New York

“The Machine Age in America 1918–1941”

During the 23 years between the world wars, the United States experienced an explosive growth of mechanized industry and commodity production. The machine, not a new concept to the 20th century, was unleashed to its fullest promise. “The Machine Age in America 1918–1941” documents the unbalanced optimism and enthusiasms the machine excited. The nation’s love affair with mass production and its correlates—freedom, power, affluence, and rationalized living—was simply one strand in the tight knot of conflicting messages generated by new technologies and materials. The idea of unimpeded promise, of the magical properties of the machine, is conveyed by this exhibition, but little else about the complex psychology and mythology of machinery is unraveled. The texts and thematic organization are superficial and limited, and—ironically—the selection of objects and images is rambling to the point of not representing any point of view. The shifting between myopic objectives and general themes creates a centrifugal force; the center does not hold.

In the early 20th century, the machine evoked a sense of magic. Heaving industrial components and operations were set into motion by strange, invisible properties, and most laymen could not comprehend the origins of this new power. The idea of magic produced two different sets of responses: mechanization as a source of entrancement, and as something distant, disturbing. Excitement was undoubtedly the dominant cultural sentiment, and it was mainly a small group of artists and writers who registered the gloomier consequences of a production- and products-obsessed society. The inherent tension and ambivalence of progress is not captured in this exhibition. In spite of the many wonderful objects, photographs, paintings, and designed artifacts included, a strange infatuation is the only evident interpretation.

Many of the photographs here from the ’20s and ’30s evoke both the light and darkness of this machine age. Lewis Hines’ black-and-white print Heart of the Turbine, 1930, shows a man peering through a great turbine’s aperture. The tension of the situation, where dominance between man and machine is not determined, is memorable. Thurman Rotan’s silver print Skyscrapers, 1932, the exhibition’s symbol, takes photography beyond sensitive documentation to graphic manipulation. Multiple images of a tall, tapering building fight for space, their bases appearing to occupy the same footprint.

Many of the designed objects representative of the machine age—housewares, appliances, clothing, cars, furniture—capture the machine’s magic through formal invention. The machine was often simultaneously a symbol, a form-giver, and an image of perpetual, process. One formal option was to explore the machine as a practical manifestation of geometry. Precise edges and smooth volumes suggest the crisp lines mechanical production first made possible without signs of the human hand. Other designers, “streamliners” such as Norman Bel Geddes, focused on the representation of movement and velocity. A smooth, seamless, and simplified styling appears to encase an internal anatomy of mechanized and tumbling parts. Bel Geddes’ 1932 design for an ocean liner looks like a great missile moving on rather than through the sea.

Perhaps the most prophetic images in the exhibition are stills from Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, 1936. Chaplin’s befuddled operator is a comic foil to Hines’ (and others’) sober, heroic photos. Chaplin demystifies the machine, modulates an overexuberance for promise without pitfall, and discloses the madness just below the surface of progress. Another bright passage is the section on the domestication of the machine and the development of new materials (e.g., linoleum and rayon) and gadgets to enhance the efficiency of running the home. Ironically, this obsession with rationalization often created more work for the homemaker.

In the United States the machine mythology created a religious fervor and heightened pragmatism. This suggests a more complex climate than the exhibition conveys. “The Machine Age” is a vast potpourri of objects and images influenced by mechanization, but the isolation of this 23-year period is an invented order. The exhibition attempts to conventionalize this rather random exercise by using a lens that both limits and eliminates. The exhibition is a visual delight, but it feels as if too much was assembled to make a small point. A more focused premise would have required less voluminous substantiation.

Patricia C. Phillips