Category:expo

October 3, 2011

Creative America

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This interior shot of Fuller/Sadao's US Pavilion at Expo67 almost has it all: installation view of the giant paintings Lichtenstein, Newman, Warhol and Johns made for Alan Solomon's American Painting Now; plus a giant photomural of the moon, perfect for posing in front of.

There's another photomural, earthrise from the moon, on the other side, which was a backdrop for the lunar landscape diorama. You can see it in Carl Harstad's photo:

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And the satelloon-like weather balloons were just out of both pictures' edge. Fortunately, Bob Charlton's mother captured them below:

American Pavilion - Expo '67

The underside approach for the lunar platform has this awesome installation [image from fan train's flickr], a series of panels or canvases with abstracted elements of the American flag. It's a little Ellsworth Kelly, a little Helio Oiticica, and a little Richard Lippold at Lincoln Center, all rolled into one piece of exhibition filler created, I assume, by Cambridge Seven.

American Pavilion

This other photo from Carl Harstad of the Hollywood section of Cambridge Seven's exhibit features, what? I don't know. I'd guess it's left over from Joseph Manciewicz's disastrous Cleopatra shoot, in front of a giant, multipanel headshot of Humphrey Bogart.

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Cambridge's exhibition carried the overall title, Creative America, and I think it very successfully steamrolled everything--paintings, photomurals, dioramas, film props, spaceships, cultural effluvia--into a single, unified, spectacularized drive-by aesthetic experience. And it was all done by and for the US Government. As I go on about reconsidering 'non-art' things like photomurals and satelloons in an art context, I keep coming back to the Expo67 pavilion. At one point, it was all art, or something like it. And vice versa.

[note: I've seen it elsewhere, but I took that top photo from former USIA design director Jack Masey's powerpoint deck on the history of postwar World's Fairs, which he presented last October at the National Building Museum. I'm about to listen to his archived talk now.]

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Instead of jumping to the first search result, Google's "I'm feeling lucky" button should go to something tangentially related but certifiably awesome and probably better than what you were looking for in the first place. For the first datapoint in fitting that algorithm, I submit this post from The Bowery Boys about the "World's Greatest Photo-Mural,' as proclaimed by the New York Herald upon the dedication on December 14, 1941 [!] of the Defense Bonds Mural in Grand Central Terminal, New York City, USA.

At 96x118 feet, and covering the entire eastern wall of the station's Great Hall, it was certainly the world's largest photomural to date. [Only an Axis appeaser would point out that it's actually six photomural elements installed in a larger, non-photographic composition.]

The mural was created by the Farm Security Administration's Information Division, the legendary New Deal documentary photography propaganda unit run by Roy [no relation to Ted] Stryker. The three main photocollaged panels depicted what America was defending: Our* Land, Our* Children, and Our* Industry. [* Offer apparently not valid for non-white Americans, as the NAACP pointed out in protest letters to the FSA.]

Classic racial exclusion notwithstanding, I was most amazed that a giant war bonds photomural in Grand Central Station was the government's instant response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. And I was also wrong. According to a contemporary report in Time Magazine, the FSA photo staff spent three months designing and fabricating the massive photomural. Which should be evidence enough for the conspiracy theorists who suspected that Stryker and his puppet FDR had been planning to get the US into war all along. But it turns out the Treasury Department had already begun its defense bond campaign in 1940, and that the government marketing masters at the FSA had already been enlisted in Treasury's bond-selling campaigns.

Which seems odd, that a Depression-era tenant farmer resettlement program would morph into a historically ambitious documentary project for rural America, and then into a war bond marketer, before becoming the military propaganda operation for D-Day. Odd until you hear Stryker's longtime assistant Helen Wool describe Stryker's vision of the FSA's photographic mission in a 1964 interview for the Smithsonian:

[I]n that drastic difference he still stuck to the same type of basic idea, that America is America and that's all there was to it. We had psychological warfare films, and we had displays, and we had defense bond things, and everything else. But, underneath it he was selling America as it should be sold. [emphasis added because, obviously]
So what does the 3-months making of the world's largest photomural entail? Fortunately, the snap-happy photographers at FSA like Edwin Rosskam and Marion Post Wolcott documented the process, in a group of 53-70 images now at the Library of Congress:

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I've had Michelle Kuo's interview with Robert Breer [artforum, nov 2010] open in my browser tabs for months now, ever since Steve Roden posted about his incredible little toy Float, which was sold at MoMA's gift shop in 1970, at the same time one of Breer's original Pepsi Pavilion Floats had been liberated from Expo'70 in Osaka and set loose in the Abby Aldrich Sculpture Garden. [A PDF of The Modern's Aug. 25 press release for the piece, titled Osaka I, said the toy Floats would be sold for $7.95, or two for $15," in the Museum's Christmas Shop.]

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Kuo's is one of the best interviews I've seen with Breer; most never got past the basic, "how did you get into animation?" "So you lived in Paris on the GI Bill?" chestnuts. With what is now a terrible lack of urgency, I'd made a few attempts to track down Breer this year, in hopes of following up with him about what he'd probably consider the least important aspects of his creative practice: the commercial work and product design and TV animation [including still unidentified segments on The Electric Company] he would bring up--and then insist be kept separate.

Because Breer's consistently innovative filmmaking and playfully minimalistic/animalistic sculptures--and the fact that he did his most monumentally awesome art work for Pepsi--hinted at the potential relevance of the work he kept in his commercial closet.

Which, amusingly, is not really the point, except to say I want to find a Float of my own, please.

No, the immediate point is, wow, how awesome is Breer's 1966 sculpture, Rug? This was the work that introduced Breer's sculpture to me, at a show that also opened my eyes to the revelatory breadth of his filmmaking. It was recreated for the first time in decades in 1999 at AC Projects. Their small second floor space in off-Chelsea was creeping and crawling with little Breer sculptures, while the Mylar Rug slowly shifted around in place. The other works felt alive, droid-like. Rug's movements were creepier, more ominous, like something was alive underneath it.

Good for the Walker, it looks like they acquired the mylar Rug [there are others, in other colors/materials] just this year.

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Anyway, while poking around GB Agency, Breer's Paris gallery, I came across this sketch, dated 8/71, which includes an incredible proposal for a Rug piece made from an American flag. [The text underneath reads, "float flat on floor (flags) + motors".] The storyboard-like drawing not only ties Breer's sculptural and animation projects together nicely; the other three sequences--"cloud in sun," "bushes in breeze," and "daisies"--help site Breer's work in observation, duration, and the natural world. Which may have mitigated the political implications in 1971 of something lurking under a crumpled US flag.

In any case, I expect, if not exactly look forward to the day when, this work will be realized for a future Breer retrospective.

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What's the opposite of writer's block, the thing where you have so much damn good stuff to write about, you're paralyzed into inaction? Because that's what I've got, and August vacation voids or not, I just can't help it; I'm gonna blog it all and let Google sort it out.

cold_war_confrontations.jpgFor example, for all the dome- and Expo-loving going on around here, you'd think by now I would have gotten my hands on a copy of Jack Masey and Conway Lloyd Morgan's 2008 book, Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War, but no.

As the longtime design director for the US Information Agency, Jack Masey was basically the client, or the producer, of the expo-related architecture, art, media, domes, pavilions, exhibitions, and propaganda that folks like Buckminster Fuller, Shoji Sadao, the Eameses, and George Nelson became famous for.

Cold War Confrontations is a fantastically surfable book, a thick, highly visual memoir of the USIA's greatest hits. It's based on the premise that the structured, official propaganda pageants of world expos, culture exchanges and trade shows, played pivotal roles in the course of post-war world history:

At Expos, however, the teams are not playing games; rather, they competed by presenting to the world examples of a nation's best architecture, technology, arts, crafts, manufacturing, and performing arts. And in so doing, they sometimes, somehow, change the world. [p. 110]
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There were many people who believe[d] that to be true. I sort of want it to be true, at least in the same sense that I'd rather see street gangs settle their differences by breakdancing instead of drive-by shootings. Maybe it's better to see these expos as reflections of the cultures that produced them, or of their aspirations. Because the views expressed therein do not, it turns out, necessarily represent the opinions of the United States of America as a whole, or of their elected representatives and/or government officials.

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Case in point: The "Unfinished Business" pavilion, designed by Leo Lionni [!] for the 1958 Brussels World Expo. Holy Smokes, people.

Masey tells a longer version of the story in the book, but here's a condensed version: in 1956, a team that included Boston ICA director James Plaut consulted with MIT economist Walt Rostow on the contents of the official US pavilion, which was being designed by Edward Durrell Stone. The idea was to emphasize the US's people and cultural accomplishments. Rostow's team also called on the US to be frank and self-critical in recognizing its "unfinished business," by which they meant "soil erosion, urban decay, and race relations."

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Somehow, though the giant, donut-shaped pavilion had room for a Vogue fashion show on water; a proto-Pop, pseudo-combine street sign streetscape; and a giant, aerial photomural of Manhattan installed in a half-pipe [WTF!? I don't know! We'll come back to it!]; there wasn't room to "address 'the Negro Problem.'" And so somehow [?] Henry Luce's Fortune magazine became the State Department's partner/sponsor of a smaller garden pavilion devoted to "Unfinished Business," and the magazine's creative director Leo Lionni designed it.

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That's the model above, and it looks pretty damn close to the real thing. Lionni conceived of three linked, raised pavilions, each about six meters long, as a frankly allegorical timeline, in which America's problems get literally smoothed out. Or as Masey put it, "the content of the interior was also to be conveyed through the exterior." Which means that the somber, "chaotic crystal" of the past had already given way to the much brighter, Family of Man-colored present. A little more ironing and the square, orderly, utopian future was just steps away. That was the concept, anyway, but that's not exactly how it turned out.

[to be continued in the morning]

Buy Cold War Confrontations: US Exhibitions and Their Role in the Cultural Cold War on Amazon [amazon]

Robert Rauschenberg's massive 1970 silk screen edition, Currents sure is hard to miss. And not just because it's 18 meters long.

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MoMA's copy from the edition [of just six] has been wrapped around the corner of the second floor galleries for a while now. Which may have helped coax Peter Freeman into bringing out another of the screenprints last week for Art Basel.

But it's also at the end of the Rauschenberg's segment in Emile de Antonio's documentary, Painters Painting [above], which I rewatched recently. Bob unfurls it with a slightly soused, earnestly glib voiceover about how, even though there's so much information packed into a daily newspaper, most people don't read it. But if someone spends $15,000 on the info, the artist can get him to pay attention. Or at least not wrap the fish in it and throw it out.

Which is ironic, I guess, because I've found that the size and visual uniformity has caused me to stroll by Currents without ever even slowing down. I register it as reworked newspaper content, on a giant roll, just like the real newspaper itself--but I don't slow down to look closely. I mean, really, at that scale, how much of my time does Rauschenberg really think he's gonna get?

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So maybe it was because I'd just run into Richard Serra moments before in the atrium, or because I came at the work head-on this time, instead of from the side. But I'd never noticed, for example, that there is a news photo of a frontloader bringing a massive fir tree trunk to the Pasadena Art Museum for Serra's 1970 work, Sawing: Base Plate Template (Twelve Fir Trees)

Above it and to the right, I'd swear that row of tract houses is a Dan Graham photo.

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And hey, there's a story about construction progress on Expo 70 in Osaka, where E.A.T., the collaborative Rauschenberg founded with Billy Kluver, was creating the Pepsi Pavilion, and where Rauschenberg was still thinking he'd show his own work, a plexiglass cubeful of bubbling drillers' mud called Mud-Muse, which he'd developed with Teledyne for LACMA's Art & Technology show and the US Pavilion.

If I can spot these now-obvious contemporary art references in Currents, what else must be lurking in there? Was incorporating other artists' images Rauschenberg's way of tipping his hat to artists and work he liked, or was he assimilating and subsuming it in his own, sprawling scroll? Was he engaging in a dialogue with the Conceptual and post-minimalist kids coming up or putting them in their place? Or trying to put himself in theirs?

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The most intriguing references now, though, turn out to be a little trickier. There are multiple instances of diagrams showing hands throwing the OK sign which remind me of nothing so much as the sign language woodblocks used in the prints at Jasper Johns' latest show at Marks.

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Shrinky Dink 4, 2011, intaglio print, image via

I remember thinking immediately of Rauschenberg when I saw the mirrored newspaper transfer appearing in the upper left of this Johns drawing, Untitled, 2010.

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Rauschenberg began using the technique in the mid-60s, and it's all over Currents. Remind me again how long MoMA's had their print on view?

June 13, 2011

Dutch Camo Domescapes

I love it when a plan comes together. Or at least when several subjects of interest converge unexpectedly.

It seems the Dutch art world is about to be decimated by sudden and substantial government funding cuts and reorganizations. [for angry details, check sven lutticken's recent post; for plaintive, possibly resigned reaction from the affected institutions, try the open letter at the Dutch public arts organization, SKOR.]

If the proposed changes really do take effect, and the status quo of one of the most highly developed state-sponsored ecosystems for the arts is actually dismantled at a stroke, I think it's really important to requestion every comfortable assumption of the involvement between art and politics. It has a lot of obvious problems and weaknesses, but the Dutch system, at least as perceived from abroad, has always seemed like the apotheosis of certain ideals of cultural industrial policy, which, Lutticken argues, now "don't seem to be worth a penny."

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Anyway, not that they saw them coming, but SKOR tried to understand the political shifts that precipitated these cuts in the December 2010 issue [#20] of their excellent journal, Open, which examines populism and the persistent need for narrative and myth in the democratic process.

Dutch populism seems to center on--surprise--issues of immigration, assimilation, and Muslim vs. Christian cultural influence. As it turns out, one of the contributors in Open 20 is Foundland, a graphics, art, and research group that seems part collaborative, part design firm.

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In 2009, Foundland created CACHÉ ÉXPOSÉ, an investigation into the remote, largely invisible, and unreported system of detention and deportation facilities in the Netherlands. The majority of the people imprisoned in the facilities or subjected to the system seem to be immigrants and refugees from largely Muslim countries.

When I read the description of the project, I wanted to see if, like the intelligence- and military-related sites, these politically sensitive detention sites were obscured on Google Maps. Fortunately, Foundland had created a Google Maps list as part of the CACHÉ ÉXPOSÉ project.

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And the short answer is no. Their industrial anonymity is camouflage enough. But then hey-ho, looking at the waterfront detention center in Zaandam, a commercial city northwest of Amsterdam, what do I see? Awesome-looking domes.

Double geodesic domes of unknown purpose, but which look to be at least somewhat transparent or translucent from Street View. What a wonderfully open society the Netherlands must be that in can allow the Google Street View car to drive right up into the middle of its immigrant prisons. Oh wait.

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What strikes me, besides the lone figure standing outside the double barbed-wire fence? Is irony the right word to see a geodesic dome, a form which was once erected to great fanfare in Afghanistan, where it served as a symbolic center of friendship, trade, democracy, and political cooperation with the west, being deployed in a back alley prison in Europe filled, presumably, with impoverished immigrants from the Middle East?

Then again, Afghans in 1956 apparently did see the US's Kabul Dome pavilion as representing The Future. So.

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US Pavilion at Jeshyn Fair, 1956, photo by James Cudney

In the Spring of 1956, as the Jeshyn Fair celebrating Afghan independence approached, and the Soviets were well along in constructing a massive pavilion, US diplomats in Kabul thought the US better have one, too.

A USIA officer named Jack Masey commissioned Buckminster Fuller to create a 100-foot diameter geodesic dome in two months. His Raleigh, NC-based firm, Synergetics, Inc., apparently completed it in one.

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Pashto laborers assembling Buckminster Fuller dome, 1956, photo by Jack Masey

It was airlifted to Kabul, where a crew of local Pashto erected it in two days. The aluminum & plastic-coated nylon dome tent pavilion was a hit, "perhaps the most significant cultural event" of the "golden age" of US-Afghan relations, according to the creators of "In Small Things Remembered," an exhibit looking at the history of the two countries' relationship.

The show, which closed yesterday at the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC, was organized by Dr. Curtis Sandberg, VP of the Arts at Meridian, and sponsored by the State Department. It comprised photos discovered in various archives and foreign service officers' private collections, such as Masey, above, and James Cudney, top, who spent eleven years in Afghanistan taking pictures, and developing various photography- and media-based culture, education, and diplomacy programs. Cudney passed away in 2009, but some more of his Afghan photos can be seen in the previews of two 2010 calendars he or his family created on lulu.com. They look pretty amazing.

Anyway, the US Information Agency and Dept. of Commerce continued to use the Kabul dome for trade fairs across Asia. As USIA's director of design, Masey would go on to select Fuller to build the US Pavilion at the Montreal 67 expo, too.

In Small Things Remembered, at Meridian through June 5 [meridian.org]

I'm getting pretty comfortable with my love affair/obsession with the US Pavilion at the Expo 67 in Montreal. I mean, it's got Buckminster Fuller; Alan Solomon curating gigantic paintings; photomurals; and satelloons, what's not to love, right?

So seeing Design for a Fair, the 1968 promo short film by Peter Chermayeff is awesome just as it is. The vintage footage and photos are some of the crispest I've seen, and it really is pretty crazy on a whole bunch of levels that this thing existed at all.

But maybe the greatest thing--even better than the giant graphic designed flags that look like a lost Ellsworth Kelly, as if there wasn't enough giant, escalator-optimized, actual art already--and even better than the sheer soft power/propaganda play that was so drop-dead awesome it won the future for the day--is the voiceover.

Because the whole thing really sounds like Chermayeff's idea. Every last bit of it, dome to nuts. It's fantastic. Chermayeff, of course, is an architect and exhibition designer, and his former firm, Cambridge Seven Associates, or C7A, was contracted by the US Information Agency to produce the US Expo entry.

And so, as Chermayeff tells it, they knew they wanted a 3/4 geodesic dome, so they ordered one. And they wanted some giant art, so they ordered that. And the moon stuff, and the Hollywood and all the happy parts of American culture.

Now I don't doubt a thing; I'm sure that's exactly how it all went down. It's just that that's not how it's typically remembered. Architects only remember Fuller; the art world only recognizes Solomon and the artists, not the venue or the show or the implications of it; and everything else is artifact and prop. [And the poor lunar photomural, I've hardly found anyone remembering that at all.]

The historical focus is either on the general awesomeness of the spectacle and mood, the political context and propaganda, or on the parts in isolation. What Design for a Fair reminds me of, though, is the visitor's experience, the carefully orchestrated messaging, and the reality that it was orchestrated by a contractor working to a brief provided by the USIA. It was a government-funded gesamtkunstwerk, a massive piece of installation art before the fact, and probably one of the most cost-effective public diplomacy efforts of the Cold War era. It literally seems unimaginable today.

Thomas Lawson's 2010 interview with Andrea Bowers is like five kinds of great. It concerns the works in her show at Susan Vielmetter in Los Angeles, "The Political Landscape." Bowers' story of making a video piece about activist and Bush-era public land auction-saboteur Tim deChristoph has some nice critiques of the Earth Art Boys. And it's surprising how surprising so many of the reactions were to her immigration- and border-related drawings.

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But I can't not post a bit of the discussion of the centerpiece of the show. Titled No Olvidado - Not Forgotten, the 10-foot-high, 23-panel mural/drawing contains the names of several thousand people known to have died crossing the Mexican-US border:

AB: Yes, it's a hundred-foot drawing.

TL: And it is set up as a memorial, it's a very grand piece. Let's talk about it. Since it is monumental, it presumably required a different way of working?

AB: Right. I worked with a graphic designer and several assistants. It resulted from a conversation with an activist, Enrique Morones. He founded an organization called Border Angels. They started off in I think '86, providing water and blankets to people crossing the border.

TL: And many die in the attempt--are they killed out there in the desert, or do they die from exposure and thirst?

AB: It's both, but in many cases nobody knows. A lot of people die from dehydration or temperature, but there are also people who are killed. So Enrique collects names of anyone who dies migrating from Mexico to America. He actually has about ten thousand names. He finally admitted that the group of names he provided to me, a list of four or five thousand, is only up to the year 2000.

I've always been making memorials in one way or another, but memorials that I thought would never be made, or memorials that were kind of impossible to make. I'm fascinated by the Vietnam Memorial in DC, and how listing names functions in general. An important part of what I do concerns this documentary-type collection of information.

A Story about Civil Disobedience and Landscape: Interview with Andrea Bowers [eastofborneo.org]

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You know, every once in a while, I think that it's crazy to be considering satelloons as art instead of what they really were--aestheticized objects designed to be seen and exhibited.

And then I'll catch a glimpse of Expo 67 somewhere, and realize I'm still well inside the bubble.

A still from The World of Buckminster Fuller, which is on DVD, available at Amazon, not ubu.com, why would it be?

Previous Expo67 posts:
not that anyone asked, but here's Fuller's own idea for the US Pavilion
on the American Painting Now show, organized by Alan Solomon
the Canadian fracas over Barnett Newman's Voice of Fire
Forgot how much I loved writing this post on art protestor/greenhouse owner John Czupryniak's Newman knockoff, Voice of the Taxpayer
Expo 70 design finding the Expo 67 Pavilion hard to beat

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Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
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Category: expo

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