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Saint Louis Art Museum gives local, uncelebrated modernist treasures their due

Image courtesy of Kyrle Boldt III
Robert Elkington Residence, interior.

Modern art, architecture and decorative arts created in the middle of the 20th century were swamped by the reactionary ruckus of the late 20th century post-modernist movement. 

Given the quality and originality of so much of the mid-century’s aesthetic industry, its relegation to obscurity was a big mistake and a now recognized lapse of taste. However, all wasn’t lost. A new exhibition opening this weekend at the St. Louis Art Museum joins other scholarship and exhibitions dedicated to setting the record straight.

On Tuesday, “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh discussed the importance and meaning of this work with David Conradsen, the museum’s associate curator of decorative arts and design, and Genevieve Cortinovis,  research assistant at the museum. They spent years researching and organizing this new show called St. Louis Modern, and, with art historian Mary Reid Brunstrom, wrote the show’s catalogue.

"The overall arc of this period is fairly simple: moving toward serial production and making objects affordable and a continual refinement of form to get this ideal simplicity of form that you see in furniture you'll see in the show," Conradsen said.

Credit Saint Louis Art Museum
David Conradsen and Genevieve Cortinovis.

This  wide-ranging show, which opens Sunday and continues through Jan. 31, 2016, presents building plans and photographs of buildings and their interiors; paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints; silver; chandeliers and other lamps and lighting fixtures;  textiles; furniture of all sorts; ceramics; a Corvette and a few gizmos. Much of the work was either produced here or has strong local connections.

The show brings forth and celebrates modernist treasures from the museum’s permanent collection and also draws in material from other public and private sources. It pays homage as well to one of the greatest sculptures of any period—Eero Saarinen’s grand Gateway Arch, now celebrating its 50th birthday.

Credit Harris Armstrong Collection, University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Washington University Libraries / from The Architectural Forum: Magazine of Building, October 1948.
from The Architectural Forum: Magazine of Building, October 1948.
Isamu Noguchi, architecture by Harris Armstrong, Ceiling for American Stove Company, i.e. the U-Haul building on Kingshighway at I-44.

 You can find examples of modernist architecture all over the city, said Cortinovis, pointing out the former Magic Chef building, which is now the U-Haul building at Kingshighway and I-44. 

"It's quite unrecognizable now because it has the corrugated siding on it," Cortinovis said. "It's an International Style building by Harris Armstrong, one of the first and most important in St. Louis. It is still home to a spectacular sculpted ceiling by Isamu Noguchi. It is now concealed under a drop-ceiling, but we have the maket for these.  It is one of three that Noguchi executed and the only one to survive in any state."

You can read more about that building in particular, here. The terminal building at St. Louis International Airport, the now-demolished Pruitt-Igoe complex and the Shanley Buildingare others. 

Along with the exhibit, the Saint Louis Art Museum is organizing several walking and bus tours to see the different modernist sights of the city, which you can find here

Related Event

What: "St. Louis Modern" at the Saint Louis Art Museum
When: Nov. 8, 2015-Jan. 31, 2016
Where: Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Dr, St. Louis, MO 63110
More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.  

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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.
Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.