As crowds throng the Whitney Museum of American Art to see "Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe," curators Donna De Salvo and Gary Carrion-Murayari had the bright idea to pull from the museum's permanent collection a number of works that could serve as a pendant to Fuller's technological utopianism. "Progress," on view through November 30, exhibits varied artists' works that speak in some way to our changing notions of scientific, technological, political, and artistic progress.
The works range from the 1920s to the present day. László Moholy-Nagy is represented by one of his "Space Modulator" paintings, this one from 1938-40, showing his abiding fascination with the imagery of modern technology. He used highly colored superimposed geometries to render the spirit of electricity, creating a sort of circuit-board aesthetic.
Linkages of lines in spidery webs of suspended cables suggesting the networked society form the progressive fantasy of the Belorussian-born sculptor Naum Gabo's "Linear Construction in Space, Number 4," in plastic and stainless steel, from 1957-58. The series of "Linear Constructions in Space" that Gabo made in America in the 1940s and 1950s reiterates the Modernist faith of his Russian and then, following his break with the Soviets, his Bauhaus years (when he claimed he'd been ripped off by Moholy-Nagy as the two artists explored similar themes and media). Like those of Moholy-Nagy, Walter Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe, Gabo's 1950s works seemed as American as apple pie (a German import, it so happens), when the Bauhaus desire (developed largely under Gropius and Moholy-Nagy) to fuse art and technology appeared to have found its historical fulfillment in postwar America.
Gabo's friend, Lewis Mumford, wrote in "Art and Technics" (1952) that Gabo and Frank Lloyd Wright were "Survivors of a better past, precursors of a better future" who saw that "the world of technics itself must be transformed: salvation lies, not in the pragmatic adaptation of the human personality to the machine, but in the readaptation of the machine, itself a product of life's needs for order and organization, to the human personality." Mumford, who in the 1920s and 1930s had a Fuller-like fascination with the utopian potentialities of technology, grew discouraged as the years passed. But he could, in the 1950s, still sense the old optimism, and feel a twinkling of it himself, in works by Gabo or Gordon Bunshaft's Lever House, completed in the year "Art and Technics" came out.
At the same time Gabo was connecting the world with stainless-steel suspenders, Frederick Kiesler was creating his own endless series, the "Endless House," of which "Progress" displays a cement, wire-mesh, and Plexiglas model from 1959. Kiesler's thing was biomorphism, building his designs around forms from biology, particularly those suggestive of the internal functioning of the human body. The "Endless House" is a series of interconnected ovoid chambers, with "unfinished" surfaces and glutinous masses that suggest the beating of the heart and not, as in Gabo's sculpture, the firing of neurons. It's the difference between Surrealism and Constructivism.
On another page altogether is Ed Ruscha, two of whose "Course of Empire" paintings are in the show. "Blue Collar Tool & Die" (1992) shows along the bottom edge of the frame the top of a boxy, horizontal suburban or small-town factory building, painted with a Sheeler-like impersonality, bearing the words "Tool & Die." Ominous clouds dominate the picture. Its companion, "The Old Tool & Die Building" (2004), shows in the same format the same building, but its function has changed. Along its top now are letters of an imaginary Asian alphabet, and on the side of the building, perfectly clean in the earlier picture, are graffiti scrawls. The pictures, which come close to combining Minimalism and Pop art, are affecting, and disturbing. If, for artists, America once connoted progress, for Mr. Ruscha, at least, that's no longer so.
You'd expect in such a show to find plenty of political art, and there's some here, but, to the curators' credit, not so much that it would make the show unwatchable for someone, such as me, who has a hard time with cheap political sentiment in art. An example of just that is the pair of screen-printed postcards, mounted on board, by the otherwise serious-minded Ad Reinhardt, from 1967: Entitled "No War," it invites us, through admittedly elegant lettering, to contemplate such stirring notions as "no art in war" and "no imperialism."
For a political piece that works, look at Andrea Bowers's powerfully designed (and lengthily titled) "Memorial to One of the Largest Urban Farms in America (South Central Community Garden, at 41st and Alameda Streets, Los Angeles, 1994-2006)," from 2008. It is a large drawing in graphite and colored pencil on paper showing a vast area of South-Central L.A. in an intricately rendered monochrome topographical map with the blocks of the community garden vigorously shaded in green. In the lower right-hand corner is a reproduction of a Los Angeles Times story about the garden's destruction.
There is plenty more in a show that, if it did not serve as a digestif for the Fuller show, might not make sense, and that, as it is, may have stood to have more textual material. But it does help put progress — and Fuller — into better context.
Until November 30 (945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street, 212-570-3600).