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Fallout: Art and Design in the Atomic Age

By Pedro Ponce | HUMANITIES, July/August 2001 | Volume 22, Number 4

After the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, America found itself caught between anxiety and optimism, not just in politics, but in art as well. The Atomic Age would see the plastics of wartime transformed into Tupperware cocktail shakers. The molded plywood used for splinting injured soldiers would become inspiration for the Eames chair. Isamu Noguchi’s This Tortured Earth would stand in stark contrast to the reassurance of George Nelson’s wall clock, designed as an atom orbited by twelve electrons representing the hours.

In “Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960,” co-curators Brooke Kamin Rapaport and Kevin L. Stayton will bring together 250 objects from public and private collections to show how a new aesthetic would bridge the arts, popular culture, and architectural and industrial design.

In the arts, the style of the period was known as “organic,” borrowing from the rounded shapes of living organisms. The trend was seen by some as a search for meaning at a time when conventional values were being called into question, when the technology that would win a war held the threat of mass annihilation.

For Paul Boyer, professor of history and an exhibition consultant, “Vital Forms” demon-strates how art and design innovations in the middle of the twentieth century arose from the preoccupations of the time.

“The exhibition is really making a contribution in tracing some of the roots of that to some of the wartime developments.”

One inspiration for the organic style was a design theory that an object must be both aesthetically pleasing and appropriate to its use. That is, the shape of an object should fit the hand that lifts it, and a piece of furniture should conform to the shape of the human body. In time, this notion was transformed into a style or a “look” that retained only the superficial characteristics of organic forms and not the purpose behind the design. The “Vital Forms” exhibi-tion brings together disparate art objects that illustrate this shift: paintings by Mark Rothko and a Slinky toy, photographs of Morris Lapidus’s Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach and science-fiction paperback covers.

The tendency toward organic forms in the Atomic Age was, to a degree, a reaction to the geometric forms of the previous period. In the decades preceding the Machine Age—machines were revered as technical marvels and artistic icons. Cars, airplanes, and locomotives were celebrated in ordinary objects such as radios, clocks, and pencil sharpeners. Walter Dorwin Teague, who had designed cars for the New Haven Railroad, created a radio that resembled a small boxcar.

Buildings became towers of glass and steel, created by designers and architects such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had come out of the Bauhaus movement in Germany in the 1930s and migrated to the United States with their ideas.

Faith in the machine persisted during the war, with the production of mass numbers of bombers, aircraft carriers, and tanks. Amid aus-terity at home, advertisers tantalized the public with visions of new consumer products that would be available once the war was over. In American Plastic: A Cultural History, Jeffrey L. Meikle describes a 1942 ad in which General Electric predicts the postwar future of a seven-year-old girl: “Wearing plastic shoes instead of glass slippers, enjoying the labor of electric servants, and flying a plane ‘as readily as you would drive a car,’ she would inhabit a ‘fairyland’ made possi-ble by ‘new materials like plastics, new developments like television, new sciences like electronics.’ To make sure it would all come true, ‘today’s job is fighting for a better world.’”

Ultimately, the public regarded technology with ambivalence. The potential of atomic energy was tested at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. “The atomic bomb and the threat of nuclear war created a kind of sense of the fragility and vulnerability of life,” says Boyer. Others held a rosier view. At a graduation speech in 1947, David E. Lilienthal, the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Com-mission, referred to the sun itself as “a huge atomic-energy factory.”

The tempered optimism of the postwar years fed into the ebb and flow of stylistic movements, and there was some thought that designers had perhaps gone too far in their focus on the machine. “That stuff really didn’t fit into the home,” says Meikle, who chairs the Department of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “Nobody wanted a living room that looked like a Buck Rogers spaceship.”

Meikle also refers to disturbing parallels between design ideals and ideological ones. “There was something totalitarian about the streamlined architectural style,” he says.

As the Machine Age waned, a new style emerged, bringing boomerang-pattern Formica and kidney-shaped coffee tables into American homes. The new organic aesthetic of the Atomic Age 21 was the offshoot of a number of earlier movements such as surrealism and vitalism.

Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow-Ford, who had come to the United States in the forties, became a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York, where among his students were Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, and other painters associated with abstract expressionism. Onslow-Ford’s description of automatic drawing featured in the 1948 work Towards a New Subject in Painting hearkens back to the surrealist aesthetic of spontaneity and its belief inworking from the subconscious.

“My whole being is concentrated on the line, dot or form I am making. I am that line, dot or form; all other thoughts dis appear. The line twists, sweeps, swirls, slashes, bursts, sucks and crosses. . . . I work as long as the spirit lasts. As soon as I hesitate, or my hand tends to become mechanical instead of sensitive, or if I start to think how nice it would be to have a swim, I stop, turn the drawing to the wall and go out of my studio. When I look at the drawing later, I am nearly always surprised by it.”

Curator Brooke Rapaport says surrealist elements in the work of Onslow-Ford and other artists had an effect on the abstract expressionists, who would in turn influence later American art. Surrealism, adds Stayton, prompted a “growing interest in irrational rather than rational form.”

Another source of the postwar turn to organic art and design lay in the theory of vitalism, according to which all living things possess a life force or essence. In the philosophy of Henri Bergson, the life force or élan vital can be sensed, but not understood intellectually—one intuits the force that sets apart living from nonliving matter. Sir Herbert Read wrote that the sculptor must reverse the process of the natural world and dis-cover— or represent—the vital force concealed within his material. Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock described it another way: the painter must release the life in a painting.

A range of historical, aesthetic, and philosophical influences on the art and design of the 1950s is seen throughout the exhibition.

The human body provides a vocabulary of visual elements for de Kooning in Backdrop for Labyrinth and for Alexander Calder in The Root, which uses sheet metal and wire to suggest an ominous, machine-like figure looming over natural forms resembling vegetation.

Organic forms are also seen in eerily anthropomorphic designs for the home. In Catherine Winkler and Richard Whipple’s Predicta television set from 1959, the set is poised on what looks like two feet and topped with a screen resembling an enormous eye.

The Eames chair tells a different story. In 1941 the husband-and-wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames were experimenting with molded plywood when they learned of wounded military men whose metal leg splints failed, causing further injury and sometimes death. Using a mold from Charles’s leg, they developed a molded plywood splint that fit the contours better. After the war they carried out the contouring a step further: plywood furniture that fit the shape of the human body.

A man named Earl Tupper, working with the Du Pont company, looked for possible uses for the polyethylene plastic that had been used to insulate electric wires. He found a way to mold the material into tumblers, dishes, and cocktail shakers, creating Tupperware.

Suggestions of war crept into fashion as well. The camouflage pattern in a 1941 military poncho became an evening dress by the designer Adrian in 1945.

The effects of the war were cast in a bleaker light in other aspects of art and design. Noguchi’s This Tortured Earth renders the earth as torn flesh. The circle at the center of Barnett Newman’s 1946 Pagan Void resembles both a living cell and a nuclear explosion.

In some instances, such as Nelson’s “Ball” wall clock, the work was an attempt to domesticate the anxieties that threatened every-day life. Stayton writes in the exhibition catalog, “In this climate of change, the body and other forms from the natural world were a comforting and humanizing antidote to the sharper forms of an older technology that had promised so much but delivered destruction.”

About the Author

Pedro Ponce is a writer in Denver, Colorado.

Funding Information

The exhibition “Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1941-1960,” has received $135,000 in NEH funding. The exhibition will open in October at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In January 2002 it will visit Minneapolis, then travel to Nashville, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. It is the third in a series that has included “The American Renaissance, 1876-1917” and “The Machine Age America, 1918-1941.”