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Friday, February 15, 2002

“Metropolis in the Machine Age,” an exhibition exploring how the modern city inspired numerous avant-garde artists in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, will open on Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street S.W. The show continues through Sept. 2, 2002.

This sixth and largest exhibition in the museum’s “Collection in Context” series, which uses works from the collection and other Smithsonian sources to explore broad historic themes, focuses on the early 20th-century era when technology altered the look and feel of life, manufacturing replaced the rural economy, and cities grew upward and outward.

As embodied by nearly 40 works on view, some 23 painters, sculptors, printmakers and photographers working on both sides of the Atlantic – from the Cubo-Futurists in Europe to the Precisionists in America – used urban images as metaphors for utopia and streamlined geometric styles as visual equivalents for a “machine-tooled” future. Their visions range from gleaming skyscrapers and semi-abstract symbols to close-up photographs and sculptures of workers who built and toiled in cities.

Valerie Fletcher and Judith Zilczer, the Hirshhorn curators who organized the exhibition, use extensive wall labels to trace the show’s theme. In an introduction (paraphrased here) they state: “When the Eiffel Tower was created for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, its status as the highest structure in the world challenged European and American architects to design ever-taller buildings, altering the shape of the modern metropolis. Improvements in elevator engineering and steel manufacture made possible the towering edifices that began to dominate skylines. Before long, the skyscraper came to symbolize civic pride, economic success, and modernity.”

“Revelations offered by history are often unexpected,” the curators continue. “Although the exhibition was conceived before September 11, 2001, the memory of that day’s events may impart, for some viewers, a particular poignancy to the images presented here. Let us hope that this view of the past, when artists interpreted the city and its buildings as compelling symbols of modern life, leads to revealing perspectives on the present.”

The exhibition, presented in three contiguous galleries on the second floor, begins with “The New Urban Landscape,” a section of paintings and prints from the century’s early decades by Americans John Marin, Abraham Walkowitz and Max Weber. In them, Cubo-Futurist principles of simultaneous perspective, actions compressed in time, and repetitive lines evoke the energy of crowds in the streets and the speed of mass transit. Also included are clean-edged, prismatic cityscapes by the American Precisionist Louis Lozowick; New York, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Seattle and Butte, Montana are the subjects of these paintings and prints.

The second gallery, titled “People in the City,” features the American Saul Baizerman’s dynamic bronze ensemble, also in a Cubo-Futurist style, of buildings under construction surrounded by small sculptures of individual workers intended, but never realized, as life-scale urban monuments. Howard Cook’s “Forty Ninth Street” (1929) and Arnold Rönnebeck’s “Wall Street”(1925), contrasting tenements with skyscrapers, are also included here, as are photographs of riggers, ironworkers, riveters and buildings-in-construction at dizzying heights by Lewis Hine, as well as crisp photographs of the changing urban skyline by Berenice Abbott and Alfred Stieglitz.

The centerpiece of the final gallery, “Urban Symbols,” is the Hirshhorn’s 8-foot high reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s soaring, spiral-steel “Monument to the Third International” (1920). This unrealized structure for Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), twice the height of the Eiffel Tower, was to provide a government hub and dramatic symbol for the then new Soviet Union. Nearby paintings of the older Parisian monument by Robert Delaunay emphasize its continuing power as a symbol during the 1920s, and the sharp arabesques of a 1914-1915 steel relief by the Italian Giacomo Balla present an exuberant metaphor for speed, industry and city life. Skyscraper forms become symbols in works by John Storrs, Josef Albers, Georgia O’Keeffe and Man Ray. The show draws to a close with a brief look at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 through Hugh Ferriss’ drawing of the Trylon and Perisphere under construction and a photo of an architect’s model showing a city with vast housing projects and freeways.

“While such utopian dreams of a perfect urban society have yet to be realized, these visionary works demonstrate the enduring appeal of the idea of the modern metropolis,” the curators conclude, regarding this final section.

Complementary works for this collection-based Hirshhorn show come from other Smithsonian resources: the Archives of American Art; Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; National Museum of American History; Smithsonian American Art Museum; and Smithsonian Institution Libraries. The National Gallery of Art is also a lender.

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