Frederick Kiesler

While “Frederick Kiesler 1890–1965” suggested how arduous and ultimately futile it can be to attempt to classify the work of certain artists, this show also demonstrated how utilitarian, rationalist, and money-oriented approaches to modern art and architecture impede the realization of idealistic projects. Kiesler was barely able to build during his lifetime: his adoptive country, the United States, where he arrived from Europe in 1926 filled with pragmatic ideals, turned out not to be the most favorable harbor for his ideas.

Sadly, one of his few constructions, The Film Guild Cinema, located in New York’s Greenwich Village, was recently destroyed. So, where can we find Kiesler? In order to follow in the tracks of his inventive personality, we must scrutinize the photographs and other materials that document his ingenious shop windows, like the one he designed for Jay’s Shoes in Buffalo; rummage through his fabulous designs commissioned in 1942, for Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery; and explore his numerous set designs for operas by Mozart, Glück, and other composers. And we should not forget The Shrine of the Book, built in Jerusalem in 1965 to house the Dead Sea scrolls. In a typewritten document from the ’60s in which he discusses this space, Kiesler insists that The Shrine, topped with a highly original cupola and conceived as the “first ideological building,” cannot be defined by merely descriptive or symbolic readings: “it’s neither a woman's breast, nor an onion, nor a jar,” he wrote. Kiesler’s notes reveal an affinity for globalizing and holistic visions that stem from simple, humble concepts. Significantly, he was schooled in Vienna, in an atmosphere that also produced Karl Krauss’ barbed witticisms and Adolf Loos’ anti-ornamentalism; the teachings he received there perhaps allowed him in later years to open himself to the abstract postulates of the Neoplasticists, as well as the strident world of Surrealism and Dada.

That in Kiesler there were many Kieslers was highlighted by this beautiful and serene show. From the luminous first rooms displaying early Neoplasticist work, the viewer progressed to the artist’s surreal drawings, studies, and photographs for the Salle de Superstition at the Exposition International du Surréalisme in 1947 (under the auspices of Paris’ Galerie Maeght), finally reaching his most utopian projects. The darker dimension of Kiesler’s creative personality is highlighted by these later works, in particular his model for Grotto for Meditation, 1963, his unusual gouaches for Tooth House, 1950, and numerous studies for his most famous project, Endless House, 1959. With sensual, organic shapes resembling the female body, Endless House was conceived as an ultimate refuge, but it was too much for a world unable to appreciate its emphasis on hedonism and reflection. With this Romantic project, Kiesler confronted the mechanics of a world based increasingly on the cult of capital—something for which industry never forgave him.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from the Spanish by Vincent Martin.