New York

Frederick Kiesler

The small selection of drawings at Jason McCoy and the large retrospective at the Whitney helped substantiate Frederick Kiesler’s uncategorical philosophy of design, the restrained eclecticism and sense of invention that informed and shaped his work. That Kiesler was versatile but not consistently accomplished makes his status difficult to determine. Neither exhibition was an exercise in hagiography; both depicted the artist’s bright innovations and disquieting failures.

Kiesler’s design training and esthetic foundation were formed by Russian Constructivism and De Stijl—by the crisp lines, flowing planes, brisk colors, and orthogonal organization of Neo-Plasticism. In particular, his L + T installation system, 1924, shows clear geometric orientation. The L + T system was first used at the International Exhibition of New Theater Techniques in Vienna. Ensembles of this flexible network of red, black, and white linear and planar units were reconstructed at the Whitney Museum. Kiesler’s Space Stage, 1924, also revealed here, is a spiral construction of twisting platforms with a weblike structure and angled stairs. The project challenged the traditional distinction of audience and players in the proscenium theater. This project marks a rare moment of synthesis unequaled in much of the artist’s work. The forms have a precision and visual clarity, and they make Kiesler’s notions of spatial endlessness physically accessible. They also incorporate the ambiguous play of theater and life, script and improvisation, the mechanical and the organic.

Kiesler’s Art of This Century installation for Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery in New York, 1942, was also recreated here. For this project the designer was given the mission by the client to propose a new way to exhibit art. Many small sketches and studies document the laborious emergence of the final concept. Along the length of the gallery, Kiesler ran opposing convex wooden walls that look like extruded parentheses. The space changed from the usual orthogonal conditions of Modern Western architecture to a more cylindrical volume. Paintings were mounted at different heights from wooden stems that projected from the wall’s surface, making them appear to float. The mounting system was adjustable so that canvases could be tipped and angled. Wooden biomorphic elements were scattered around the floor, serving either as pedestals for art or as seating for viewers. Kiesler also suspended fixtures and other flexible platforms from the lowered ceiling. The installation allowed almost infinite variety and ensured consistent irregularity.

Considerable attention was devoted to Kiesler’s Endless House proposal, 1950–60. Jason McCoy showed studies of this proposal for a new domestic environment. Many of the large single and paired charcoal drawings investigate issues of surface treatment, lighting, and space division. They are richly expressive, idiosyncratic works, more like metaphysical encounters with continuous space than resolved episodes in a design process of clarification and refinement. At the Whitney, Kiesler’s reinforced concrete model of this seminal, unbuilt proposal was shown. It expresses the designer’s obsession with biomorphic forms as vehicles to open space, but the tactility of the model also showed the limitations of translating eloquent thoughts into physical form.

Although Kiesler’s early work is dramatically different from the “Endless House” or the large sculptural projects he completed in the ’60s, there is consistent intellectual momentum throughout. In all of his exuberant, eclectic, and uneven creative productions, Kiesler remained obsessed by the design of environments that expressed spatial continuity, that were participatory, that challenged the conventional expectations and encounters of art and design. All of his work was a provocation.

Patricia C. Phillips