Review of Faster, Cheaper, Newer, More: Revolutions of 1848

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June 7, 2004

MUSEUMS: The More Things Change

By LANCE ESPLUND

‘Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in 1847. And a new exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt, “Faster, Cheaper, Newer, More: Revolutions of 1848,” is about the things that rode us.
    This small curio-shop of a show is a wonderful hodgepodge of 60-plus odd things as far afield as William Henry Fox Talbot’s book “The Pencil of Nature,” a section of Atlantic telegraph cable, Thornet bentwood chairs, and an assortment of matchsafes. It includes objects of technological interest (a telegraph key, a double-beam axial engine, a sewing machine patent model, a spiral spark tube), and objets d’arts (Daguerreotypes, jewelry, Constantin Guys drawings and watercolors, a hand-held rubber mirror, a Jacquard woven portrait, and a folding cockade fan).
    Most of the items in “Revolutions of 1848,” guest-curated by Kurt Andersen, are from the Cooper-Hewitt’s holdings. In pulling together all these disparate objects, Mr. Andersen (editor, novelist, design critic, radio host, and co-founder of the legendary Spy Magazine) looks back on the mid-19th century with a firm grasp — and through the witty lens — of the present.
    At times though, this 21st-century hindsight can be distracting. While reading the exhibition’s object labels, I was aware of Mr. Andersen’s need to update the items in the exhibition by giving them a present-tense context, an approach that tends to distance us from the original purposes and integrity of the objects on view. The curator risks telling us as much about himself and about his own time as about the objects and the period of 1848.
    Mr. Andersen describes the painted, panoramic, “El Dorado” wallpaper he includes as “the 1849 version of a ‘home theater.’ ” The Swedishborn singer “Jenny Lind” (represented in this show by a “Jenny Lind Paper Doll”) “was the first global pop superstar.” Punch cards were “a precursor to twentieth-century computer technology.” And an anonymous, well-crafted, many-figured collage of mostly children, “Untitled Montage of Figures in Landscapes” (1850–60), is possibly “the work of a visionary ‘folk artist’ consciously expressing the new zeitgeist of media saturation.” This description sounds like a press release attempting to sell the latest hip thing in a Williamsburg or Chelsea gallery.
    This approach is but a symptom of our era of museum presentation, in which many curators do not seem to trust that we can take in an object made more than five minutes ago if it is not made “relevant” to the hereand-now. Often, this is accomplished by attaching us to headsets, or the art to computer screens. (A computer monitor, unobtrusive but inessential, is part of this exhibition.) Yet, to Mr. Andersen’s credit, the objects in this show — surprising, tastefully presented, and intelligently selected — stand not only together as a delightfully misfit period grouping but also as individual objects in their own right.
    Mr. Andersen’s first selection for this exhibition is the beautiful, revolutionary book “De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs” (1839), an illustrated, scientific colortheory treatise written by Michel Eugène Chevreul. “The Laws of Contrast of Colors” (as it was published in England, in 1858), filled with colored modernist polka-dots, often on black grounds, had a tremendous influence on Signac and Seurat. Mr. Andersen relates the book to Pop Art (and I wonder if he is aware of how many people today will compare the pages to Damien Hirst’s dot paintings); either way, the book, like so many of the objects on view in “Revolutions of 1848,” does not come across like an artifact but stands as a vibrant work of design.
    “Revolutions of 1848” conveys the flavor of the period without being  heavy-handed or resorting to cliché. One of the pleasures of this show is discovering the subtle connections Mr. Andersen wants to make — how the organic curves of a Thornet rocker relate to the delicate, machine-inspired, plain-tapered legs of a Daguerreotype fu ing box, and how those qualities are further accentuated in a section of finely twisted telegraph cable, which, I realized at this show, actually has a restrained ornamentalism about it that speaks both to the corset and to the rolling script of a hand-addressed 19th-century envelope — all of which leads us to Art Nouveau.
    “Revolutions of 1848” is the second continuing exhibition in the Cooper-Hewitt’s new single-room space, the “Nancy and Edwin Marks Collection Gallery.” The exhibitions, most of which will be guest-curated, will run for six months or more, and “1848” currently overlaps and complements the Cooper-Hewitt’s retrospective of Christopher Dresser (1834–1904), a pioneering designer.
    Both shows revolve around the first World’s Fair: the Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London’s Hyde Park at the Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace, made of iron and glass, and assembled by nonskilled workers, was designed by greenhouse architect Joseph Paxton. The first modern building, “a horizontal skyscraper,” it declared that the machine, the assembly line, proto-functionalism, and modernism were all here to stay. The “Exposition” brought together art, inventions, and goods — as disparate  as the McCormick Reaper and the Colt revolver, on the one hand, and ornate, Neo-Gothic furniture, on the other — from all over the world.
    “Revolutions of 1848,” like the Great Exhibition of 1851, is about the courtship and struggle between Victorian handcrafted design and modernist, machine-made goods — about the struggle between the curve and the right angle; a struggle that goes on to this day. Design will always be driven in part by technology. Why did Gustave Eiffel design his Tower? Because the elevator and cast iron made it possible. Why do we design our cars and our sneakers and our computers with pregnant, wavy curves? Because our computers make it so that we can.
    “Revolutions of 1848” makes me wonder what a bunch of equivalent stuff from our own era — a cell phone, perhaps, an iMac, a length of fiber-optic cable — chosen by someone as astute as Kurt Andersen would look like filling a room at the Cooper-Hewitt in 150 years. I bet that 150 years hence, we will still be as seduced by our technological abilities as we ever were, and that the show would be appropriately titled “Faster, Cheaper, Newer, More: Revolutions of 2004.” I imagine that “things,” then, as now, will still be in the saddle.