Mark Lamster | Essays

Chaos & Classicism in NY

If you're in the city for the holiday weekend, highly recommended is the Guggenheim's Chaos & Classicism exhibition, a show of sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing, sometimes beautiful and disturbing, and generally unfamiliar work made in Italy, France, and Germany during the interwar years. The show is sure to be less crowded than some of the other blockbusters around town (ie, MoMA's must-see AbEx show), given the un-fashionable nature of classism, what with its associations with fascism, conservative/reactionary design, and postmodernism. I'm not quite sure this exhibition is actually going to change those negative perceptions, as it culminates with a gallery of Nazi and Italian fascist work—"The Dark Side of Classism"—as if totalitarianism was the inevitable culmination of classical influence. This is a haunting conclusion, made all the more so by the eerie strains coming from Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, which runs on a loop in a darkened niche in the back of the gallery. It's a mesmerizing piece of film, but also deeply unsettling—it all but scared my brazen four-year-old daughter out of the museum. 

The show, in fact, presents artists of vastly divergent political philosophies adopting classical themes. I was struck, for instance, by Heinrich Hoerle's "Masken," of 1929, a commentary on the menace of National Socialism's faceless mobs. An apolitical still-life, "Ospedale"  of 1927, by Felice Casorati brought me to an abrupt halt on Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda—imagine Braque painting a Morandi, and you get the idea.  

It's worth bearing in mind, because it's easy to forget, that after World War II the idea of a progressive classicism did not simply disappear. Ballanchine and Mies van der Rohe—both represented, incidentally—continued to produce splendid, classically-inspired work. Philip Johnson, the subject of my own work right now, was certainly a classicist. Vincent Scully will tell you about Lou Kahn's classical inspiration ad nauseum. And then there's Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. But now we're on to another show altogether.

Have a happy thanksgiving.

Jobs | April 12