Jewish History & Modernism

Jewish History & Modernism

Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism
Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York
Through January 17, 2016

Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television
Jewish Museum in New York
Through September 27, 2015

Midcentury modernism continues to weave its magic spell in two fascinating exhibitions now on display in New York. Although both exhibitions—Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television at the Jewish Museum and Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—discuss Jewish architects, artists, and designers, they are far more central to the latter exhibition than to the former. Regardless, both explore little-known aspects of the midcentury movement that will interest visitors of any religious persuasion.

Designing Home was guest-curated by Donald Albrecht, who has also curated exhibitions at the National Building Museum, Museum of the City of New York, and Cooper Hewitt, and Smithsonian Design Museum, among others. It looks at American-born and émigré Jewish architects and designers’ contributions to the modern, American domestic landscape.

Albrecht’s thesis is that the work and concepts of these architects and designers—regardless of where they were born—can be traced to the Bauhaus, which aimed to develop new designs for the broad public in a new industrial age before the Nazis shut it down in the 1930s. According to Albrecht, the architects and designers were either hired as faculty members by various schools, or had their work showcased in museum exhibitions or publications throughout the United States.

Not surprisingly, the Museum of Modern Art was at the forefront of this movement, with its 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition and 1934 Machine Art exhibition, the1950s Good Design program as well as the demonstration houses in the sculpture garden in 1949 and 1950 by former Bauhausler Marcel Breuer and American Architect Gregory Ain.

Also in this network of institutions was Chicago’s New Bauhaus, run by another Bauhausler, László Moholy-Nagy. This later became the Institute of Design and is now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology; it adopted the Bauhaus’ workshop system. Arts & Architecture magazine launched a Case Study House Program in Los Angeles in 1945 to promote modern domestic architecture to American homeowners; Eero Saarinen (then practicing in Michigan), the Californians Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra and Raphael Soriano created prototypes of affordable, livable, modern homes for it. The magazine also hired photographers and graphic designers, many Jewish, to illustrate its stories; among the former was Brooklyn–born, Los Angeles–based architectural photographer Julius Shulman, whose work, Albrecht says, captured “the architectural essence of a building…[and] compellingly represents the California way of life at midcentury.”

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also actively promoted modern residential design through construction of two full-scale, fully furnished houses, and an “Everyday Art Gallery” of home furnishings. They even had an accompanying quarterly magazine. Advancing these efforts was a former student of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at the Bauhaus, Hilde Reiss.

On view to the public for the first time in this exhibition is residential furniture—including a cube frame chair, desk and desk lamp, and dressing table and swivel vanity chair—designed by Bauhaus graduate Harry Rosenthal in the 1930s for the Berlin apartment of Dr. William Schiff and his wife, Ilse, who fled Germany for San Francisco in 1935. They commissioned Neutra—himself an Austrian Jewish immigrant who had settled in Los Angeles—to design a townhouse for them and another doctor in San Francisco’s Marina district; they specifically requested an appropriate setting for the bold, geometric design of Rosenthal’s furniture, later photographed by Shulman, in pictures also on display here.

Other notable pieces of furniture in the exhibition are a multifunctional, sculptural combination chair and end table, in wood and plush upholstery, designed by Rudolph M. Schindler, a Viennese architect who worked with Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago and Los Angeles; a bookshelf that resembles a skyscraper, designed by Paul T. Frankl, an Austrian-born architect and interior designer who practiced in New York and Los Angeles; and a 1938 wood and plywood chair and wooden desk designed by Breuer for dormitory rooms at Bryn Mawr College.

Although architecture is not the primary focus of Revolution of the Eye, the exhibition’s curator, Maurice Berger, finds the modernist ideals and ambitions of the CBS television network reflected in its architectural commissions, specifically, its 1965, Saarinen-designed, dark-granite clad corporate headquarters in New York, known as “Black Rock,” and its 1952 studio complex in Los Angeles—Television City by Charles Luckman and William Leonard Pereira.

According to Berger, Saarinen’s wife, and TV and print journalist, Aline Bernstein introduced Americans to art and architecture in her writing and as an on-air critic for several NBC shows; she believed, he said, “that the appreciation of art was not limited to insiders and cultural elites [and] rejected the idea that art must be understood in purely aesthetic terms.”

Among works not to be missed in this exhibition—especially by visitors of a certain age—are the 1950s, puzzle, crayons, paint kit, game book and record player from Winky Dink, which Berger calls the “first fully interactive” TV program; clips of segments from The Ed Sullivan Show, whose stage sets Berger said “embraced the look and sensibility of a number of contemporary avant-garde movements”; and an extremely rare, one minute long 1968 color TV commercial, The Underground Sundae, made by Andy Warhol for ice cream from Schrafft’s, a now-defunct New York restaurant chain. As Schrafft’s President Frank G. Shattuck later remarked, “We haven’t got just a commercial. We’ve acquired a work of art.”