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Reflection on the art museum's modern show: Good enough, but a decade or two too late

St. Louis Art Museum website

The St. Louis Art Museum’s exhibition of mid-20th century art, architecture and design, which opens Sunday, should provide an epiphany for visitors unfamiliar with mid 1900's achievements here, and for others, moments of reminiscence. “St. Louis Modern” shines light on a Camelot moment in St. Louis, putting on view representations of Mound City-centric buildings, paintings, sculptures, textiles, prints, drawings, furniture and a made-in-St. Louis Corvette. It’s a triumph of sorts, except for the fact that it tips toward the archeological rather than the retrospective.

“St. Louis Modern” is easily 15 or 20 years overdue. Special exhibitions such as these should be more than arrangements of objects and presentations of information about them. These exhibitions should generate introspection and spur us to action rather than elicit nostalgic longing for what was, in the mid 20th century, a culture that balanced itself vibrantly on a cutting edge of cultural history.

This is not to diminish or dismiss the show – decorative arts curator David Conradsen and Genevieve Cortinovis present an eclectic and admirable assembly of objects that evoke the frisson brought on by mid-century artistic industry here.

This bold efflorescence was built on a strong, sophisticated enthusiasm for artistic quality, for which we can thank our French ancestors, and a profound respect for intellectualism, more likely than not attributable to Germania. Other cultural building blocks -- the Mercantile Library Association; the influences of cultivated European Jews and New Englanders and cultural and racial intermingling; the setting down of roots for a proper and now celebrated Symphony Orchestra; Washington University; the Missouri Botanical Garden; the St. Louis Art Museum; the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – all of this nourished civic rectitude and built civic muscle, and produced a well-deserved pride of place and pride in individual accomplishment., along with creativity and artistic ambitions.

By mid-century, the regional culture absorbed waves of modernity originating at the Bauhaus in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, which broke on the shores of Cambridge, Mass., and New York City. Sailing along at various times (and presented here in a non-chronological fashion) were dedicated working artists, visionaries, teachers – men and women such as Charles and Ray Eames, Victor Proetz, Charles Nagel, Ralph Cole Hall, Tirzah and Frederick Dunn, Eugene Mackey Jr., Joe Jones, Aimee Schweig, Harris Armstrong, William Adair Bernoudy and his partners, Hank Bauer and Edouard Mutrux, as well as Philip Guston and Max Beckmann.

The work of these artists, working in a milieu that provided encouragement and even a living, gained local and some national prominence in the middle of the 20th century. I was an undergraduate then and recall and remain exhilarated by activity swirling around us and the various commitments to art and ideas. Although the gleaming and appearingly migrational surfaces of EeroSaarinen’s Gateway to the West brought a materially fresh and surgically refined approach to monumental expression, other artistic labor added luster to the real and psychological landscapes of the region. 

One wonders why.

Was it new blood -- the influence of Saarinen and his Arch, or a few years later, the magic of Edward Durell Stone’s transformation of a boring concrete doughnut into a modernist coliseum? Was it Max Beckmann? Or was it an effulgent optimism that set in after the war, expressed in an unstated but general agreement to shoot for the moon?

As good and as clear and as jargon-free an explanation as I’ve ever read is Mary Reid Brunstrom’s essay on architecture in the “St. Louis Modern” catalog. Brunstrom weaves together everything mentioned above and draws important insight and conclusions from them:

“Through an examination of the myriad vital forms that emerged at midcentury and the scope of their dissemination, we come to understand the sense of dynamism and energy that not only permeated St. Louis’s architecture of the period but also wove its way into the very social and cultural fabric of the era.”

But there was something else: First-class, informed, intelligent, vigorous leadership. Looking back, an informed assumption can be made that  without the vision, good taste and courage of a culturally sophisticated, socially confident and well-heeled and generous group of men and women the artistic flowering of the mid century simply would not have happened. Some of the prime movers, presented in a non-encyclopedic list, are Joseph Pulitzer Jr., Howard F. Baer, Morton D. May, John Meyer and Alice Gerdine, Ethan A. H. Shepley Sr., Isadore Millstone; Ralph and Mary Jane Fournier; Carl and Gerty Cori; Samuel and Natalie Grant; Etta Steinberg and her daughter and son-in-law, Florence and Richard Weil Sr.

Unfortunately, the train on which they traveled has departed the station; and with certain bold and towering contemporary exceptions, we are at a moment when the influence of the truly enlightened is diminished and the wisdom of these individuals is often shunned. Cultural and civic involvements are more focused on money and obsessions with sports – how ‘bout those Rams! -- than on the common weal in regard to culture, a vital member of any civic infrastructure.

All that is too bad. When faced with indifference to high standards and a testosterone poisoned obsession with sports, you wonder if there can possibly be a correction. Shows such as “St. Louis Modern” can help – or it could have helped, had it been organized while the paint was fresh on mid-century monuments large and small. It could have been presented as a sort of millennial challenge. But overdue observations such as "St. Louis Modern," along with civic and institutional foot dragging, the persistent satisfaction with the second rate and smug conservatism won’t cut through the fog of complacency.

Leadership – conscientious, informed, inspired leadership, principled leadership, leadership founded on bold, high standards – offers us a fog-dispersing chain saw. If we look deep into the beauty and significance of the objects in this show and work hard to discern the origins of their originality and their cultural quality, lessons can be learned about the potential for success and greatness close at hand.

What would be involved is the inculcation of a new pioneer spirit, one characterized by the willingness to take risks, by fearlessness in the face of the challenging and the new, the willingness to take the heat for bold decisions, and leadership built on a dedication to quality and progressivism rather than an all-consuming dedication to acquiring wealth and personal prestige.

At a forum a couple years ago presented by the St. Louis Beacon, Sen. John C. Danforth was asked what it would take to set right the situation of gridlock in the U.S. Congress. Without missing a beat, he said, “The willingness to lose.” Such a willingness provides a lesson for those of us concerned about the quality of our cultural environment. Changing a culture with art as the cudgel isn’t easy, and losses are to be expected and absorbed,  but with patience and diligence such an effort can be transformative.

Art matters.

Read the words on the St. Louis Art Museum’s face. Art does have truth, or as close as we can get to that elusive quality. And we should indeed take refuge there from the darkness. And while we are there, we should make some grand plans, plans that include a more artistically stimulating and productive  future, one built on ideas rather than marketing plans.

An earlier version of this article had the wrong first name for one of the curators.