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Preview: Kemper looks back at modernism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2009 - Twentieth century art and design are enjoying well-deserved re-appreciation and critical re-examinations nowadays, and this rekindling of serious interest in work from such a dynamic period in our recent history is gratifying.

The 20th century was, after all, a period of cataclysmic change, characterized both by dizzying innovation and unspeakable horror. In the course of its spooling out, manifestations of all sorts of radical, transformative thinking about design, building, painting, sculpture, music, architecture -- what have you -- gained universal currency and popularity.

From the relatively approximate vantage of the early 21st century and a new millennium, we look back and call much of this thought and industry "modern." And we have only begun to examine, celebrate and argue about what that means.

Three shows opening this evening (Friday, Sept. 18) in the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University plow furrows in that rich ground. Each is concerned in one way or another with aspects of human culture and behavior during the century just past, both in terms not only of the artistic and visual record but of social and political history as well. The connections and reverberations are powerful, sometimes exhilarating in the impact of their revelations, sometimes deeply troubling in their laying open of depravity.

It is important to remember that Washington University has been a consistent player in the modernist game, in science and in art. An example that's particularly germane in relation to the exhibits now at the Kemper is the fact that in the 1950s, the university commissioned a relatively unknown young Japanese architect to design a new building on its campus, to be sandwiched between Bixby Hall and Givens Hall, for the purposes of exhibiting works of art and teaching art history. It was named Steinberg Hall in honor of the principal donors of it, members of the Steinberg family, particularly Etta Steinberg, a noted collector of modern paintings and sculpture and a dedicated philanthropist.

The architect of Steinberg Hall was Fumihiko Maki, called Chico by his friends. He was a member of the faculty of the School of Architecture at Washington U. His design for Steinberg Hall was both radical and imposing with its origami-ish roof, its generous fenestration, its asymmetries and its broad-shouldered porches. The building was erected to house the department of art and archaeology, the art and architecture library, the art gallery and storage, classrooms and offices. It had its detractors. I'm not one of them. I studied in the building as an undergraduate and graduate student, and it is one of my intellectual landmarks.

Now, of course, it has been incorporated into the grand Sam Fox School, in which Steinberg is one of a number of buildings, the most recent of which are new buildings for the art school, the museum, the library and the art history department. These new buildings also are the work of Mr. Maki. Again, there are detractors. Again, I'm not among them.

For one thing, I was cheered that a prominent, brand-name modernist architect was chosen to design a building of our time on the campus of my alma mater and, in spite of squabbles and value engineering run riot, a good complex of buildings emerged. My experiences with the new buildings are based on visits to look at art as both a civilian and a writer-critic, and to visit students in their studios and to prepare for courses I've taught in the school of art and the college of architecture.

Heather Woofter is a colleague of mine in the architecture college. She is a young architect and assistant professor in the college, and in addition to teaching, works with her husband, Sung Ho Kim, in their architectural design firm, Axi:Ome. Now, Woofter's resume is enriched by her role as an exhibition organizer and designer. The subject is mid-century modernism expressed in the work of two influential groups, Archigram in Great Britain and the Metabolists in Japan, along with fascinating and relevant work by the Dutch painter Constant Anton Nieuwenhuys, who generally and rather poetically, is called simply Constant.

Woofter's interest in Archigram and the Metabolists was activated when she noticed in her studio classes that students were making drawings that attempted to represent the current urban situation, and were trying to interconnect different parts of it. So she began looking in earnest at the work of the architects of the radical movement Archigram and at Constant's work, and eventually moved on to the work of the Japanese avant-garde architectural group, the Metabolists.

Her interest and her investigations took her from the design studios to the Kemper galleries, where she and her colleagues have installed "Metabolic City," a collection of drawings and paintings by members of Archigram and the Metabolists, and by Constant Nieuwenhuys himself.

Woofter said most of the students had never heard of any of these movements or the characters who advanced their thinking; more than likely most readers aren't aware of them, and what can be more involving and enriching than the chance to experience and to learn about something from the past that is little known, perhaps, but useful and consonant with the present?

Woofter, in her studios, introduced her students first to the work of Archigram, but the explorations "spread to the Metabolists, because they were talking about the integration of the natural landscape and the structure of the city. Such thinking is enormously relevant today, although completely different than what we talk about today. In any event, it seemed relevant to me to begin talking about these drawings in connection with what the students have been doing in their studios."

After a couple of years of work, including travel to Japan, Woofter has produced what promises to be a visually stimulating and genuinely informative exhibition. All the material speaks not only on an affecting visual level but of architecture's most noble intentions, to create spaces that are not simply functional or beautiful but provide for the cultivation and nourishment of the human spirit.

Fumihiko Maki, not incidentally, was a Metabolist.

'Chance Aesthetics'

Archigram, Metabolism and Constant made muscular contributions to the 20th century thinking. Good ideas, important conceptual systems, innovation, often go through period of somnolence, only to be embraced and woven into new and challenging work. "Chance Aesthetics," another of the shows to open tonight, is the work of Kemper Gallery assistant curator Meredith Malone. It brings forth work that demonstrates the influence of the accidental on modern art from the early 20th century to about 1970. As Archigram and the Metabolists were influenced, to greater and lesser degrees by science and especially biological systems, many modernists of the first seven decades of the last century found caprice as compelling and as useful to their aesthetical growth and the formation of their ideas.

Malone said "Chance Aesthetics" sprang from her desire to do a modernist show at the Kemper, a show that would look at non-traditional work that was centered on artistic process. Some of the central questions asked, she said, are about artists' challenging the fundamentals of art, and about challenging ideas of authenticity and challenging the notion of the artist as genius.

There are three sections to the show, she said: Collage and assemblage; automatism; and games and systems of random ordering. Chance certainly is the organizing principle of the show. But Malone said it is important to recognize that there is no absolute presentation of the elusive element of chance - the artist always, always maintains some control of both process and product.

"I didn't want to go chronologically - I wanted to mix them up in the same room." It is as if she were taking a non-conformist journey across the 20th century without a map, poking at, touching and excavating marvels from that rich and incredible cultural landscape, making selections based not on any line of time or school or movement, but playing something of a game of chance herself, one in which results are as surprising as they are gratifying and enlightening.

The third fall exhibition at the Kemper consists of photographs and related material documenting one of the ugliest incidents in American 20th century history, the rounding-up and incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Called "A Challenge to Democracy: Ethnic Profiling of Japanese Americans During World War II," the show promises not only smacks us sharply with evidence of this injustice, but reminds us as well that profiling, based on race, ethnicity, gender and often plain old bigotry and suspicion, continues to slither through American society like a viper and to rear its ugly head and to bite us.

Art history Ph.D. candidates Anna Warbelow and Elissa Weichbrodt curated this show along with Washington University art history and American culture studies professor Angela Miller.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.