On ViewThe Museum Of Modern Art
December 13, 2020 – April 10, 2021
The goal of MoMA’s Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented, 1918–1939 is to showcase the ways that artists participated in spreading radical new ideas made urgent by World War I and the 1917 Russian Revolution. The exhibition largely focuses on activity in what would become the Soviet Bloc, as artists enthusiastically adopted new print and distribution technologies, and embraced a geometric, abstract aesthetic that dramatized their rejection of the decadent, bourgeois parlor. These artists were “agitators, advertisers, theorists, publishers, brand managers, and graphic designers.” All this is true, and the exhibit provides room to appreciate the many works on display from the museum’s recent acquisition of the Merrill C. Berman Collection of avant-garde art and graphic design. This is an important show, not least because the influence of Soviet concepts remains vital in American design culture.
The show opens with posters created by Vladimir Mayakovsky for the Russian Telegraph Agency, with emphatic statements urging the proletariat to resist the generals and businessmen who represent the oppressor, despite their comical rendering—tubby, pompous figures with medals and top hats askew. Paintings by Kazimir Malevich (Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension, 1915) and El Lissitsky (Study for the book About Two Square: A Suprematist Tale of Two Square in Six Constructions, 1920) present the simple color palette, distinct divisions of content, and geometric text design characteristic of works throughout the exhibit. For example, Gustav Klutsis’s photomontage Electrification of the Entire Country (c. 1920) shows Lenin walking onto a red square, with graphics and text referencing his drive to bring electricity to the entire population. All design elements are positioned to suggest simple geometric shapes congregating on the bright center square. In the spirit of socialism, posters were not signed, but attributions are provided where possible.
Select works representing the Dada movement introduce collage, a practice adapted in the form of photomontage in many political posters. A wall of propaganda in support of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan depicts women as producers, a reminder of women’s equality under Soviet communism. For this series, women designers were hired to present the labor of women in factories, fields, and more. By 1950, 75% of doctors in the USSR were women. Across the show, women artists and designers—among them Elizaveta Ignatovich, Valentina Kulagina, and Varvara Stepanova—are well represented, which one hopes will improve their name recognition. Lydia Naumova’s stunning wall-sized display of data visualization offers a density of information organized with eye-catching bold colors on a dark background, a startingly contemporary design. Liubov Popova is the outstanding example in the section on photomontage. Though she studied painting from the Renaissance to Impressionism, she ultimately turned to media more suited to mass audiences, like theater sets and print. She died in 1924 and was eulogized as “the most radical, the most principled of us all” by the writer Osip Brik.
Amidst all this talk of radicality, seeing the artist Kurt Schwitters in a suit and tie on the cover of his magazine, Merz no. 20 (1927) is an important reminder of how certain social forms remained in place. The exhibit space dedicated to him opens with his claim that merz is nothing more than the second syllable of commerz, with examples of his business design efforts, like a display explaining how to get on a streetcar or the dynamic logo of the Dammerstock Housing Estate, which recalls the Whitney’s recent logo redesign. Besides managing his design firm, Schwitters made his own unique forms of art. Merz Picture 32 A. The Cherry Picture (1921) and three smaller works are excellent examples of his early impulse to shift away from realism in favor of abstraction.
The alliance between artists and industry is a major focus of the exhibition. Whether producing promotional pieces for state industries, running graphic design agencies, or creating architectural models, the artists included here embraced making art in the service of life, rather than conceiving the artwork as an elitist artefact devoid of utility. Also, their interest in abstraction was inspired by mechanics and engineering. The artist Henryk Berlewi held an exhibit in an automobile showroom, Warsaw’s Austro-Daimler, in 1924. A wall-sized photograph of the original installation shows him leaning on a car, three of his works in the background. One of those, Mechano Facture (1924), is displayed to the right, bigger than the photograph would lead you to expect, though still no wider than arm span. The dimensions of these works are so very human; they didn’t require supersize proportions to be impactful.
Also included here is the work of graphic designer Ladislav Sutnar, who published albums of his work in advance of a trip to the US for the 1939 World Fair. The exhibition reveals the scope of both his inventiveness and influence: those albums became a portfolio-style publication that is now common among graphic designers, as seen in Mag Men: Fifty Years of Making Magazines (2019), from the founders of New York magazine, Milton Glaser and Walter Bernard. For those with interest in the era’s explosion of innovative short run publications, over a dozen examples are on display. The journal Blok, founded by Teresa Żarnower and Mieczysław Szczuka, and MA magazine, founded by Lajos Kassák, get particular attention. El Lissitzky, Mondrian, and Moholy-Nagy are all represented with magazine work that spread the Dada-Constructivist aesthetic. Similarly, Theo van Doesburg’s Mécano review from the early 1920s contributed to the Bauhaus’s shift towards Constructivism, which we see in Bauhaus: Zeitschrift fuer Gestaltung, Year 2 (1928). Bauhaus ideas had a long afterlife in the United States, and the aesthetic espoused by these “little reviews” radically influenced American design culture. Indeed, many of the radical and communitarian design strategies showcased here will look strikingly familiar. Particularly ironic is Elena Semenova’s design for a Workers Club Lounge, which might as well have inspired a sleek contemporary spa or bougie cocktail lounge. Communist designs have taken a strange and winding path over the last century.
The design aesthetic presented in Engineer, Agitator, Constructor envisioned a shared world. Its simplicity aimed to celebrate industry’s efforts to ease the labor of the worker, but that aesthetic became the popular look of capitalist enterprise. Highlighting this influence on contemporary design may not have been the goal of this exhibition, which seems occasionally to celebrate a neoliberal construction of the artist as cultural producer, but great art and design often presents mixed messages. Indeed, not far from the MoMA exhibit, a visitor will encounter bathroom signs explaining how to wash hands that are remarkably reminiscent of Schwitters’s work. We are inundated with the instructional and informational, with advertisements and visual entertainment. The politics of shared mass communication and messaging present in works from a century ago still thrive in our thoroughly commercialized, 21st-century world.