From soaring airport rooftops to kidney-shaped coffee tables, postwar designs in America were dominated by curvilinear forms inspired by nature. Just how the ubiquitous organic form evolved and made its way into almost every facet of American life during the 1940s and 50s is the subject of Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960, the acclaimed exhibition opened October 26 at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Vital Forms is the first exhibition to present examples of all the arts that made use of organic form and to explore their relationship to the period that gave rise to them.
With more than 265 items, the exhibition comprises every category of object imaginable including paintings, sculpture, architectural photography, fashion, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, furniture, glass, toys, and graphic design. Among the highlights are paintings by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, furniture and sculpture by Charles and Ray Eames and Isamu Noguchi, ceramics by Eva Zeisel, a Slinky toy, and a 1953 Corvette.
“We at the Museum couldn’t be more excited to present such a lively array of noteworthy examples of the arts from a period only now receiving full recognition for its significant contributions to the history of art and design. Museum visitors of all ages—from grandparents to baby boomers and young children—will delight in the astonishing diversity of art and objects demonstrating the origins of popular styles still influential today,” says Dr. Don Bacigalupi, the Museum’s executive director.
Vital Forms is curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, former associate curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Kevin L. Stayton, chair and curator of decorative arts at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It is the third in a series of groundbreaking exhibitions organized by Brooklyn that examine American art and design from an interdisciplinary and humanistic point of view with the primary aim of defining and elucidating the predominant aesthetic impulse of an era.
The greatest historical events influencing the art and design of the two decades highlighted in Vital Forms were World War II and the dropping of the atomic bomb. World War II not only shifted the political balance of power away from Europe, but the leadership in art and design moved to the United States, precipitated in part by the immigration of an extraordinary number of artists and designers from Europe. The United States entered the war as a growing, but internationally reclusive, power and concluded the conflict as a “superpower,” both politically and culturally.
America’s design prowess continued after the war when the strength of the economy was unprecedented, and the new technologies and materials, developed during the conflict, were redirected to civilian material goods. For example, the technology that provided bent plywood leg splints turned to the production of Eames furniture, wartime advances in plastics led to Tupperware, and polyester resins were quickly turned to the manufacture of such non-war objects as surfboards and automobile bodies.
Organic forms, with their curved edges and amoeba-like shapes, are typically identified with these and many other designs of the period, reflecting an effort on the part of their artists and designers to maintain a connection to nature. This style provided an antidote to the Bauhaus-inspired geometry of International School architecture, as the hard-edged shapes of the Machine Age gave way in popular taste to the rounded, vital forms of the Atomic Age.
The prevalence of the organic is readily apparent in the more than 265 examples on exhibit in Vital Forms, including paintings by Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Adolph Gottlieb, Lee Krasner, and Gordon Onslow Ford. Among the sculptures on view are Calder’s mobile Red Lily Pads (1956), Louise Bourgeois’s Pillar (1949), and Isamu Noguchi’s Figure (1945). Photography in the exhibition ranges from a U.S. Army Air Forces image of Nagasaki Under Atomic Bomb Attack (1945) to Berenice Abbott’s photographs Soap Bubbles (1946) and Penicillin Mold (1946).
Representing the application of biomorphic design to the architecture of the era are photographs of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, designed by Morris Lapidus (1954), and the Trans World Airlines Terminal designed by Eero Saarinen at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York (1956–62).
Important ceramic works will also be on view, among them masterpieces by Russel Wright, Eva Zeisel, Gertrud Natzler, and Toshiko Takaezu. The impact of organic design in fashion is represented by examples of Rudi Gernreich’s now-famous bathing suits (1954–55), a spectacular Charles James evening gown, an assortment of Sally Victor hats, and dresses by Claire McCardell. A wide range of furniture includes works by Charles and Ray Eames and examples of Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural furniture.
The works in Vital Forms come from a variety of public and private collections, primarily in the United States. SDMA’s presentation will incorporate paintings by John Sennhauser, Arthur Dove, and Janet Sobel from the Museum’s American collection in addition to ceramics and sculpture by area resident Malcolm Leland.
Gordon Onslow Ford (American)
Temptations of the Painter, 1941
Oil on canvas
Collection of the artist