixed and complicated feelings about his work. I was skeptical of the white-on-white paintings and openly detested the pieces that consisted entirely of unfolded cardboard boxes; but there were other works that were captivating, like his sculptural paintings with electrical elements. This new exhibition elevates the entirety of Rauschenberg’s work by placing it in the context of his many collaborators, both in the New York School of the 1950s and 1960s and beyond. The show also demonstrated the importance of place in the development and evolution of his art.


[Robert Rauschenberg. Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987). Riveted street signs and other metal parts, 60 x 121 x 14″ (152.4 x 307.3 x 35.6 cm), Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York]

The source of his many collaborations can be traced to his time at Black Mountain College. He studied with (and was influenced by) Josef and Anni Albers. It is here that he met John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as fellow visual artists Cy Twombly, Susan Weil, and more.

John Cage 4'33
[John Cage. 4’33” (In Proportional Notation) [1952/1953]. Ink on paper, page (each): 11 x 8 1/2″ (27.9 x 21.6 cm); sheet (each, unfolded): 11 x 16 15/16″ (27.9 x 43.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Henry Kravis in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis.]

Cage’s 4’33” is a piece that I admire greatly. He later claimed that his encounter with Rauschenberg’s white paintings was a major inspiration for the piece. In the context of place and collaboration, the white paintings take on a significance that was lost the first time I saw them. (I still don’t like the cardboard boxes, though.) One can also see in his white (and black) pieces the influence and evolution away from the precise minimalism of Josef Albers.

The friendships and collaborations formed at Black Mountain continued in his work abroad and then at his studios in downtown Manhattan, first at Fulton Street and then at Pearl Street. One amusing collaboration was a long ink-on-paper piece featuring the tire treads of a car driven by John Cage.


[Robert Rauschenberg with John Cage. Automobile Tire Print (detail). 1953. Tire-tread mark (front wheel) and tire-tread mark with house paint (rear wheel) made by Cage’s Model A Ford, driven by Cage over twenty sheets of typewriter paper fastened together with library paste, mounted on fabric, 16 1/2 in. × 22 ft. 1/2 in. (41.9 × 671.8 cm). San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Purchase through a gift of Phyllis C. Wattis. Photo: Don Ross. © 2017 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation]

Rauschenberg continued to work with simple elements to produce three-dimension works both on and off the wall that would lead to his celebrated “Combines.” Some of these early pieces were quite small and often focused on just one or two elements, such as the piece Untitled (c. 1953) consisting of wooden and linen boxes. As an interesting aside, the original fabric box was destroyed by Rachel Rosenthal’s cat – another example of chance collaboration.


[Unititled (1953). Wood box with lid and removable balsa wood-and-fabric cube. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.]

During the period of his early Combines and red paintings, Rauschenberg collaborated with Jasper Johns on a large mixed-media set design for Minutiae a dance piece by Cunningham with music by Cage. While red was the principal color of the piece, it also brought in a variety of other textures and materials, including wood, mirrors, newspaper and even a paint color chart.

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae
[Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Minutiae (1954). Oil, paper, fabric, newspaper, wood, paint sample color chart, graphite, metal, and plastic, with hanging mirror, on wood supports 84 1/2 x 81 x 30 1/2″ (214.6 x 205.7 x 77.5 cm) Private Collection Switzerland. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.]

The music is very sparse, and the dance moves between very slow minimal motion and periods of frenzied activity. These contrasts are reflected in the set’s various materials and textures. Remy Charlip’s costume designs also seem to reflect the colors and patterns of the set.

In 1960, Rauschenberg participated in Jean Tinguely’s seminal performance piece Homage to New York. Tinguely and his collaborators assembled a large sculptural installation that was designed to self-destruct over the course of the performance, which took place in the sculpture garden of MoMA. Only a few fragments of the original piece remain today.

Fragment from Homage to New York
[Jean Tinguely. Fragment from Homage to New York (1960). Painted metal, fabric, tape, wood, and rubber tires. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist.]

Rauschenberg’s contributions included “The Money Thrower”, a mechanical contraption with springs, an electric heater, gunpowder, and silver dollars.

The Money Thrower
[The Money Thrower for Tinguely’s H.T.N.Y. (Homage to New York) [1960].  Electric heater with gunpowder, metal springs, twine, and silver dollars. 6 3/4 × 22 1/2 × 4″ (17.1 × 57.2 × 10.2 cm) Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Gift of Pontus Hultén]

One can also see the performative at play in some of his larger Combines, including Gold Standard, a collaborative piece with artist Alex Hay.


[Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Hay. Gold Standard (1964). Oil, paper, printed reproductions, metal speedometer, cardboard box, metal, fabric, wood, string, pair of men’s leather boots, and Coca-Cola bottles on gold fabric folding Japanese screen with electric light, rope, and ceramic dog on bicycle seat and wire-mesh base 84 1/4 × 142 1/8 × 51 1/4″ (214 × 361 × 130.2 cm) Glenstone.]

 

These collaborations and the increased presence of electrical elements and technology in Rauschenberg’s work foreshadowed E.A.T., the “Experiments in Art and Technology”, an organization which he co-founded with Billy Klüver, Robert Whitman and the engineer Fred Waldhauer. Among the works that came out of E.A.T. was Mud Muse, in which a large glass case filled with bentonite and water is excited by a sound recording fed into an air compression system. You can see a bit of the piece in this video:

Mud Muse. Robert Rauschenberg. #moma #nyc

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Mud Muse was a collaboration with Carl Adams, George Carr, Lewis Ellmore, Frank LaHaye and Jim Wilkinson.

Place is an important element of many pieces. This is perhaps no more apparent than in Tinguely’s Home to New York. But the influence of New York and the artists who coalesced there is apparent in his solo works as well, sometimes visually and sometimes spiritually. Eventually, Rauschenberg moved his home and studio to Captiva Island in Florida, where we worked on a larger scale and in a more solitary manner than during his days in New York. While there are currents that run through his work in both the New York and Captiva periods, the later Captiva works seemed to lack a bit of the edge of the earlier New York work – or perhaps it is simply part of bias towards the city that I always return to.


[Estate (1963). Oil and silkscreen-ink print on canvas 95 3/4 x 69 3/4″ (243.2 x 177.2 cm) Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of the Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1967.]

There was far more in this exhibition of over 250 individual works than I can cover in this article. The continuity and focus on collaboration made it not too overwhelming to take it all in. I quite enjoyed the show, and it has given me a renewed appreciation overall for Robert Rauschenberg’s career and body of work.

MoMA: Pollock, Picasso, and Making Music Modern

No visit to New York is complete without a stop to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Today we look back at three exhibitions that stood out during my most recent trip.

7.1968
[Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). One: Number 31, 1950. 1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″ (269.5 x 530.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange), 1968. © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954 is a small but powerful exhibition tracing the artists’ career and development using pieces from MoMA’s extensive collection. There were of course the massive drip paintings such as the iconic One: Number 31, 1950, but also quite of few of his earlier works from the 1930s and 1940s that while abstract made extensive and overt use of mythological and folk elements. Indeed, one can even see figures in some of the earlier pieces.

428.1980
[Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Stenographic Figure. c. 1942. Oil on linen, 40 x 56” (101.6 x 142.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Walter Bareiss Fund, 1980 © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

One of the earliest paintings was quite reminiscent of Míro, another favorite of mine.

Seeing the works side by side in the compact two-room exhibit, it is easier to see the connections between the earlier and later works. Although the techniques and ideas are radically different, some of the shapes and other elements can be similar at times. Densely packed canvases with layered curving forms of color abound throughout his work.

One of the treats of this exhibition (which I don’t recall from the huge 1999 retrospective) were some of Pollock’s lesser-known drawings, sketches, and prints. Many of them date from the 1930s and 1940s, so have more in common with his paintings of those decades. But seeing Pollock writ small is in itself interesting given his association with paintings of monumental scale.

12.1958
[Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Untitled (Animals and Figures). 1942. Gouache and ink on paper, 22 ½ x 29 7/8” (57.1 x 76 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Straus Fund, 1958 © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Jackson Pollock ink on paper
[Jackson Pollock. Untitled.1950. Ink on paper. The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection]

The exhibition was just opening at the time (indeed, we saw it as part of a members’ preview), and will remain on display through March 13, 2016.


Picasso Sculpture is a large and comprehensive survey of the artists’ sculptural works. While primarily known for his painting, Picasso was quite a prolific sculptor, and his sculptures can be seen as three-dimensional projections of his unique and instantly recognizable style of painting.

649.1983
[Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Bull. Cannes, c. 1958.
Plywood, tree branch, nails, and screws. 46 1/8 x 56 3/4 x 4 1/8″ (117.2 x 144.1 x 10.5 cm).
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jacqueline Picasso in honor of the Museum’s continuous
commitment to Pablo Picasso’s art.
© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
]

In pieces like Bull, shown above, one can see the direct analogs to his cubist paintings. His figurative sculptures also often feature bulbous and exaggerated interpretations of the human body. Some of them border on caricature, with others are graceful and almost abstract.

MoMA - Pablo Picasso Sculpture 2015
[Installation view of Picasso Sculpture. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 14, 2015–February 7, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Pablo Enriquez]

The curving forms in both his human and animal were quite a contrast to the linear forms of the New York City skyline.

Picasso Sculpture
[Pablo Picasso, Spanish, 1881–1973
Maquette for Richard J. Daley Center Sculpture
1964
Simulated and oxidized welded steel
41 1/4 x 27 1/2 x 19″ (104.8 x 69.9 x 48.3 cm)
The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Pablo Picasso
]

There were several pieces that I recognized from my visit to the Musée Picasso in Paris, including this absolutely darling sculpture of a cat.

Picasso Cat

The exhibition, which covers all of the fifth floor of the museum, will be on display through February 7, 2016.


The exhibition on display in the design gallery was particularly appropriate for our interests at CatSynth. Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye brought together a large collection of aesthetically beautiful objects used for both the creation and enjoyment of music.

Perhaps the simplest way to stage such an exhibit would be a linear progression of designs from earlier record players to iPods, but instead this exhibit branches off in multiple directions at once. We do see several of Dieter Rams’ iconic music players and a particularly beautiful and modernist radio by Michael Rabinowitz released in 1942 – and of course an iPod.

205.1958
[Dieter Rams, Hans Gugelot. Radio-Phonograph (model SK 4/10). 1956. Painted metal, wood, and plastic, 9 1/2 x 23 x 11 1/2″ (24.1 x 58.4 x 29.2 cm). Mfr.: Braun AG, Frankfurt, Germany. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the manufacturer]

But we also see more esoteric musical instruments that blend art, design and technology, such as Joe Jones’ Mechanical Flux Orchestra, as well as the more mundane Fender Stratocaster.

Joe Jones.  Mechanical Flux Orchestra
[Joe Jones. Mechanical Flux Orchestra. c 1964. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift 2266.2008]

Through the exhibit are music posters, showing distinctive designs of different eras. Brightly colored posters of the 1960s are featured along with gritty black-and-white posters for New York City punk shows in the 1970s. There are also objects that are more purely art than functional design. Among those that straddle that divide are the Chamber Works: Architectural Meditations on Themes from Heraclitus from architect Daniel Libeskind.

2376.2001.4

[Daniel Libeskind. Sheet from the folio Chamber Works: Architectural Meditations on Themes from Heraclitus. 1983. Ink on paper, 22 3/8 x 30 1/4″ (56.8 x 76.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Andrew Cogan and Rob Beyer Purchase Funds © 2014 Daniel Libeskind]

I would love to “play” one of these pieces some day.

One of the more perplexing objects in the exhibit was the Scopitone, a 1950s behemoth that could select, play and rewind up to 36 short films produced for songs by European and American artists. It was in essence a jukebox for the forerunners of modern music videos.

Scopitone

[Scopitone 1963 16mm jukebox The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Film Study Center Special Collections F2007.4]

The Scopitone, never really caught on, but perhaps it was ahead of its time, with a medium more suited to small form factors and Internet distribution, i.e., YouTube.

There was so much in this exhibit that I would love to post all of it, but I think it’s best to see it in person. It will remain on display through January 18, 2016. And for those who can’t see it, I recommend a visit to the exhibition’s