Over the weekend I drove my 1950 Chevy pickup truck, which looks just as it did when it was made at the exact mid-point of the 20th century, in a local parade. As always, when I’m out driving the pickup, complete strangers struck up conversations with me, seemingly transfixed by the truck. These conversations brings to mind the pull of mid-century modernism as we call it, and what it is that makes it so seductive and so enduring. My truck is not a high-end vehicle. Its form is slightly voluptuous, it is red, it has just the right amount of wabi-sabi and the engine produces a deep growl, not menacing, but rather soothing actually. It is decidedly not a work of art (it is in fact a vehicle made for work), but nonetheless, such cultural objects of that era have a highly recognizable esthetic. And perhaps that is what connects it to the “art” of the same era; a highly winnowed sense of form that is both a product of the technological possibilities of the era, but also of the sum total of the experience of those who designed and built such things, from cars to toasters. The art that was produced at mid-century has, over time, become a kind of metric for success; its value is astronomical and its artists are legendary. It is hard not to wonder how contemporary artists can speak to the issues of the moment while working in the shadow of such recent history.
While speaking with a graduate student last week I was taken by his investment to investigate the writings of a diverse group of voices that included both John Berger and Maimonides. These texts were research toward his own practice; a way to sort through the different obligations that a contemporary art practice must be conscious of. Reflected in this, there is a link to mid-century work across all disciplines. For instance, reading the writing of Mark Rothko (The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art ) we encounter a painter whose life experience is deeply etched into the work, along with a fierce engagement with criticism, history, philosophy and theosophy.
I grew up with such art and artists and along with many of my peers, pushed away the universalist aspirations of that narrow slice of the modern era. Yet, the objects produced in the modern era, from homes to paintings to pickup trucks, persist in stopping people in their tracks and often result in the kind of embodied wonderment that we would hope for as artists.
Chair of Art