A new book argues Frederick Kiesler was the influencer at the center of American modernism

The Social Networker

A new book argues Frederick Kiesler was the influencer at the center of American modernism

In 1933, Kiesler's Space House was installed inside the Modernage Furniture Company's New York showroom. (Photograph by Fay S. Lincoln. © 2020 Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation, Vienna)

Instead of charting an artist or architect’s career as a sequence of projects, what if you mapped it according to the people with whom they conversed, commiserated, and collaborated? That is the productive experiment contained within the book Frederick Kiesler: Face to Face with the Avant-Garde, about the Austro-American architect. Its 21 essays “on network and impact” are like 21 faces of a prism that reveals Kiesler not simply as a creative and critical dynamo, but, as Peter Bogner, one of the book’s editors, writes in the introduction, “as a dedicated networker who played a pivotal role in the transfer of ideas between the European avant-garde and the New World.” Remembered in architecture circles today for designing several spectacular exhibitions and especially for his unbuilt, cocoon-like Endless House project (1947–61), Kiesler was anything but a recluse.

It’s jarring, at first, to see a serious artist-architect characterized as “a dedicated networker,” as if Kiesler were a brand ambassador for LinkedIn. But the truth is he spent a lot of time schmoozing, and his sociability helped fuel his career. Standing just five feet tall, Kiesler charismatically commanded a room, his intelligence lightened by “a twinkle in his voice and a critically penetrating wit,” as Caroll Janis remembers. To read about Kiesler by way of his compatriots and contemporaries is a little bit like attending his 1965 funeral in Manhattan, which featured a lineup of spirited readings and performances. At one point the artist Robert Rauschenberg rolled a car tire through the rows of mourners, painted it near the altar, and laid it to rest by Kiesler’s casket. Though few if any architects attended the funeral, Kiesler was “rediscovered” by 1970s architects who embraced environmental art, and resurrected once more in the new millennium by spatial innovators wielding digital modeling tools. Hani Rashid, the ex-president of the Frederick Kiesler Foundation, writes in his foreword that Kiesler, with his fluid and interactive forms, “recognized the prophetic glimmers of a neurally networked planet and society.” The Endless House remains not just a paragon of sculptural plasticity, but also a daring, if all but unrealizable, vision of a total environment in flux. “As an architect, Kiesler does not often get his due,” the late Bill Menking wrote in 2016. “But Kiesler never gave up his desire to build,” and his creative vision remains “more relevant than ever in today’s world of architecture practice.”

a dinner in New York late 1940s
Kiesler “coronates” the German artist Max Ernst at a dinner in New York in the late 1940s. (Photograph by Sheila Ward. © 2020 Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation, Vienna)

Previous books on Kiesler, such as Stephen J. Phillips’s Elastic Architecture of 2017 and a 1989 Whitney Museum exhibition catalog, provide a relatively monographic analysis of Kiesler’s multidisciplinary practice. In contrast, Face to Face uses network research, a technique developed in the social sciences, to shed light on Kiesler’s formative relationships and social circles in relation to certain key “nodes,” i.e. projects and events. The volume’s many essays describe Kiesler’s sometimes warm, sometimes fraught relationships with figures such as Theo van Doesburg, Hans Richter, Sigfried Giedion, Marcel Duchamp, and Piero Dorazio, and with collectives like the Bauhaus and the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen. Architect and environmental artist James Wines, founder of SITE, writes that his friendship with Kiesler set him on a new creative path. “Transfixed by this diminutive and iconoclastic genius,” Wines writes, “I basically abandoned my entire sculpture career and ventured into experimental architecture.” Kiesler disdained the label “avant-garde,” Wines adds, as “even more degradingly conservative than being called ‘historical.’”

Frederick Kiesler was born in 1890 in a provincial capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire that is now part of Ukraine. After studying and working in Vienna, he first broke through as a designer in Berlin, in 1923, with his electro-mechanical stage set for Karel Capek’s dystopian robot play R.U.R. After the second performance, as Kiesler was preparing to exit the theater, he was grabbed and carried off by Theo van Doesburg and his De Stijl “gang,” whose members included El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter, and Kurt Schwitters. They met Mies van der Rohe at a club, where they spent the night discussing revolutionary ideas for architecture and theater. Kiesler then circulated between Vienna, Berlin, and Paris until 1926, when he first traveled to New York to set up a theater exhibition.

Frederick Kiesler Surrealist art
Frederick Kiesler seated among the 1942 Art of This Century exhibition at the the Surrealist Gallery in New York. (Photograph by Berenice Abbott. © 2020 Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation, Vienna)

Kiesler’s heady networking required support and sacrifices along the way. Stefi, his first wife, “gave up her life as an artist and began working at the New York Public Library in August 1927,” as Gerd Zillner writes. Kiesler befriended establishment architects like Harvey Wiley Corbett and Wallace K. Harrison—valuable connections—but corporate practice did not suit him. His attempts to practice architecture in New York were thwarted by the collapse of commissions for a theater in Brooklyn Heights (1926), a museum building for the Société Anonyme (1927), and a theater in Woodstock, New York (1931). In 1931 he was introduced to Hilla Rebay as a potential architect for the planned Museum for Non-Objective Art, the future Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but that project, too, fell through for Kiesler.

modern sculpture new canaan
Kiesler’s Wooden Galaxy (1953) was installed on the grounds of Philip Johnson’s New Canaan, Connecticut, compound. (© 2020 Austrian Frederick and Lillian Kiesler Private Foundation, Vienna)

Amid the Depression, Kiesler found work designing theatrical stage sets, luxury shop windows, a cinema, a modern furniture showroom, and a model house. He also landed faculty positions at Columbia University and the Juilliard School and published articles on his theories of “design correlation” and “correalism” in which, simply put, everything responds to everything else. Though the Kieslers hosted countless parties and distinguished guests including Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Mies at their penthouse apartment on Seventh Avenue and 14th Street, where they lived from 1933, Kiesler always protected his creative and intellectual space. For example, Almut Grunewald’s essay recounts how the art historian Carola Giedion-Welcker, the wife of Sigfried Giedion, was impressed by Kiesler’s design for the 1947 Surrealist exhibition in Paris, and suggested recruiting Kiesler to CIAM. “Kiesler explained to me that what he does is a rebellion against hygienic architecture. That he is not a surrealist,” Carola wrote to Sigfried. “Might he not be useful for CIAM?” But, though Kiesler and Giedion shared an interest in the synthesis of the arts, and enjoyed at least sociable outing to the beach together, as shown in a photo, they ultimately held each other at arm’s length. Kiesler never joined CIAM, which came to represent precisely the “hygienic architecture” against which Kiesler rebelled with his poetic search for “the endless.”

The Endless House, for which MoMA commissioned a full-scale model that was never realized, is at once Kiesler’s most recognizable and most misunderstood project. To this day it brings new designers and thinkers into the orbit of this ever-beguiling artist-architect—thus expanding his posthumous network—but the visual power of Kiesler’s drawings and models all too often overshadows his desire to put people in touch, literally, with architecture and the environment. Face to Face with the Avant-Garde takes an important cue from Kiesler’s theory of continual interaction and movement. Indeed, the book offers something like a “correalistic” approach to the figure of Kiesler himself—endlessly recomposed of opportune encounters, transformative conversations, and transatlantic debates.