Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940–1960
This automobile serves to introduce an exhibition on view on the fourth floor, Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940–1960. “Vital forms” are shapes inspired by nature; innovative artists and designers used them in the 1940s and 1950s to evoke living entities, ranging from amoebas and plant life to the human figure. The exhibition features paintings, sculpture, photography, architecture, ceramics, fashion, and graphic and industrial design.
Every period has its own visual vocabulary, which it partly borrows from the past and partly invents to meet new needs. The language of vital forms expressed the dualities of its times: the hopes and fears, the dreams and nightmares, of the middle years of the twentieth century were reflected in organic forms that were highly mutable, seemingly as changeable as life itself.
In this era, the country witnessed many cataclysmic events, from World War II—with the Holocaust and the atomic bomb—to postwar McCarthyism and the Cold War, yet also saw a burst of optimism with the prosperity, and the growing consumerism, of the 1950s. The visual language of vital forms expressed the conflicts and complexities inherent in this remarkable period of America’s history.
As suggested by the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette shown here, the increasing speed of transportation, as well as of communications, helped spread the vital forms vocabulary in the postwar years. Indeed, two principal factors in the acceleration of this mobile society were the automobile and the television set, both of which existed before the war but came fully into their own only afterward, with the interstate highway system and the affordable home TV set. Both broke down the boundaries of regionalism, unified diverse populations in the country—and also began the process of creating a more homogeneous American design aesthetic. It is therefore no surprise that the design of television sets, automobiles, and highways, too (as in the cloverleaf interchanges shown on the backdrop), was shaped by the new interest in vital forms, even though their technical requirements neither demanded nor suggested such treatment.
More than two hundred and fifty other examples of this vocabulary of living forms can be found in the exhibition on the fourth floor.
World War II and the Dawn of the Atomic Age
The history of my generation begins with the problem of what to paint. During the war it became sort of nonsensical to get involved in . . . painting men playing violins or cellos or flowers. . . . The war . . . made it impossible to disregard the problem of subject matter.
—Painter Barnett Newman (1966)
But we could not fight Germany and Japan with ice boxes and automobiles; our tremendous industrial power had to be shifted from peacetime production to war purposes . . . . Automobile manufacturers—and one of them alone can fabricate more metal than all Japan—are making tank engines and plane engines and antiaircraft guns. Machines to make vacuum cleaners have been shifted to making weapons.
— From War Facts: A Handbook for Speakers on War Production (Washington, D.C.: Office of Emergency Management for the Division of Information, War Production Board, 1942)
Although World War II was fought on distant shores, it profoundly affected all aspects of life in the United States, as Americans mobilized for the war effort. After Pearl Harbor, the active machinery of American production shifted from consumer goods to military equipment. And the mood of the country changed, as news of battles won and lost, of casualties, and of crimes against humanity took their toll.
The gravity of the war changed the course of American art and design as well. It made 1930s American Scene painting and Regionalism, which often showed an agrarian daily life, seem naïve and nostalgic, and WPA photographs outdated. At the same time, the free-thinking Surrealist artists who came to this country from Europe to escape Hitler exerted enormous influence. In this era of international crisis, American artists and designers often used organic forms, especially the human figure, as a way of reasserting humane values.
Public awareness of the Atomic Age began with the horrendous explosions in 1945 over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war. It was not until 1955 that atomic energy became available for peacetime uses in the United States. During this time of uncertainty, artists responded to the atomic phenomenon with powerful abstractions.
Immigration and the Birth of the New York School
The war caused a massive migration of European artists to America, including artists whose work would significantly affect the use of vital forms by their American peers. Perhaps the greatest influence was Surrealism. This avant-garde movement of both artists and writers was grounded in André Breton’s 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, advocating the creative powers of the unconscious. During the war, when Surrealists such as Gordon Onslow Ford and Breton himself arrived in New York, American artists learned firsthand about the movement through exhibitions and lectures.
The artists in the U.S. who were later labeled Abstract Expressionists took the tenets of Surrealism, such as the eruption of living shapes from the subconscious, and adapted them to a new style that was distinctively American. Often working on oversize canvases , Abstract Expressionists such as William Baziotes, Jackson Pollock, and Richard Pousette-Dart applied their paint rapidly and forcefully to release inner feelings. New York became the center of the art world at this time, although significant work was being made in other American cities such as Chicago and San Francisco.
For many, the cataclysm of the war colored or overshadowed Surrealism as an artistic influence. The war’s impact is clear in a number of the works on view in this gallery—and in the recollections of Onslow Ford:
And when we got to Paris, about four or five days after the war started, we went to the café, and there, to my astonishment, was [André] Breton in uniform. I couldn’t believe it. I said, “What’s happened, André? I can’t understand it, what’s happened?” And for me, that was the end of Surrealism, when Breton put on a uniform—that was the end.
Direct Influence of the War
Many European émigré artists and designers brought an immediate awareness of the war’s carnage to an America distanced from the realities of the conflict overseas. Artists both here and abroad attempted to capture the era’s sense of tragedy. Biomorphic abstractions such as Alexander Calder’s The Root and Adolph Gottlieb’s Prisoners powerfully brought home the effects of the worldwide debacle. Certain materials crucial to the war effort—steel, aluminum, wood—were in short supply.
To meet the urgent needs of the times, architects and industrial designers turned to new materials: molded plywood splints, new camouflage fabrics, and rugged equipment such as the jeep were among the innovations that came of necessity. Similarly, the war-time housing shortage generated experiments in prefabrication. And new roles for women in the work force resulted in new kinds of garments; Rosie became the practiced riveter of legend.
It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique.
—Painter Jackson Pollock (1951)
Whether the American artist expresses the destructive power of science or the hope inherent in its wiser uses, whether his personal vision is gloomy or optimistic, it is here that he lives closest to the new “subject matter.”
—Painter Boris Margo (1947)
Enough of the past—let’s talk about the present and future. Much that has been written about atomic energy has inspired fear and confusion. . . . This is not a healthy state of affairs. Atomic energy must be explained. The average American likes new scientific devices. He must learn that nuclear energy, like fire and electricity, can be a good and useful servant.
—General Leslie R. Groves (1949)
When the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, causing terrible human suffering, the image of the mushroom cloud entered the American collective conscience. Creative artists in many fields witnessed the dawn of the nuclear era with anxiety. Indeed, W. H. Auden won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for poetry with his collection Age of Anxiety, and the next year Leonard Bernstein wrote a symphony with the same title.
With the onset of the Atomic Age, disturbing, mutant forms—the result of exposure to radiation—began to appear in films and novels. Yet at the same time, the playful, positive form of the atom’s structure, with electrons circling the nucleus , also became an integral part of the period’s imagery, in art as well as in domestic products. By the mid-1950s, some Americans were optimistic about the atom’s role as a new source of energy, a replacement for coal and oil in generating electricity.
The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and the resulting arms race, however, fed the persistent fear of nuclear destruction. The paradox remains with us today, as we continue to struggle with how to reconcile the positive and negative aspects of atomic energy.
The Land of Plenty
In the 40s and 50s, we were young, the war was over, we had peace and prosperity; the negatives—pollution, energy shortages, decay of cities—were that little cloud no larger than a man’s hand.
—Designer George Nelson (1974)
With the end of the war, as manufacturers returned to making peacetime products, the United States became a great consumer culture. Money was plentiful, goods flowed, and Americans felt they deserved the rewards of victory.
The rewards were many. Houses were cheap: a new, three-bedroom residence in the suburbs of New York cost less than $10,000, and the GI Bill made mortgages affordable to many who had never dreamed of owning a home before the war. A visionary new system of interstate highways linked every region. Television, too, brought Americans together as never before to share in the same dreams: manufacturers advertised all manner of consumer goods on TV, from cars to washing machines, and now-classic sitcoms promoted an idealized American lifestyle to which to aspire.
The consumer products designed in this era of optimism often took organic shapes, establishing a distinctively postwar look that contrasted with the machine-like appearance of prewar products.
Not everyone was an equal partner in this happy new America; the social issues that would erupt in the 1960s were already boiling just under the calm surface. And nuclear disaster remained just one red button away. But for the most part, Americans were optimistic in their land of plenty.
In the 1940s, modern tables, containers, and all sorts of things suddenly began to melt, to become soft. What had influenced so many designers simultaneously? I thought at the time it might have been Salvador Dali’s paintings, one in particular, with the melting watch.
—Designer Eva Zeisel (1991)
The demands of the war led to the development of innovative materials—fiberglass, plastics, molded plywood—some of them entirely new and others used in new ways. Many of these materials shared a common characteristic: they were malleable and could be easily shaped into free forms. Often used to serve the new science of ergonomics—the adaptation of an object to the human body—these pliable synthetic materials became the primary media of much postwar product design.
The malleability of synthetics made possible the organic forms typical of plastic products such as Tupperware. Furniture designers produced organic forms by using molded plywood, fiberglass, and plastic, creating pieces that were ergonomically as well as aesthetically successful.
Many museums organized exhibitions of the art of everyday objects, emphasizing the importance of satisfying consumer needs while maintaining high design standards. To promote such standards, the Brooklyn Museum established a laboratory open to designers and manufacturers for research into design issues.
Modern-architecture is organic-architecture deprived of its soul.
— Architect Frank Lloyd Wright on the International Style (1952)
The ultimate vital form was the human body. For in the face of staggering political, cultural, and economic change, this was a unifying constant—the essential point of reference for artists, designers, viewers, and consumers. Although the body was frequently disfigured in the art of the period, its recurrent appearance, especially in the 1950s, signified the endurance of humane values through a difficult period of history. While these representations can be viewed as formal experiments, they also embody the deeper concerns of the time.
Certain architects also employed an organic vocabulary, enveloping the human body in fanciful and uplifting forms. Their expressive works are more symptomatic of the era’s economic growth than of its chilling political climate. Several of the mid-century’s best-known buildings are facilities for travel or recreation, reflecting the physical, and economic, mobility of the postwar years. They likewise try to reconcile new technologies with the need for comfort in human habitation, moving away from the machine-like modernism of the 1920s and 1930s.
A number of fashion designers similarly took up an aesthetic of freedom in garments that conformed to and celebrated the human body. Such modern fashion complemented the more active lifestyle, at work and at play, that women took up during and after the war.
Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelops me
Each time I go out to walk the dog . . .
Things have come to that.
—Poet Amiri Baraka (1961)
A time came when none of us could use the figure without mutilating it.
—Painter Mark Rothko (1958)
The artists exhibited here chose to incorporate the figure into their work, though sometimes in distorted form. Figural representation was a way of expressing humanistic concerns and, as Freudian psychoanalysis became more popular in the 1950s, of examining the inner workings of the individual mind.
Although many Abstract Expressionists erased the human figure through complete abstraction, some, notably Willem de Kooning, continually focused on the abstracted figure, despite the New York art world’s anti-figuration bias. And other New York artists were not as resolutely opposed to representation as is often thought—as witness Jackson Pollock’s figural black and white paintings of the early 1950s, David Smith’s sculptures based on the body, Louise Nevelson’s Personages, and Isamu Noguchi’s quasi-figural sculptures. A number of Chicago artists also maintained an interest in the human form.
I don’t call it International Style, I call it International Death. A feeling of impersonality is what it arouses because impersonality is its aim.
—Painter Mark Tobey (1947)
By the early fifties, despite the triumph of International Style architecture and its Bauhaus-influenced glass-and-steel-box office buildings, certain maverick architects sought to escape the confines of conformist modernism, building humane structures that rebuked geometric rationalism. Frank Lloyd Wright, the elder statesman of organic design who a half-century earlier had helped architecture “break out of the box,” defied the grid of New York City’s street plan and the rigid modernist style with his dynamic Guggenheim Museum, a colossal coil of poured concrete. Similarly, Eero Saarinen sought the freedom of avian forms in his flowing TWA Terminal, which resembles a bird in flight.
The commercial architect Morris Lapidus, too, used organic forms in freewheeling schemes such as the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach to create an “architecture of joy.” And in the late fifties, the Bauhaus-trained Bertrand Goldberg proved, with the curving forms and flower-like floor plans of his Marina City Towers in Chicago, that even skyscrapers need not be boxes. Through innovations such as these, the building boom of the postwar years found a distinctive style.
Vital Garments: Functional and Liberating
Fashion design is by definition about the human body. In France, however, the most prominent postwar designers, such as Christian Dior, were obscuring the human form in traditional and structurally reinforced garments. A number of American designers bucked this trend and introduced clothing that took its shape from the body’s natural contours (as did the molded plywood and fiberglass chairs that simultaneously flooded the market). These form-fitting garments made use of such innovations as lightweight contemporary fabrics as well as spaghetti-string belts that allowed the wearer to customize the fit.
Claire McCardell, who had begun working in the 1930s, was preeminent among these designers. She advocated clean, simple, functional clothing that combined mass-production with quality workmanship. Her work coincided with the rise of fashion magazines, such as Mademoiselle and Glamour, that catered to a younger number of physically active American women. Her garments promoted freer movement while defining a new, form-revealing aesthetic.