A few months ago, I set off to see two exhibitions on view at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The big one, Design is not Art, seemed to be intended as an ambitious, provocative statement on the relationship of those two sometimes contentious fields. The other, Josef and Anni Albers: Designs for Living, was something I assumed would be more of an amuse bouche, a modest survey of some familiar work to be sampled as a counterpoint to the main course.
I was in for a surprise.
It was Design is not Art that I was really looking forward to. The exhibition's name, however, should have provided a faint warning. Not just complex but complicated, it would be more properly expressed here as Design [is not] Art, since the actual title used the mathematical symbol for "not equal to, but not greater than and not less than." The fact that I cannot properly transcribe the title here (our weblog's particular software doesn't seem to accomodate the not equal sign) says something about a missed connection between conceptual ingenuity and practical utility. Yet what's not to like about cornucopia of functional work by some of my favorite artists, including Donald Judd, Scott Burton, Barbara Bloom, Robert Wilson and Rachel Whiteread?
Josef Albers, on the other hand, had always left me cold. Like many art and design students, I was assigned The Interaction of Color as a freshman and forced to spend several weeks manipulating sheets of Color-Aid, all the while thinking okay, simultaneous contrast, I get it, for God's sake. Later, I read a tossed-off assessment from Tom Wolfe: "Albers had spent the preceding 14 years of his life investigating the problems, if any, of superimposing squares of color on each other." The viciousness of that little "if any" nailed it for me exactly.
In the excellent catalog for Design is not Art, Cooper-Hewitt director Paul Thompson quotes David Hockney: "Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus." But the work of the artists left me surprisingly unmoved. It wasn't just that most of the furniture on display (and design according to artists mostly means furniture) looked almost sadistically uncomfortable: after all, no reasonable person would expect a Barcalounger from Sol Lewitt. Instead, what I sensed was the chilly insularity of the fine art world. Most of the artists on display began as their own clients; the only way to avoid the distasteful products of the mass market was to take matters into their own hands. As Donald Judd put it bluntly, "It's impossible to go to the store and buy a chair." This mania for creating a completely self contained world, centered entirely on the artist's vision, may produce objects of extraordinary beauty, but omits one of the fundamental characteristics of great design, respect for the user. The overall effect was one of tense, hermetic constriction, of meanness where one would hope for meaning.
It was with some trepidation, then, that I went downstairs to view the output of Josef and Anni Albers: surely it was these protominimalists who were partly to blame for all this. So what a delightful surprise to find room after room filled with rich, sensual objects, addressing an almost promiscuously wide range of problem types, from furniture to record covers. I felt like I was discovering an oasis after a parched desert trek.
Josef + Anni Albers: Designs for Living, with essays by Nicholas Fox Weber and Martin Filler, is the only exhibition catalog I've ever read from cover to cover in one sitting. Intimate and engaging, it provides insights into the creative process that will stay with me, and that provide instructive contrasts to those in Design is not Art. Here, for example, is Josef Albers explaining how he approached his famous Homage to the Square paintings: "I paint the way I spread butter on pumpernickel." Compare that to Scott Burton: "Art just seems spiritually insufficient in a doomsday climate and it will take an increasingly relative position. It will place itself not in front of but around, behind, underneath (literally) the audience — in an operational capacity." Whose chair would you rather sit in?
For me, the most startling images in Designs for Living were the pictures of the modest suburban raised ranch at 808 Birchwood Drive in Orange, Connecticut, that Josef and Anni Albers lived in from 1970, so prosaic compared to the iconic Masters' Houses at the Dessau Bauhaus that was their home at the beginning of their marriage. While the photographs of the interiors betray the extraordinary taste of the of occupants, there is no mistaking that this is where everyday life happened, from the Sears furniture to the Formica tabletops, from the blender on the kitchen counter to the potted palm on the coffee table. Clearly, these artists delighted in the world around them. They were not afraid to be uncool.
It is that sure sense of life, everyday life lived to the fullest, that is the mark of a great designer, and perhaps it is part of what separates the designer from the artist. Establishing his isolated retreat in remote west Texas, Donald Judd wrote, "Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again." I imagine that Josef and Anni Albers would have disagreed.
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