New York

Lawrence Gipe

Blum Helman Warehouse

“WE’RE THE RISING TIDE/COME FROM FAR AND WIDE/MARCHING SIDE BY SIDE ON OUR WAY/FOR A BRAVE NEW WORLD/TOMORROW’S WORLD/THAT WE SHALL BUILD TODAY!” Painted on the wall, these words bore down on you at the entrance to Lawrence Gipe’s show “The Century of Progress Museum.” A nearby video monitor blaring “Rhapsody in Blue” showed old black and white footage from futurist urban-propaganda films. You were supposed to get that machine-age-world’s-fair feel. Before you went any further, you could take a button—just like at the Met—except that it was emblazoned not with the museum’s initials but with a quote by urban planner (or destroyer?) Robert Moses: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” When it’s put that way, you’d generally opt for the omelet. That’s progress. But when you know that the omelet is an expressway and the eggs are impoverished urban neighborhoods (as SoHo was when Moses proposed razing it for a thoroughfare running from Brooklyn to New Jersey), you have to think twice.

Judging from the drawings and paintings that made up the bulk of Gipe’s museum, the “century” didn’t span much more than a decade (the ’30s), but for Gipe it was a decade characterized by a multi-culti definition of “progress”: Italian Fascist monuments, American steel factories, Nazi sculpture, the Brooklyn Bridge, Stalinist architecture, etc., all of which incarnated or celebrated the forward march of man. Though one man’s omelet is an-other’s broken eggs and Hitler’s new Rome was not “progressive” by too many standards, Gipe’s work heroicizes the rhetoric of progress, a rhetoric that, in spite of its politics, has often made the idea of progress so appealing. In one of his exquisite graphite drawings (based, like his paintings, on period photographs), an extremely low vantage point makes the neoclassical German Pavilion—designed by Hitler’s Inspector General of Architecture, Albert Speer, for the 1937 Paris Exposition—shoot up dramatically into the sky behind three muscular, naked Übermenschen sculpted by Josef Thorak. It’s a beautiful image of state power, made even more seductive by Gipe’s old-master style of drawing, but it doesn’t address the problematics of finding beauty in something fascist.

Though several of Gipe’s paintings take cheap, ironic shots at progress, most often he seduces you with highly varnished images of glorious machines and triumphant monuments (fascist or otherwise). In No. 1 from the Century of Progress Museum: Study for the Propaganda Series (all works 1992), a hot, grimy Pittsburgh steel mill is transformed into something sublime, as fiery smoke stacks rise against a dusky-brown sky. There are no downtrodden workers to spoil the picture. Emblazoned in bold red letters across the entire painting is the phrase “A Bacchanal of Work”: Oh, to be drunk on the fermented fruits of your labors—fevered with the frenzy of progress!

Gipe’s strongest work conveys the exaggerated allure, rather than the price, of progress. It does not preach so much as conspire. Perhaps that is why he chose to present his new work as a “museum.” Isn’t the museum a place for the worship of creativity, a temple for the Muses, as its etymology indicates? In the end, though, you think twice when you realize you’re worshiping the likes of Albert Speer.

Keith Seward