Partners in Design. Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson
| Exhibition Design
Barbara Materia, Daniel Springer, Hannah Demmin
Research at MoMA: Barry Bergdoll, Sergio Zapata | Curtains: Gerrits | Mirror Surfaces: Alluvial
Artur-Ladebeck-Straße 5, 33602 Bielefeld
Partners in Design. Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson is an exhibition that reflects upon the collaboration between Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), and the architect Philip Johnson, unveiling the legacy of their work in the 1930s.
Presented at first in Montreal and Boston, the exhibition travelled to Bielefeld to be shown in the only museum built by Johnson in Europe, in a country – Germany – that was home to the two institutions that more than any other influenced the foundation of MoMA and its early exhibitions, the Werkbund and Bauhaus.
UNA was invited to design the exhibition layout and offered the curatorial freedom to enrich the original show, curated by David Hanks, with artworks and loans that could emphasise the radicality of Johnson and Barr’s experimentations.
Enclosed by a perforated aluminium surface, the exhibition space is articulated in three rooms to maximise the exhibition wall-surface and invite the viewers to an undisturbed contemplation of the individual artworks. The aluminium volume - which is easily legible as a large-scale object from Queen’s Road Central - defines a controlled environment and guarantees museum standards for climate, acoustics and lighting.
The refinement of the exhibition spaces, with reflective resin floors, plastered white walls and diffused lighting, contrasts with the “found” conditions preserved in the office spaces: a bare shell structure with black concrete beams, foiled ducts on the ceiling and rough concrete floor. The articulation of the exhibition space informs the programmatic sequencing of the office amenities: the assistant’s office and pantry correspond to the first viewing room, while the office of Edouard Malingue and the private viewing room are aligned to the second and third gallery respectively. A storage is seamlessly embedded into the exhibition volume and opens towards the viewing room through a sliding wall panel.
Announced in the first floor of the Kunsthalle with an introduction room, the exhibition unfolds on the galleries of the second floor, revolving around the central space - darkened for the occasion - devoted to “Machine Art”, the radical 1934 MoMA exhibition curated by Barr and Johnson.
Approaching the gallery from the staircase (an exact copy of the stair Johnson previously designed for the Seagram building in NYC), one is confronted with a field of black pedestals each supporting one of the 24 loans from the original 1934 show. The objects, protected by vitrines, are zenithally lit by black conic lights that resemble those chosen by Johnson for his “jewel room” at MoMA. To emphasise on the scale of historic show (which presented hundreds of objects) and on the industrial nature of the pieces in display (that were deliberately chosen to educate the American eye to the beauty of mass produced objects) the field is endlessly multiplied by two reflective surfaces. The effect of the large-scale mirrors is twofold: the objects (seemingly floating in space given the darkness of the room) appear reproduced in series as if in an assembly line, and the reflected architecture of the Kunsthalle offers a new expanded reading of the open plan space of the museum.
To expand upon the agenda underlying the original curatorial ambition, two elements (both found at the MoMA Archives) were added by UNA to the American version of “Partners in Design”: an unedited photo-gallery and a wallpaper. The gallery is devoted to the work of Ruth Bernhard, a photographer commissioned by Johnson to portray 402 objects for the 1934 catalogue. Presented on rose-colour velvet panels reminiscent of Johnsons’ material choices for the “kitchenware” section at MoMA, the photos are accompanied by facsimiles of the labels indicating price and suppliers as conceived by Johnson. The wallpaper, on the other hand, depicts the flat-pack version of Machine Art as installed in one of the 25 venues where the exhibition travelled to “spread the gospel” of modernity.
With machine Art acting as a hinge for the whole exhibition the Southern galleries unfold the collaboration between Barr and Johnson chronologically by reserving the first gallery to the objects included in their 1930 neighbouring apartments on 424 East 52nd Street; the following room to loans from Bauhaus/Werkbund (which they visited numerous times in the ‘30s) and the notorious 1932 “Modern Architecture” show; and finally, a niche to the rather didactic 1933 exhibition “Objects 1900 and Today”.
In 1930 Johnson lived in New York above Alfred and Marga Barr. His apartment, and the furniture therein, was designed by Lilly Reich and Mies van der Rohe and it was known as the “most modern interior in America”. Little is known of the layout of Barr’s apartment but it equalled that of Johnson in the ambition of testing a modern way of living. In Bielefeld, the furniture from both apartments is presented on opposite sides of the same gallery. The environments of Johnson’s apartment are recreated by delineating, in scale 1:1, the perimeter of Mies’s plan with printed curtains. Each curtain reproduces an archival photo of the respective space and acts as a backdrop for the furniture that is placed in the corresponding location within each room. Enlarged to adapt to the height of the Kunsthalle, the images almost shadow and amplify the furniture in display. The small space corresponding to the bathroom in the original apartment is enclosed by a blue silk curtains like those chosen by Lilly Reich, carving a space for a small video room. On the opposite wall, Barr’s furniture is presented linearly and is accompanied by smaller scale images of their subsequent apartment in Two Beekman Place and quotes that emphasise the pivotal role of Marga Barr in the process of facilitating Bauhauslers’ exodus to the US.
The room devoted to the Bauhaus and Werkbund – the latter being an addition proposed by UNA – acts as an interactive archive room. Here, embedded into a T shaped large table are books, an architectural model and Bauhaus design objects. On top of the table, for consultation, are facsimiles of the books presented and other relevant publications referring to the exhibition.
The section of the exhibition devoted to the friendship of Barr and Johnson thus ends again in Machine Art, which occurred in 1934, i.e. on the date in which Johnson temporarily distanced himself from the MoMA and architecture to follow political ambitions. From here, one reaches the Northern galleries, which are devoted to three institutions: MoMA itself, the Walker Art Center and Detroit Modern Art Institute which experimented further with design, often itinerant, exhibitions.
In the room devoted to the Walker Art Center, UNA proposed to integrate the loans (which consist mainly of textiles by artists taught by ex-Bauhaus alumni who emigrated to the United States) with artworks from the collection of the Kunsthalle. These include works by Lazlo Moholi Nagy (who founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago), Joseph and Anni Albers (who left Germany thanks to Johnson and collaborated in the design of the Machine Art catalogue), and others. While the Kunsthalle pieces are hanging on the walls (using the long-forgotten hanging mechanism put in place by Johnson for the museum), the loans are positioned on and over a round carpet that creates an island reminiscent of Lilly Reich’s 1920 “Fashion Craft” exhibition in Berlin. The suspended planes of the textiles multiply the effect of the free-standing walls of the Kunsthalle allowing a visual overlay of the narratives.
In the adjacent gallery - the “Useful Object” section - the history of the renowned exhibition series of MoMA is narrated by revealing the development of foldable display tables used in subsequent years to experiment with the notion of itinerant educational exhibitions. The loans from “Useful Object in wartime”, predominantly in Plexiglas, are shown in two tables that re-enact the 1941 MoMA tables. A vitrine was carefully inserted in the table-frames to protect the objects that, contrary to the original intent, can no longer be touched by the audience.
Finally, darkness falls again in the last gallery, where the objects from the Detroit Institute of Arts are illuminated by cones of light and are presented alongside a video on the exhibition itself. To view the video, the audience is allowed to sit on original benches designed by Johnson in 1968 for the Kunsthalle, bridging at last the barrier between the importance pieces in display and their original intended function.