Art Review | MOMA showcases Bauhaus

NEW YORK — “Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity” is the first exhibit the Museum of Modern Art has dedicated to the work of the Bauhaus since 1938. As the show’s title suggests, the exhibit is a retrospective of the work produced at the Bauhaus — a school of art and design founded by Walter Gropius in 1919 during the Weimar Republic in Germany.

In his original mission statement, quoted in the MoMA exhibition catalog, Gropius said his aim was to end “the arrogant class division between artisans and artists.” The school instituted workshops that pushed students to study technical craft instead of imitating old masters, as they had done in universities for the past century.

But it was not until 1925, when the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, Germany, that the school became primarily design-oriented. In its new location, students and teachers like Wassily Kandinsky searched almost scientifically for common responses to color and form. By the time Hannes Meyer took over the school in 1928, essayist Barry Bergdoll writes that Gropius’s ideal had become “a practical focus.”

Through a display of collages, paintings, furniture, architectural sketches, models and documents that trace the development of the school from its inception to its closure the MoMA exhibit shows the school’s struggle to remove the distinction between fine arts and artisanship. Though the Bauhaus redefined the aesthetics of good design, it continued to amplify its practical roots. No matter how a Bauhaus chair looked, it still had to serve its practical purpose as a chair: Someone had to be able to sit comfortably in it.

Jane Davis Doggett ART ’56, whose exhibition “Talking Graphics” is currently up at the Yale University Art Gallery, is an important 20th-century designer influenced by the Bauhaus school. She studied under Josef Albers, a student and professor at the Bauhaus who came to Yale in 1950 to teach art. Doggett has designed way-finding systems for more than 40 airports, and has successfully managed to combine functionality with an aesthetic sense throughout her career.

Doggett’s work at the gallery poses one of the same questions the Bauhaus grappled with during its latter years: What is the difference between art and design?

In a 2006 article written by art critic Carter Ratcliff, he says, “To count as art, a fiction must be complex enough — one might say, resourceful enough — to resist all our attempts to assign it a meaning.”

He was writing about a show called “Evidence,” in which two artists took pre-existing government photographs and removed the captions explaining them. Without their captions, the images offered many possible interpretations, not just the one imposed by the previous explanations.

Unlike the creators of “Evidence,” Doggett has added the captions; her show consists of visual representations of quotations from sources like the Bible and classical Roman literature, and her designs use geometric shapes and pure colors to convey the meaning of quotations.

But the fact that Doggett has limited herself to representing aphorisms is not problematic. According to Ratcliff’s claim, there is a problem only if the viewer can too easily assign the work a meaning — if the captions limit our interpretive powers.

Ratcliff might say that both Doggett’s works and many later works from the Bauhaus are not works of art because they are not free from prefixed functions and definitions.

But even if one concludes that Doggett’s images are designs of quotations, it is still important to see how a famous designer chooses to represent each one. Similarly, it is interesting to see how Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus artist, designed the famous Club Chair, on display at the MoMA.

In both Doggett’s and Breuer’s case, though the works may not offer complex interpretations, it is still relevant to judge how resourceful the object’s creator is in combining a purpose with an aesthetic.

Correction: Feb. 2, 2010

The art review “MoMA showcases Bauhaus” misreported the first name of Hannes Meyer, the second director of the Bauhaus school.

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