On ViewMuseum Of Modern Art
Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented
December 13, 2020 – April 10, 2021
New York, NY
When I was 23, and fresh out of art school, I landed a job as concierge at a boutique hotel in Portland, Oregon. I worked the evening shift, and on slow nights, the head of maintenance would come up from his basement office and we’d chat, mostly about work, occasionally about music, but on one night, our conversation turned to art. His position was unsurprising: art was indulgent, art school, a waste of money. But when I questioned him about his education, I got an unexpected answer. He had served in the Navy as an intelligence officer: his purview, the Balkans. Mostly, he explained, he read magazines, watched films and TV, and kept up with the latest in literature in order to distill this information into reports and threat assessments. Cocky little art prick I was, I told him that’s exactly what you learn how to do in art school. He tipped his hat and walked out.
With Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, however, I was reminded that the joke was actually on me for thinking art wasn’t in some way instrumental to power. The exhibition revisits the history of the European avant-gardes in light of MoMA’s recent acquisition of the Merrill C. Berman Collection, a robust catalog not of paintings, but of everything else Aleksandr Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Luibova Popova, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoch, and the rest of the big central and eastern European names of the era did, with works ranging from advertising campaigns designed by Russian Constructivists, to Dutch typography, networks of artist-run magazines, and the Bauhaus’s pioneering “technologies of persuasion,” (to borrow art historian Barry Bergdoll’s expression). Pitting paintings from the museum’s collection against these materials, the exhibition challenges the modernist myth of artistic autonomy, a mono-cultural narrative which MoMA itself has upheld for its entire existence. The show’s title could go on to include designer, brand strategist, typographer, stylist, event planner to show how these influential artists plied their crafts in the commercial or political arenas, adapting their aesthetic skills and shrewd observational abilities to advertising or to the purposes of the State, money, status, or security.
One way to look at the exhibition is as a resolution of MoMA’s version of art history with the Berman Collection’s full range of artistic and material output, the bulk of which the museum had actively devalued in its assessment of the period. This more holistic view of the Russian avant-garde, Dada, De Stijl, and Bauhaus recontextualizes these movements in relation to artistic labor, and makes clear their contributions to the more public-facing world of advertising and state propaganda—or both, as the show also demonstrates that the two overlapped. Take, for example, the advertising agency that Aleksandr Rodchenko started in the 1920s with Constructivist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. In an attempt to marshal support for Soviet production, the duo was enlisted under the New Economic Policy, and they applied their radicalism and penchant for abstraction to make hilariously convincing adverts for cigarettes, light bulbs, and cooking oil. Their ad work shows how, early on, the State pinned its goals, in part, on consumption, as in the pair’s hyperbolic slogan for cocoa powder: “Comrades / There’s no debate! / Soviet citizens / Will get in great shape / What is ours / Is in our power / Where’s your power? / In this / Cocoa powder.”
Though the promise of worker uprising resulting from drinking chocolate milk comes off as flippant and silly in this otherwise brilliant line of copy, the intentions behind it should resonate with anyone who thinks about how art and artists should respond to our present state(s) of crises. Or, perhaps more accurately, it should resonate with anyone who questions how art can be used to enact real institutional change, without falling into the trap of cultural capitalism, wherein the very act of consumption takes the place of performing civic duty (i.e. an exhibition about protest, but which does not apply the lessons of these protest movements to the museum’s institutional model or board of directors). The reality, at least in 1920s Moscow, was that certain artists turned away from art making and applied these skills toward more social ends—handily summed up in the term “production.” Production Clothing For Actor No. 7 (1922, dated 1921) is a good example. Its creator, Constructivist painter Luibova Popova, reinterprets the movement’s penchant for geometric abstraction in her costume design, using its signature red square to bring a formidable energy and aesthetic zeal to a Soviet military official. Other of Popova’s female peers, many of which are on view, were more directly allied with Soviet policies: an entire wall of the exhibition is dedicated to the work of Maria Bri-Bein and others, whose posters, such as Woman Worker, Fight for A Clean Canteen, For Healthy Food (1931) and Study Technology, Master Science (1933), depict two pairs of men and women pleasantly working side-by-side in a factory cafeteria, and a happy woman working heavy machinery, respectively. The images fulfilled a demand for representation created by Stalin’s Five-Year Plan: seeking to liberate women from domestic duties, and fold them into the workforce, the State required images that persuasively illustrated this new paradigm.
In a literal way, the images of women working in factories place art in the service of production, their didactic potential essential in shifting art from an aesthetic preoccupation to a matter of ideology and lifestyle. But what type or person or mindset are they seeking to produce? Such questions come to bear on one of the exhibition’s main subjects: photomontage. The show emphasizes the Berlin Dadaists’ vision of disruption, preaching its vertiginous, and in part reactionary, reordering of the world as the epitome of the avant-garde. Their designs are heady, as in Hannah Hoch’s pure abstract, Untitled (Dada) (ca. 1922), and full of angst, as in George Grosz’s Untitled (The dance of the day) (ca. 1922), both of which show how the new medium offered a way to reconfigure the present according to the fragmentation, volatility, and disillusionment of post-WWI, Weimar Berlin. But the dangers of Johannes Baader’s avowal to disrupt the authority of the press via photomontage should seem familiar to anyone who heard Donald Trump speak even once in the last four years. Similarly, to see Stalin walk alongside workers in various maquettes by Gustav Klutsis disturbingly recalls our contemporary moment of deep fakes, Astroturfing, cyberbullying, fake news, and any other means by which our faith in institutions, individuals, and ideologies are corroded. Knowing what we know now—and, really, what we knew then—it instills a feeling of powerlessness to see Stalin marching, Stalin standing by the wayside, Stalin joyously waving.
The maquettes illustrate another unfortunate reality, too: Klutsis was “purged,” as a wall text euphemistically puts it, after Stalin changed his aesthetic vision for the Soviet State to Socialist Realism. And the show is filled with narratives about the transactional nature of power: Werner David Feist, a Jewish designer who made Poster for municipal pools, Augsburg, Germany (ca. 1928), was immediately barred from the swimming facility once the Nazis enacted their anti-Semitic policies. Fré Cohen, another Jewish designer, committed suicide after the Nazis arrested her, following their occupation of Holland. The scary thing, however, is not just that these narratives unfolded under totalitarian regimes, but that their alternatives in Western, democratic models were also fraught with issues, albeit not of life and death. The exhibition dedicates nearly a whole room to Kurt Schwitters, whose concept of “Merzbau” is held up, historically, with having radically merged art and life, but alongside his advertising work, in which he did brand strategy and design for Hannover’s streetcar company amongst other clients, or his self-portrait, in which he is self-styled in a suit and slicked-back hair like a German Don Draper, such radicality rings false—or, perhaps, incomplete, as art history tends to elide art’s commercial applications. It is not so much Schwitter’s admission that Merz was a cheeky abbreviation for Commerz, but rather, that the merger of art and life, and its vision of universality would also become the goal of capitalism under the auspices of lifestyle.
The question then arises: knowing that Schwitters was an Ad Man or that Klutsis made Stalin a star, do we still think it is possible to change the system from the inside? One way to look at this problem is through artists’ attempts at resistance. John Heartfeld’s collages New Chair at German Universities—National-Racial Self-Reflection (1933) set out to critique the Third Reich, spoofing a Nazi academic by making him look like a crackpot. Though its satire is certainly poignant, it hardly had the same influence as his earlier design, The Hand Has Five Fingers [Poster for the German Communist Party] (1928), a provocative poster for the German Communist Party, which depicted an outstretched hand, below which read the slogan, “seize the enemy.” People might have laughed at Heartfelt’s mockery of reprehensible Nazi beliefs, but when his design sensibilities were put in service of Communist ideology, rather than simple critique, they gained widespread influence, with party members greeting each other with his open-handed salute.
Ella Bergmann-Michel’s unfinished film, Election Campaign [Last Election] (1932) offers yet another way to assess the thorny issue of an artist’s relation to power, politics, and money. It documents the streets of Frankfurt in advance of Germany’s last free election. Though the wall text positions the film as a critique, it actually shows German streets in which ads for all variety of products existed seamlessly alongside swastikas, and where no passerby seemed perturbed. Indeed, the best thing the show offers is perhaps also the worst thing it offers, which is a reminder that modernist autonomy was no promise of agency, and that complicity was no guarantee either. What comes through is the fact that being an artist is more or less a contact high from the smoke cloud of power—heady, innovative, thrilling, and prone to grandiose visions, even if it all turns out painfully wrong.