Bauhaus at the MoMA: A Very Long Essay That Develops a Proposition

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I’ve always considered the MoMA‘s sixth floor as the ideal place to escape in what is perhaps the escapist’s ultimate playground. It’s where the intelligentsia, the freelancers, the art history students, and the discerning tourists alike all co-mingle, satisfied at having bypassed the hordes who are arrhythmically struggling to catch an unobstructed glimpse of a Picasso or Cézanne. If the sixth floor were a busy sidewalk, its inhabitants understand basic pedestrian etiquette.

So what better place — on this side of the pond anyway — to host the upcoming exhibition, Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity? In a museum that, by definition, was conceived not only to encompass the modern curve but set it as well, a Bauhaus show is long overdue. (This is MoMA’s first major exhibition of Bauhaus art since 1938, just five years after the Nazis shut down the school.)

Oskar Schlemmer. Bauhaus Stairway. 1932. Oil on canvas. 63 7/8 x 45" (162.3 x 114.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson. © 2009 Estate of Oskar Schlemmer, Munich/Germany

Founded by German architect and modern master Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus School brought together avant-gardists of all relevant media — painting, sculpture, architecture, furniture design, photography, textiles, etc. — to erase that virtual line dividing high art’s form and function. Its practitioners comprised a who’s who in the pre-war modern canon, including Kandinsky, Klee, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers, to name just a few. Over 400 works will be included, some of which have never seen a U.S. gallery, and will hopefully serve as an important reminder of what modern art can accomplish when it’s not preoccupied with itself.

Organized by Columbia art history professor and Chief Curator of Architecture and Design Barry Bergdoll, and to be held in tandem with the more understated Bauhaus Lounge exhibit, Workshops for Modernity was conceived unknowingly as an orphaned off-shoot of a much larger Bauhaus exhibition at the Martin Gropius Building in Berlin, which opened this past summer. Upon learning about the German show, Bergdoll opted, rather admirably, to ride this wave rather than return to shore.

Erich Consemöller, Untitled. c. 1926

Of the 960 works on display in Berlin, some 150 will travel to MoMA to complement the remaining 250 or so pieces from MoMA’s permanent collection and other lenders. “Their show is more like an anthology,” Bergdoll commented recently to the New York Observer, “and ours is more like a very long essay that develops a proposition.”

Whatever this “proposition” entails in Bergdoll’s mind, I prefer to think of it more as a negation of self-serving trends that have only recently begun to recede in contemporary art. Andy Warhol once said, in his signature tongue-in-cheek manner, “artists make things for people that they don’t really need.” While this holds true in some contexts, the Bauhaus artists were in the business of disproving such pessimism, and were doing so long before Warhol ever decided to stack boxes of Brillo Soap Pads.

Apart from the obvious tragedy of the Bauhaus’s unwilling demise in 1933 is the unfortunate fact that MoMA’s exhibition will stop there as well. While some Nazi-sanctioned modern art forms continued to live but were consigned to posterity, Bauhaus actually did live on in tangible forms fitting of its legacy, most notably with Josef Albers and his experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Operating in the communal, multi-media tradition of the original Bauhaus, Black Mountain produced the likes of Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg.

While there’s certainly a finite amount of space on the sixth floor, it would be nice if Bergdoll and company further separated themselves from the Berlin show, and reserved a little slice for that side of history that says the Bauhaus didn’t die.

Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity runs at the MoMA starting November 8 through January 25, 2010.