New York

Xanti Schawinsky, The Aviator (Faces of War), 1942, watercolor and pen on paper, 28 7/8 × 21". From the series “Faces of War,” 1942. © The Xanti Schawinsky Estate.

Xanti Schawinsky, The Aviator (Faces of War), 1942, watercolor and pen on paper, 28 7/8 × 21". From the series “Faces of War,” 1942. © The Xanti Schawinsky Estate.

Xanti Schawinsky

Drawing Center

Xanti Schawinsky, The Aviator (Faces of War), 1942, watercolor and pen on paper, 28 7/8 × 21". From the series “Faces of War,” 1942. © The Xanti Schawinsky Estate.

Xanti Schawinsky, a Swiss-born Polish Jew, studied at the Bauhaus under that oft-recited pantheon of modern masters—Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer—and took a bit from each. Already trained in architecture before arriving in Weimar, Schawinsky worked in everything over the course of his long career, from theater and music to photography, painting, and graphic design. This great variety, not only in form but also in style—he moved easily from photograms to de Chirico–esque dreamscapes to painterly abstraction—has made Schawinsky difficult to place in standard histories of the Bauhaus, if not in art history more generally. Two recent exhibitions, at the Drawing Center and Broadway 1602, respectively, help put his contributions into relief.

The exhibition at the Drawing Center, which remains on view until December 14, presents nine drawings from the series “Faces of War,” 1942, as well as a variety of works from the pencil-on-paper series “Head Drawings,” 1941–46. Schawinsky left Germany in 1933 as the pressures of national socialism started to bear down, and he originally settled in Italy, where he did design work for Olivetti, and, disconcertingly, for Mussolini. In 1936, he came to the United States, first to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and then to New York. (He eventually returned to Europe in 1966.) The “Faces of War” are fluent in the language of advertising that Schawinsky picked up along the way. At roughly twenty-nine by twenty-one inches, the works’ proportions approximate those of a poster, and their gradient backgrounds—fading from black to gray to pink in one instance, and from blue to gray to yellow in another—also seem to derive from a commercial source. On top of each background lies a metal face. The Warrior (Faces of War), 1942, offers a Terminator-like fantasy, in which helmet and cranium have fused into one and gun barrels double as eyes that threaten to stare bullets, while in The Aviator (Faces of War), 1942, the titular figure huffs an exhaust tube affixed to its own neck and a gunman inhabits its skull. Evoking a kind of proto-heavy-metal imagery—are these concert posters or recruitment tools?—the series suggests what militarism and alienation have done to the modern subject. This soldier is not wounded, however; he has melded with his armor, and while the tone of the series is dark, a strange humor occasionally pushes through: One will remember, in The Defender (Faces of War), 1942, a wry and eerie smile, loony like a cartoon’s. In comparison to the “Faces,” the “Head Drawings” seem less contemporary and vital—Arcimboldo might have cobbled together Domestic, 1943–46, had he had access to the conveniences of a modern kitchen—and yet they nevertheless represent a scrappy desire to reassemble the subject after the fallout of war.

Whereas the work at the Drawing Center dates from 1940s, Broadway 1602 assembled two of Schawinsky’s series from the ’60s and ’70s that signal his turn toward abstraction. For the “Eclipses,” 1965–67, Schawinsky crumpled and then airbrushed paper, fabric, and canvas to create luminous fields that evoke clouds pierced by light. By the ’70s, he was making Op art with burlap and scrim, separating the painted surfaces to deliver hovering orbs that shift as one walks around them. The “Spheras,” 1969–71, are somehow related to Bauhaus formal exercises, though they seem too comfortable in the pleasure of their effects. They speak the language of transcendence, but it is one we know all too well from waiting rooms and hotel lobbies.

The highlight of the Broadway 1602 show was a single magazine page hanging on a gallery office wall. Dating from 1948, that page features an article on the then-new IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, referred to as the “brain,” alongside an accompanying illustration by Schawinsky. The picture is composed of four planes, each turned at a different angle and featuring a different image: One portrays a three-dimensional grid-like structure, another the cogs of a machine, and a third a vascular tangle of lines. The fourth (and foremost) plane presents a naturalistic picture of a woman’s face, her eyes slightly downcast. It is an ambivalent expression, to be sure, though after seeing so many faces and heads made of metallic stuff, it stands out. Perhaps Schawinsky ultimately found a sort of humanism in technology, but one also wonders if the face is not simply a mask.

Alex Kitnick