almost a work of art

Q: when is a motorbike a work of art? A: when it’s in the Museum of Modern Art.

Here’s the precursor: this 1949 Vincent HRD Rapide is currently on display in One’s Not Enough at the Canberra Museum and Gallery, the latest in a series of exhibitions of local private collections. This example is from the motorbike collection of Peter and Ann Toet. And here’s the 1949 Vincent Black Shadow, in pride of place in the MoMA galleries of architecture and design.

What, I hear you ask, are such things as a Cisitalia or a Black Shadow doing in an art gallery anyway? One of the distinctive characteristics of the MoMA collection is its integration of machine art/industrial design displayed in parallel to the evolution of modern art. And so it’s inevitable that this gorgeous example of early modern automobilia finds a place alongside everything from kitchenalia to a Bell helicopter. The 1946 Cisitalia 202 was designed by the famous Italian Battista “Pinin” Farina who in the immediate postwar era pioneered the idea of the application of aerodynamics to the automobile. One of only 170 produced, the Cisitalia epitomised the “pure, smooth, essential” lines that were to characterise the next age of automobile form. Slippery. Innovative. And very red.

What, I ask myself, are they doing side by side? This celebration of purity, pure red and pure black, is a very MoMA conjunction. But the Black Shadow, built by Philip Vincent and Phil Irving from 1949, is a classic example of stylelessness – of form determined by function – with nothing about it determined by fashion or aesthetics. Which indeed has been one of the criteria espoused by MoMA’s approach to design since its adoption in 1934 of the rubric of Machine Art. So the Shadow is present in the art gallery as the embodiment of mechanical essentialism – if anything, a late futurist expression of power, speed, plus a kind of madness, all present in the same moment as an expression of technological sophistication. One could say it is expressive of the modern in a purely mechanical way, which is how the MoMA first argued its approach to design.  Hand-built in the slipstream of the technological advances of WW2, it is said the Rapide and the Black Shadow were made for the generation who survived the war. For those who were prepared to take risks… But is it art?

Writing in 1984, Arthur Drexler explains: such “an object is chosen for its quality because it is thought to achieve, or to have originated, those formal ideas of beauty that have become the major stylistic concepts of our time.” Thus once its “balance of proportions and fitness for purpose” have been established, an object enters The Modern to be located within its art historical concepts of style… Admittedly, a quarter century has passed since this dictum was published, and the world has moved far beyond “Mechanical Art” as the paradigm of the future. And yet, with its underlying interests in design for mass production, these two hand-made objects represent the end of an era, worlds away from the age of digital design. Nevertheless, with “Painting and Sculpture” still the main game, these two icons are closer in time and sensibility to the beginning of the modern than to the present. So, with all options covered, anything is possible at the MoMA. Stand by. Before long they’ll be hanging them on the wall.

Let’s ask Joseph Kosuth: is a chair still a chair if you hang it on the wall?

(image: Sybil Gordon Kantor, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the Intellectual Origins of the Museum of Modern Art, MIT Press, 2002, p.315)


#1 darren on 07.29.11 at 11:13 am

Famously, when MoMA displayed a Bell helicopter in their foyer, critics pointed out that this same wonder of industrial design was then being used to shoot innocent people in South America, and an alternative exhibition of the drawings of school children showing the same model helicopter with guns pointing down was put on display around the corner … early 1980s, I think

#2 Nigel on 07.29.11 at 9:47 pm

Famously? Reference please…

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