- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

The exhibit "Metropolis in the Machine Age" at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden tackles what seems to be a straightforward subject: the influence of architecture on avant-garde artists of the second decade of the 1900s through the 1930s.

Yet tracing relationships between different kinds of visual arts in any period is difficult. With modernism, the challenge is especially formidable because of the complexity of the interconnections.

Consider the art of American precisionist Louis Lozowick (1892 to 1973), who receives a kind of miniretrospective in this show. (Museum founder Joseph Hirshhorn loved Mr. Lozowick's work and bought lots of it.)

Mr. Lozowick, who was born in Russia, created cubist-style paintings and prints that reflected both Parisian cubism and the streamlined geometry of American skyscrapers. The artist also caught architecture's then-fervent desire to capture the clean functionalism of the machine.

Cities and their industries expressed the machine age in particularly fitting ways, and the exhibit shows this clearly. Mr. Lozowick's painting "Seattle" (1926-27) focuses on lumber stacked on piers ready for shipping. The careening curves of his lithograph "New York" (1923) express the city's already frenetic rhythms.

Abraham Walkowitz (1878 to 1965), also Russian-born, was the most intense and prolific portraitist of New York City with its claustrophobic streets and vertically erupting skyscrapers. Curators Judith Zilczer and Valerie Fletcher chose the moving "Metropolis No. 2" (1923) from Mr. Walkowitz's hundreds of ink sketches and watercolors. In the work, he softly brushed watercolors for a poetic view of a New York skyscraper.

Max Weber, by contrast, portrayed the city's hustle and bustle even at that time in the aptly titled "Rush Hour, New York" (1915). He created a psychedelic array of skyscrapers as a background for quickly descending zigzags that could be the steps to a subway.

The curators organized the exhibit around the premise that Americans eagerly embraced the machine age and the vertical cities it produced. This wasn't always so. Many Americans had tentative feelings toward their industrial culture. Dadaist artists such as Marcel Duchamp were emphatically ambivalent about machines.

American architects experienced numerous setbacks in trying to design buildings competitive with the Eiffel Tower, created for the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition and then the world's highest structure.

D.H. Burnham and John Wellborn Root of "the Chicago school" of modernist architects created some of the most imaginative and original buildings in Chicago before the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, called the World's Columbian Exposition. However, the fair's neoclassic architectural style overrode most of Burnham's and Root's innovations. The return to the conservative styles signaled Americans' hesitations about the machine age.

Once the machine age took hold, however, there was no stopping it in Europe and America. Artists looked to abstraction as an avenue for expressing their ideas and ideals. As early as 1920, in the beginning days of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Tatlin (1885 to 1953) envisioned an incredible tower that would rise above Leningrad.

He proposed an open, swirling, motor-driven structure of spirals, arcs, triangles and diagonals. "Model of the Monument to the Third International: Project for Petrograd" (1920) shows that he intended to have the tower embody the ultimate Utopian dream. Tatlin designed its apex to rise up to an implied infinity. He wanted it to represent what he called "boundless hope" in a time of political change and wrenching poverty.

The tower never was built, but the Hirshhorn reconstructed the model in 1983 for its exhibit "Dreams and Nightmares: Utopian Visions in Modern Art," also curated by Miss Fletcher.

Utopianism also could be found in New York. Saul Baizerman (1889 to 1957), originally from Belarus, sculpted a series of small bronzes of city workers. They include a humorous "Drunken Sailor" (1921) and the more serious "Unemployed" (1921-24) from his "City and the People" series. They are part of the Hirshhorn's "Saul Baizerman Memorial Collection."

Americans were designing ever-taller buildings, and New York's Chrysler Building and Empire State Building finally topped the Eiffel Tower. Photographer Lewis Hine (1874 to 1940) set out to honor the workers and shot images of riggers and ironworkers as they labored at mind-boggling heights. (The media called them the "cowboys of the skies.")

Hine succeeded in publishing his photos in the mass media, and the images inspired riveter Charles Rivers to turn to photography. Rivers' "Self-Portrait, Empire State Building" (1930) shows him alone on a metal beam suspended high above the city.

The riveter-photographer was a labor activist, and he published some of his photographs in Soviet publications in the 1930s. He also donated about 100 photographic prints and 100 negatives to the Smithsonian, and they are at the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History.

This is the sixth and largest exhibition from the Hirshhorn's "Collection in Context" series, which uses works from its collection and from other Smithsonian Institution collections to investigate "expansive historic themes."

The exhibition is instructive and interesting as it looks back to this period of almost blind faith in the machine and a rational humanity. The times and people were not quite blind, however. An exhibition bringing in other aesthetic and social issues would do much to fill out the "expansive themes" directive for this exciting and dramatic time.


WHAT: "Metropolis in the Machine Age"

WHERE: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Sept. 2

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-2700


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