Washington, DC

“Dreams and Nightmares”

“Dreams and Nightmares: Utopian Visions in Modern Art,” curated by Valerie Fletcher, was a very strange exhibit indeed. Conceived in two parts, all the nurturing seemed to have gone to the first, leaving the second to wither and fade. The show offered a survey of art from the first two-thirds of the century, concentrating on work that is either utopian in outlook, or the reverse. Fletcher uses the term “dystopian” to name this latter trend. The etymology is interesting: Sir Thomas More wrote about an ideal society, placing it on an island he chose to call Utopia, from the Greek meaning “no place,” thus stressing the impossibility of such an ideal. The prefix “dys” also comes from the Greek, and indicates disease. Dystopia is thus a diseased place, which is to say a real place, not an ideal one. So far so good; one might want to argue, however, about which, the real or the phantasm, is the nightmare.

The first, larger, part of the show was little more than a fairly standard survey of utopian movements in the period up to 1939. There was the expected collection of Futurism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, and de Stijl. More might have been made of the very different types of utopia espoused by these groups—the different ideologies that inspired the collectivism of Constructivist practice against the individualism fostered at the Bauhaus, for instance. More attention might also have been paid to the work of Le Corbusier, since his theories and designs have inspired a great many architects to build “ideal” housing projects that have proved to be precisely no-place in real time. Aside from such quibbles, however, this part of the show was enjoyable and stimulating, with some interesting, less-often-seen examples—a number of Antonio Sant’Elia drawings, oddly contemporary wood constructions by Giacomo Balla, another reconstruction of Vladimir Tatlin’s monument, some disturbed visionary drawings by Hermann Finsterlin, some interesting early work by Josef Albers, a beautiful charcoal drawing by Piet Mondrian, quirky drawings and notes by Buckminster Fuller.

On a wall plaque at the end of this section Fletcher stated that utopian thinking was dealt a mortal blow by the Depression, and she went on to show us the Trylon and Perisphere at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939 as a last desperate attempt to make a convincingly better future before the Second World War and Hiroshima made it impossible. She neglects to mention that other ideal non-place, the Nuremberg rally grounds, where utopian thinking was crisply manifest as the nightmare it invariably is.

Fletcher’s nightmare section was simply an embarrassment. The idea was that many artists since 1945 have been attempting to come to grips with the realities of modern, techno-bureaucratic society. This might well be true, but Fletcher failed to show us so, for instead of artists she gave us illustrators—Ben Shahn, Leonard Baskin, Joseph Hirsch, Saul Steinberg, George Tooker, Jacob Landau. To judge from the work on display here, an amazing amount of art from the ’60s has the look of the products of the Pushpin studios. This was a show that made Ernest Trova look good, and when the esthetics are that far off, you have to wonder about everything else.

Thomas Lawson