Object Lessons: Early Modernist Interiors at the Museum of Modern Art

This article was originally published in the Vol. 25 No. 1 / Spring-Summer 2018 issue of West 86th.

The Museum of Modern Art opened the Architecture Room in February 1933 as a dedicated exhibition space for its newly created Department of Architecture, headed by Philip Johnson. Its inaugural display consisted of two concurrent exhibitions whose juxtaposition threatened to undermine the vision of modernity that Johnson embraced: one showcased functionalist furniture by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand, staged as an example of “modern interior architecture”; the other presented collotypes after the work of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Responding to MoMA’s engagement with Rivera’s work, the Architecture Room became the contested site of an entangled modernism where a serial logic in exhibition practice was used to contain the threat of muralism’s artisanal technique and revolutionary themes. The intersection of Mexican muralism and the International Style in Johnson’s domestic modern imaginary exemplifies the heterogeneity and hybridity of modern culture and offers the possibility of decolonizing the story of modernism.

Color Reproductions of Mexican Frescoes by Diego Rivera, which opened in the Permanent Exhibition Room of the Department of Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on February 20, 1933, was a relatively small exhibition that has been largely overlooked by scholars of modern art and design. Despite this obscurity, it offers an opportunity to examine how cultural and aesthetic practices developed in Latin America intersect with modern architecture as staged and constructed outside the region, in order to decolonize the story of modernism. Color Reproductions could even be described as paradigmatic in this sense, as it presented a unique encounter between Mexican modern art and international architectural modernism mediated through technological reproduction in MoMA’s first Architecture Room. Installed by Philip Johnson, the museum’s founding director of the Department of Architecture, with furnishings by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand, this exhibition space sought to define the domestic character of the International Style in what Johnson called “modern interior architecture.” The inclusion of Rivera’s work in the inaugural exhibition of the Architecture Room opened architectural modernism to heterogeneous temporalities activated by capitalist mechanization. Rivera’s images manifested a continental American experience and tradition that, retooled by mechanical reproduction, claimed its place in Johnson’s domestic modern imaginary. The exhibition Color Reproductions advances the notion of a “contact zone” where asymmetrical power relations meet as part of cultural exchanges.1 The Architecture Room was such an uneven stage, where a colonial matrix ordered and managed aesthetic categories and cultural values.2 It was a site of enunciation where a European regional imaginary that responded to a specific Franco-German geo-cultural interiority was propelled to an international level.3 Color Reproductions challenged this project as it highlighted the negotiated and dialogic character of early curatorial practices at MoMA and celebrated the transnational and cosmopolitan richness of 1930s modernism in New York. Color Reproductions made the Architecture Room the site of an entangled modernism.4

Museums are key sites in the production of social and cultural imaginaries where skilled professionals manage cultural information and where cultural authority is established. Early on, the Museum of Modern Art was a stage where global aesthetic forms came together through diverse mediums—paintings, films, photographs, posters, prints, drawings, textiles, and more.5 MoMA’s early internationalist vocation compelled its curators to assemble aesthetic expressions of modernity from diverse sources and locations, Mexico being a singular example that broke with the predominant European viewpoint. These objects and ideas—be they ready-mades or fragments—were part of an international production line that had its final assembly in New York. Exhibitions and related projects were produced there to tell the story of modernism to local, national, and international audiences, as these cultural messages were exported back through both formal and informal chains of cultural production in the form of new, enhanced products. Being first in the United States to incorporate a Department of Architecture within a museum of modern art, MoMA has played an unparalleled role in the formation of a comprehensive modern culture. It is relevant to highlight that the museum’s proselytizing efforts started with Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, which traveled through the United States as the International Exhibition of Modern Architecture.6 It is also relevant to point out that this early construction of the modern world excluded examples of the new architecture, such as Juan O’Gorman’s 1929 house for his father, Cecil O’Gorman, that were being produced in Mexico City. Despite this omission, in 1933 the thundering themes of Mexican muralism were called upon to enhance modern interior architecture at MoMA.

In the early days of the International Style, MoMA’s Department of Architecture had to negotiate the international success of Mexican muralism. Such maneuverings were part and parcel of MoMA’s cultural management, which early on sought to establish the museum as a center of international modern culture by mining, collecting, accumulating, assembling, consuming, and producing an ever-expanding global avant-garde aesthetic. Although fraught with many problems—budgetary limits, intellectual disagreements, administrative difficulties, imperial predicaments, and political embarrassments—MoMA’s expansive internationalist vocation and ambition to become a privileged site of enunciation made it a nervous cultural engine with a feverish production best captured by the notion of montage. This overarching performativity, its drive to create an “exhibitionary complex,” to use Tony Bennett’s apt phrase, requires a particular research methodology, one that highlights the serial condition of exhibitions.7 With this approach, one can identify moments that reveal and unravel the montage of modern culture produced by MoMA to unfold its geo-imaginaries and highlight the museum as a contested and unstable contact zone in which the heterogeneity and hybridity of culture was negotiated and challenged, championed and rejected.8

Color Reproductions exemplifies the serial quality of exhibitions, as it established clear links to projects that, between 1931 and 1933, helped define modernism at MoMA, bringing together the solo show Diego Rivera, the Architecture Room, and the exhibition Objects: 1900 and Today. It continued MoMA’s engagement with Rivera’s work, which had started with a retrospective exhibition on view from December 22, 1931, to January 27, 1932, in which Rivera presented a radical new technical development: the movable fresco.9 By staging reproductions of the most famous frescoes by Rivera in 1933, the museum upheld its efforts to popularize muralism, bringing it to every US home and furthering the technical transformation of fresco painting. The Architecture Room advanced and staged the idea of “modern interior architecture” as an extension of architectural modernism presented by Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson just a year before in Modern Architecture: International Exhibition and publicized in their book The International Style: Architecture since 1922.10 The room was envisioned as a permanent exhibition space at the new West Fifty-Third Street location to showcase “architecture, furniture materials, industrial objects and modern typographical design.”11 Its inaugural display was the first industrial design show held in what became MoMA’s long-lasting, symbolic site. For all intents and purposes, this Architecture Room installation and Color Reproductions were two distinct but concurrent exhibitions, held in the same exhibition space. Later on, Johnson used this space to further define the notion of “modern interior architecture” in the exhibition Objects: 1900 and Today, which opened in April 1933, barely a month after the closing of Color Reproductions. The relational and dialogic array of connections and disengagements, of associations and estrangements between these exhibitions, as well as the centrifugal and centripetal forces stemming from the Department of Architecture’s endeavors to frame international modernism, were staged in five modern interior environments produced for three exhibitions in 1933; each was composed and photographed in what ostensibly was MoMA’s first architecture and design gallery (see figs. 15). These five environments establish a formal and intellectual series that is reassembled here to unravel the ways in which modernism’s geo-imaginary operated through curatorial choices. All five installation photographs were filed under the exhibition Objects: 1900 and Today. In the course of my research, as there was a dearth of information on Color Reproductions and I had already examined the 1931 show Diego Rivera, I investigated other exhibitions and discovered five interior environments photographed in a similar space, two of which contained works that looked like Diego Rivera’s. One might explain this anecdote as the product of a simple bureaucratic misfiling. It might equally be seen, however, as a significant and meaningful instance that expresses—in the words of Homi Bhabha—the “location of culture,” as such location was assigned by the Architecture Department’s internal logistical and curatorial practices.12 As Color Reproductions of Mexican Frescoes by Diego Rivera was caught up in the whirlwind of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco debacle, which pointedly overshadowed it, so it was enmeshed in the curatorial dynamics of the Department of Architecture that, willingly or not, highlighted its connection to Johnson’s ideas about “modern interior architecture.”

Each of the five installation photographs filed under the exhibition Objects: 1900 and Today presents a distinct interior ensemble: one had art nouveau furnishings (fig. 4); all the rest, modern functionalist pieces. They all appear to be in the same exhibition space of the museum, staged as domestic mise-en-scènes in the Architecture Room. Two of the modern ensembles had five Diego Rivera prints on the walls (figs. 1 and 2). The other two included no pictorial works (figs. 3 and 5). Each of the environments with the Diego Rivera prints was distinct: one was crowded with furnishings, while the other was noticeably sparse, containing only one piece of furniture. Both had the same prints. The two environments with no artworks were fully staged with different furnishings. Closer examination of the installation photos, however, reveals that one of these environments had the same furnishings as one of the ensembles with the Rivera prints (figs. 1 and 3). The other was staged with different functionalist pieces not present in any of the other modern environments, principally a 1926 Mies van der Rohe side chair (fig. 5).13 I contend that three of these modern environments (figs. 1, 2, and 3)were part of the exhibition Color Reproductions, and the remaining two (figs. 4 and 5) pertain to Objects. But more important than establishing the proper cataloguing of the images is the evidence that these installations give of the heterogeneous aesthetics of modernism in the early 1930s, and of MoMA’s engagement with and resistance to a syncopated modernity attuned to other sites of enunciation, particularly those in Mexico City.

Fig. 1. Photograph of the Architecture Room with objects from the exhibition Color Reproductions of Mexican Frescoes by Diego Rivera and furniture by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand, February 20–March 12, 1933. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Fig. 2. Installation photograph of the exhibition Color Reproductions of Mexican Frescoes by Diego Rivera in the Architecture Room, February 20–March 12, 1933. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Fig. 3. Installation photograph of the Architecture Room staged as an example of modern interior architecture, February 20–March 12, 1933. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Fig. 4. Mise-en-scène with art nouveau objects and furnishings created for the exhibition Objects: 1900 and Today, April 10–25, 1933. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


Fig. 5. Mise-en-scène with modern objects and furnishings created for the exhibition Objects: 1900 and Today, April 10–25, 1933. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Tuning the rhythms of 1930s modernity, the early days of the International Style, was the critical function of the Architecture Room. It served as the main support for all the staged ensembles and for all future projects. This was no ordinary exhibition gallery but rather a carefully crafted space with controlled discipline that advanced Mies van der Rohe’s modernist aesthetics. The Architecture Room was defined by its colors, materials, and textures: by its navy-blue raw-silk curtain that covered one of its long walls; by two gray homespun walls with aluminum base moldings that functioned as exhibition surfaces; and by floor-to-ceiling translucent white fishnet curtains covering a white wall with two ribbed-glass windows that brought natural light into the room. The floor of the room was dark-brown linoleum, and the ceiling appeared to be painted white. Its general color pattern, “gray, brown and blue,” was a key motif highlighted in the press.14 As the Architecture Room was to be a permanent feature of the museum, it is no surprise to find it described in its entirety, beyond what is visible in any of the five installation photos. The Architecture Room was the aesthetic framework within which Johnson refined his ideas on “modern interior architecture” at MoMA; it offered a bridge between his curatorial and decorating activities. At this time, Johnson was fully engaged in refining his interior design aesthetics through a series of New York apartments decorated and published as examples of “modern interior architecture” that celebrated Mies and Lilly Reich’s aesthetics to guide bourgeois taste in the United States. As David Hanks points out, Johnson’s apartments served as the baseline for his early curatorial activities at MoMA.15 This includes the Architecture Room. Color Reproductions of Mexican Frescoes by Diego Rivera exhibited five color prints in Johnson’s Mies-inspired interior. These included two labor scenes: Cane Workers, representing a stage in the sugar-production process; and Market, Detail, featuring a young indigenous girl carrying several fowl, depicting the world of peasant work. The remaining three prints were of individuals. Two of them were general symbolic types: Head of Priestand Head of Slain Indian; and one, a historical figure: Emiliano Zapata, the Agrarian Leader, an image Rivera had reworked in one of his large-scale movable frescoes for his 1931 MoMA retrospective.16 The juxtaposition of Mexican muralism, French functionalist furnishings, and Miesian aesthetics manifests distinct sources of modernism that came together in 1930s New York.

Staging Rivera

The aim of the exhibition Color Reproductions was to sell a large-scale portfolio of high-quality prints and, by doing so, to commercialize and popularize Rivera’s work, above all his fresco painting.17 Ray Slater Murphy (Mrs. James B. Murphy), a member of MoMA’s Junior Advisory Committee, proposed the project to the museum’s director, Alfred Barr, and it was approved by the trustees in March 1932.18 The project gained momentum in June of that year, after the close of the unfavorably reviewed Murals by American Painters and Photographers—Barr objected that critics had missed the point, as the aim was to survey the field of US artists who could potentially be engaged for the Rockefeller Center development.19 Architecture, that is, modern architecture, was never far from these “painting” shows. By this time, Nelson Rockefeller, who presided over the Junior Advisory Committee, was quite eager to discuss the status of Mrs. Murphy’s project, as apparently there were some difficulties and disagreements to be resolved.20

The Rivera portfolio contained a total of thirty-four plates, nineteen of them in full color, printed by the Berlin publisher Ganymed Graphische Anstalt. An accompanying note by Jere Abbott, who had been deeply involved in the Rivera retrospective, explained his fresco technique and color palette, shedding light on the vivid plates that recalled and cited the same mural works that the Mexican painter had reworked at MoMA in 1931.21 The folio also contained fifteen monotone plates, printed by Plandome Press in New York, that helped locate the color details within the larger frescoes, some even fully showing their architectural setting. To promote the portfolio, Alfred Barr suggested exhibiting “most or all the prints together” in one of the small rear rooms on the third or fourth floor of the museum. He was quite keen to show “the photographs of the entire frescoes from which details are reproduced in color.”22 In the end, this idea, which would have underscored the monumental character of the frescoes, was not followed through. Much to the contrary, only five selected color prints were presented as singular artworks, staged in a modern interior environment in a back room of the fourth floor.

As revealed in one of the installation photographs (fig. 1), the Rivera color reproductions were hung in a room staged with three furniture pieces by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand: the chaise longue à position variable (B306), the fauteuil à dossier basculant (B301), and the table à piètement en tube (B307), designed in 1928 and produced by Thonet Frères, Paris, from 1930 onward.23 A floor lamp of 1933, by the state workshops in the German city of Halle (Werkstätten der Stadt Halle), complemented these pieces.24 On the sandblasted-glass-and-nickel-chrome-plated table were three white-glass objects, possibly from the Staatlich Porzellan Manufaktur in Berlin: a dish, an ashtray, and a small vase filled with yellow tulips. The prints were hung against a gray homespun wall with aluminum base molding and were accompanied with title block reading “CUERNAVACA.” (The letters appear to be in black.) Perpendicular to this wall, completing the background of the room, was a navy-blue, raw-silk, wall-to-ceiling curtain. The floor, as already mentioned, was dark-brown linoleum. We know the materials and colors thanks to the official press release, which related each material to its color and highlighted the general color pattern of the room: gray, brown, and blue. The press release made no reference to the color palette of the reproductions. Nonetheless, it mentioned Abbott’s note on Rivera’s fresco technique. This silence could be due to the fact that the museum put together a document as part of the press materials with excerpts of Abbott’s introduction, explaining Rivera’s fresco technique as well as his color palette: “vine black (calcined seeds of grape), ultramarine, cobalt blue, emerald green, burnt sienna, almagre morado (a Mexican earth—a red oxide of iron), pozzuoli (an Italian red earth), dark ochre, raw sienna, yellow ochre,” all laid over the wet “brown coat” plaster surface of the fresco.25 Altogether, the extensive and detailed articulation of color advanced the principal theme of the Rivera exhibition and undergirded its connection with the Architecture Room.

The underlying theme of color harmonized all the works assembled. This unifying motif, however, was not captured in the installation photos, which were in black and white, and was expressed only through written, rhetorical means. The press release stressed a dual exhibition, presenting the publication of the Rivera portfolio and introducing the Architecture Room as an example of “modern interior architecture” and a stage for future architecture and design shows.26 The official announcement introduced a subtle yet pointed difference between the two exhibitions: the “Mexican murals” were “in a setting of modern interior architecture,” clearly indicating that these works were not essential to the staging efforts. In other words, although visitors to the exhibition would find the Rivera prints in the Architecture Room, these works were not to be considered part of the room. As the New York Times reported, “The walls [of the room] are occupied temporarily with the color reproductions of the Mexican murals by Diego Rivera.”27

Acting as a dedicated gallery of architecture and design, the room was to present ongoing exhibition efforts; the Rivera prints and “modern interior architecture” were but the first of many shows to be organized here by the Department of Architecture. But was the Rivera show not to be considered part of these efforts? If it was not, why was the domestic environment described above, including reproductions of his work (fig. 1), carefully staged and photographed? When one compares this staging with that captured in figure 3, several facts stand out. It had exactly the same furnishings, except for the chaise longue, as those used in figure 1, even to the level of the small glassware (the white-glass dish, ashtray, and vase, filled with the same tulips). There were no pictorial works, as there are no visible homespun-covered walls from which to hang these. Noticeable, however, in this view is the wall-to-ceiling navy-blue raw-silk curtain and the white fishnet curtains that meet in the corner of the room. Behind the white fishnet curtains, which cover the entire wall, we glimpse a window and below it a radiator cover. The floor was the same dark linoleum. In this particular photograph, however, in contrast to figure 1, the ceiling of the room is visible; from it hung a 1926 PH lamp by Danish designer Poul Henningsen. This lamp, with its hand-blown and sandblasted opal-glass screens, was used by Mies van der Rohe in the main living space of the Tugendhat House (1928–30) in Brno, in today’s Czech Republic: a space featured in both Modern Architecture: International Exhibition and The International Style, and used to exemplify the modern interior in Objects: 1900 and Today.28 This modern environment, composed and photographed without the Rivera color prints, was the staging of “modern interior architecture” advertised in the press release as the initial exhibition of the Architecture Room. These two installation photographs, figures 1 and 3, illustrate and closely correspond to the language of the press release. One presents the Rivera color reproductions “in a setting of modern interior architecture.” The other presents the Architecture Room “installed and decorated as an example of modern interior architecture.” It is safe to conclude, then, that both photographs were created to illustrate the press release, but they appear to have never been used for such purposes.

The Stain of the Hand

As evidenced by figure 1, which I will refer to as the staging of the exhibition Color Reproductions, the Rivera prints inhabited a modern functional interior. The industrially produced furnishings and objects staged in the room enhanced and reinforced the message of reproducibility that the color prints celebrated. At the same time, however, the juxtaposition of the tubular chromium-steel furnishings with the reproductions of the age-old art of fresco painting pointed to the complex relationship between industrial production, manufacturing, and traditional craftsmanship, as the Rivera color prints delivered a traditional, labor-intensive technique to the processes of mechanization. With Color Reproductions, the Department of Architecture walked a fine line between decorative and fine art precisely at the time it was defining for itself and the US public the aesthetics of the machine under the rubrics of the International Style and of industrial art.29 Moreover, it advanced the integration of the arts within industrial technologies that could extend their benefits to the masses by entering the arena of domesticity. The purpose of the exhibition, as already mentioned, was to present to the US public a large-scale portfolio with reproductions of Rivera’s works, nineteen of them being color plates of details of frescoes in Mexico City, Chapingo, and Cuernavaca. These vividly captured Rivera’s color palette and his technique, celebrating the manual and craft-like character of fresco painting. The colors of the frescoes, after all, had to be ground, mixed, and applied by hand, “much like water colors,” Abbott explained in his note, describing a technique every household would understand.30 This celebration of manual industry also emphasized the technical achievement of the reproductions, which captured even the artist’s brushstroke. The color prints were a feat of technological reproduction: a technology with a German pedigree that ensured a faithful facsimile up to the finest detail, meaning Rivera’s own hand.31 Ganymed Graphische Anstalt printed the color reproductions with a new collotype technique that captured the rich textures and bright colors of the original murals.32 It was the first time that frescoes had been reproduced in color. The prints brought together photographic and lithographic technologies, making available a color palette and sensibility that had been accessible only to institutions, governments, and the very wealthy, and experienced firsthand only by those who could travel to Cuernavaca, Mexico City, Detroit, or San Francisco. Now “anyone” could have a fresco in his or her home.33 The powerful vibrancy and vitality of the colors—still palpable today—should not be undervalued, as these sanctioned the moral atmosphere of the cited murals. Color itself was a contact zone where ideas, sentiments, materials, and processes came together, offering an overlap between age-old tradition and industrial technology. The site of this complex assembly was the Architecture Room.

The staging of the exhibition Color Reproductions and that of “modern interior architecture” were significant affairs, crafted in great detail, as evidenced in the surviving photographs. Figure 1 presents a horizontal composition. This reinforced the curatorial arrangement of all the elements in the room. Five color reproductions were hung at eye level, equally spaced in a horizontal line. This followed contemporary exhibition practices that shunned salon-style hangings.34 Only portrait-format prints were selected. Above the one nearest to the corner of the room, in capital letters, was the title block, “CUERNAVACA,” in a thin, elegant, and modern sans-serif Futura font that matched the width of the framed print. The frames were composed of a simple white passe-partout or mat behind a sheet of glass held together by a chromium clip, about half the size of the width, centered on top and bottom. This picture frame by Design Engineers Inc. had only recently been put on the market; available in every Eastman Kodak store, it endorsed the commercial and domestic aspect of the portfolio.35 Fixed to the gray homespun wall, the chrome clips accentuated the aluminum base molding. The furnishings reinforce the horizontal composition of the photograph, emphasized above all by the chaise longue. All the elements converge, slightly off center, at the corner of the space. Only the fauteuil breaks away from this gravitational pull, its handrest being almost parallel to the picture plane.

The atmosphere is somewhat dark, lacking any natural light; there are no visible windows. The floor lamp, of which one sees only the top, appears to be turned off. Light falls on the furniture from an unseen source outside the composition, creating bright zones in the foreground. The shadows cast by the furniture are noticeable; the glass and chrome create reflections and metallic accents, enhancing the dramatic atmosphere of the room. The white-glass objects on top of the sandblasted-glass-and-chrome table are haphazardly displayed. The floral arrangement, fresh yellow tulips, appears as a touch of domesticity.36 Almost all the pieces of furniture—the floor lamp, the fauteuil, and the table—have been cropped. Only the chaise longue remains complete.

As Charlotte Benton and Jacques Barsac have pointed out, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, furnishings by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, and Perriand were not produced industrially but rather were manufactured in small workshops by craftsmen.37 Even when the manufacturer Thonet took over the production of the furniture in 1930, these items remained costly to produce, affecting sales, and remained out of reach even to MoMA’s own director, Alfred Barr.38 This furniture failed to achieve the mass reproducibility of industrial objects. As Barsac has argued, these objects advanced a mythical link with mass production but failed to produce a realistic one.39 The pieces, then, were at the threshold of mechanization. Lewis Mumford had alluded to this when he included the Thonet bentwood process among the inventions that would lead to a “neotechnic period,” the third and definite development phase of the machine, which in his estimation had yet to come when he published Technics and Civilization in 1934.40 Some years later, Sigfried Giedion, examining the question of mobility in furniture, agreed, noting that Le Corbusier and Perriand’s experiments remained “primitive,” as their “technical devices hardly went beyond the sixteenth century.”41 It seems then that the furnishings were appropriate companions to the Rivera prints, as both articulated traditional techniques through mechanical means, which had been the hallmark of industrial capitalism. In the early days of the so-called machine age, the quest for mass production involved the mixing of traditional craft techniques and materials with industrial manufacturing processes. This required a multifaceted play of veiling and unveiling the actual, uneven production of many modern works. This enhancement of the mechanized, industrial character of modern objects is the cornerstone of the truth regime of modern architecture.42 The Rivera color prints all together set the stage for this heterogeneous production and technological hybrid by juxtaposing the endless repetition of mechanization with the singularity of the brushstroke, captured in the collotype process. The prints revealed an age-old labor process, capturing it through mechanical reproduction. Since one of the central propositions of the Architecture Room was to promote the cause of architectural modernism, it necessitated a continued and sustained strategy of veiling the contemporaneity of craft production, the presence of age-old labor techniques such as fresco painting in the modern world. For the ideology of modernism advanced by Johnson and fellow travelers at MoMA, there must have been an inherent and dangerous anachronism in Color Reproductions that could stain the spirit of architectural modernism staged in the Architecture Room. Rivera’s color reproductions offered an undesirable contact zone that opened architectural modernism to a modern world of heterogeneous temporalities.

The presence of craftsmanship proved the hybridity of industrial products and the multiple temporalities in the making of the modern mechanized world. Harry Harootunian points out, in his reading of Marx’s theory of “subsumption,” the coexistence of preindustrial modes of production and industrial ones, the continuity of what are termed “pre-modern” practices, and the persistence of “things that have outlasted their moment” alongside capitalist industrial production; these insights help us frame the objects presented in the Architecture Room.43 For Marx, Harootunian explains, formal subsumption was the management of “hybrid forms and processes”; it was a way to metabolize “pre-modern” elements that, like the hand-blown glass screens of the PH ceiling lamp, were part and parcel of early mechanization processes. Formal subsumption is evidence of the unevenness of capitalist development and points to the temporal disorder of modernity that the apologists of modernism attempted to hide. The classical strategy has been to emphasize the spatialization of time—the geographic unevenness of capitalist production manifest in a diffusionist colonial order that categorizes who is and who is not modern. The predisposition for hybridity and appropriation of pre-modern techniques by industrial capitalism counters the spatialization of time with the temporalization of space; under the demands of capital, multiple times of production are actively synchronized in a hybrid process.44 As Mumford argued, the machine and its civilization were but the product of syncretism, and there can have been no better example than Rivera’s color reproductions to demolish the temporal mystification of Johnson’s Architecture Room.45

Time was of the essence. The stain of the working hand, the labor of craft, had to be removed from the modern architectural interior. It is no surprise, then, to see among the staging efforts in figure 3 a mise-en-scène that exemplifies Johnson’s idea of “modern interior architecture,” offering an appropriate image and the exact time of architectural modernism. As already stated, here one encounters a new staging, in which the same furnishings, sans the chaise longue, were rearranged in what appears to be an opposite corner of the museum’s Architecture Room, this time without the Rivera prints. The installation photograph is composed in a portrait format. The navy-blue raw-silk and the white fishnet curtains meet in the corner of the space and almost dead center in the photograph. This edge establishes the cubic nature of the space, which is composed of four distinct planes. The furniture was grouped and composed as a unit in the middle of the room. Unlike the photographic landscape that captured the Rivera prints and cropped almost every piece of furniture—violently amputating the fauteuil and the floor lamp—this image presents every piece of furniture whole and complete. The world of fragments of the Rivera installation photograph is unified and stabilized. The verticality of the image reinforces spatial unity, stability, and repose. Everything is complete, even space itself, as the ceiling of the room now appears in full view. This vertical orientation opposes the horizontality of the chaise longue and gestures, ever so faintly, to the progressive and active postures of modern urban life.46

The atmosphere in this example of modern interior architecture is luminous. In the background, behind the fishnet curtains, there is a window full of light. Sunlight comes in, making the translucent and semitransparent wall-to-ceiling curtain glow, enlivening the navy-blue silk curtain that covers the back wall with dark and light patterns. This wall serves as the backdrop for the floor lamp and the glass-and-chrome table that sports the same objects as in figure 1, including the yellow tulips. The shadows cast by the furnishings, with their sharp definition, reveal the presence of an artificial light source, hidden from view and arranged to create the illusion of natural light penetrating from the exterior, perhaps as a subtle reference to the second window referred to in the press release. A stray shadow cast upward on the wall and ceiling, however, reveals the artificiality of the composition. The floor lamp appears to be turned on, owing to the glint of a reflective accent on the metal. (There is no visible power cord.) The lighting accentuates the cubic form of the fauteuil, transforming the armrests into strips of light. The planes of the backrest and seat are darker, as if encased in a cube delineated by light and dark lines. The light shining on the table operates much in the same manner. The lighting underscores the abstract forms of the furnishings. The luminous play of the curtains recalls Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s work with textiles and translucent materials, which Johnson had admired while visiting Berlin in the early 1930s and had used in his own apartments.47 If, as Johnson argued, only the machine could bestow beauty and abstraction to materials, these translucent curtains clearly acted as a material modulator, making natural light a machined surace.48 This abstract machine countered Rivera’s laboring hand. In this staging, light and its modulation of contrast and shadows replace “fine pictures” as the means to enliven the modern interior environment. This form of material yet transcendental value brought forth the luxurious atmosphere of Miesian space, which was further brought to light by the ceiling fixture clearly visible in the photograph. By shedding light on the abstract quality of materials, this staging promoted the universal and nontemporal qualities of modernism, thus countering the heterogeneity of modernity.

Laboring Subjects

The Rivera prints exhibited in the Architecture Room represented the world of agrarian work, plantation struggles, and peasant rebellion in Mexico. Zapata, a key figure of the 1910 Revolution, was a well-known character in the United States. The Mexican upheaval had been extensively photographed, filmed, and reported in the US press and was avidly consumed by the northern neighbor. Zapata’s indigenous agrarianism offered a timely and productive social and political contact zone between Mexico and the United States during the difficult time of the Depression.

With the selection of the color prints from the Cuernavaca series, peasant and indigenous themes invaded the Architecture Room. Scenes such as Cane Workers—included in the New York Times as a black-and-white illustration to Edward Alden Jewell’s review of Johnson’s Architecture Room—foregrounded the world of exploitation and work, a crucial social and political rallying theme in this period.49 With this choice, however, of one in a series of themes available in the portfolio, the countryside displaced the urban as the stage of social confrontation and transformation. The Rivera portfolio was thematically rich and could serve several causes.50 The selection avoided more politically overt prints that put forward revolutionary imaginaries, such as the Ceiling Detail, Workers from the Chapingo Chapel, a seemingly baroque apotheosis of the hammer and sickle, or Workers’ Meeting from the Secretaría de Educación Pública murals, complete with red banners and revolutionary slogans. Rivera’s support for workers’ struggles had been trumpeted early on in the United States as the reason he had “abandoned the canvas for fresco alone.”51 His support followed syndicalist lines, which for progressive circles in the United States trumped his membership in the Communist Party, an organization accused of being an extension of Moscow’s orthodox ideology. Syndicalist labor views advanced by the Mexican muralists offered a complex yet productive meeting ground between US progressive circles, US socialists, and an internationalist movement that had in Mexico its strongest symbolic artistic reference. Muralism, and Rivera’s in particular, however, linked urban social movements with agrarian themes.52 At the time, the John Reed Clubs, formed in 1929 under calls for “Revolutionary Artists,” promoted unionizing strategies.53 But their struggle was urban, not rural. In this context, the staging of the Cuernavaca prints appears to have been a diversionary tactic directed toward those engaged in the urban politics of the time.54

The themes and images of the Cuernavaca prints displaced the site of political confrontation from the urban to the rural. Moreover, they shifted the time of political confrontation, opening a perspective onto a deep past. The staged prints described a historical arc, from conquest to the contemporary history of Mexico—from the conquistadors, present in Cane Workers, to Zapata. This arc underscored a continuing and unresolved indigenous struggle that, although staged with Mexican examples, pointed to pressing US social issues, in particular the so-called Indian Problem that had acheived notoriety since 1922, when the Bursum Bill had attempted to expropriate Pueblo tribal lands. Opposition to the bill had created an uneasy political alliance between conservative, progressive, and socialist elements in the United States who fought against irresponsible development and greedy capitalists.55 Progressive Americans rallied against this social injustice, and the lessons of Mexico were timely.56 The Cuernavaca prints made manifest, in full force, the idea of a continental American indigenous antiquity and continuing social struggle that dovetailed with progressive themes and agendas, casting a shadow over (or complementing, depending on one’s political persuasion) urban political movements. Moreover, the staging of prints from the Cuernavaca frescoes in the Architecture Room was a clear celebration of US artistic patronage, since Rivera’s frescoes had been commissioned by the US ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow.57 On a more modest scale, but on the same principle, those individuals who bought the portfolio acted as patrons of Mexican art, enthusiastically contributing to a nascent Pan-Americanism. It is no surprise, then, that Nelson Rockefeller planned to sell the portfolio at the opening of Rivera’s Rockefeller Center fresco.58

MoMA’s patronage of Mexican muralism was not undisputed. Johnson did not undertake the selection of the Rivera prints; this appears to have been the responsibility of Ray Slater Murphy, who had taken the portfolio project from William Spratling, an early promoter of Mexican crafts.59 The portfolio was developed under the auspices of MoMA’s Junior Advisory Committee and the Advisory Subcommittee on Industrial Art, chaired by Philip Johnson.60 At this time, during which Johnson was pursuing several exhibition projects and developing the Architecture Room, he appeared to be operating solo. Nelson Rockefeller had to remind him, “[i]n case you aren’t sure,” of the members of his committee: Mrs. Murphy, Mrs. Russell, Mr. Kirstein, and Mr. Cuypers.61 Rockefeller’s slight reprimand suggests that Johnson was at odds with the group. Mrs. Murphy was deeply involved with the organization of the Rivera portfolio, and Lincoln Kirstein fully supported mural painting and its social objectives. Johnson’s interest in presenting functional objects and the machine aesthetic as the main motivation behind modern design and architecture collided with the heterogeneous modernity advanced by Mrs. Murphy’s project and with Kirstein’s defense of the social themes of muralism.62 These complications notwithstanding, Johnson pushed forward. His later curatorial actions reveal his intent to cleanse modern interior architecture of any signs of the heterogeneous modernity that, through color, technique, and labor, had sullied the inaugural exhibition of the Architecture Room.63

Timely Objects

In April 1933, a little less than a month after the closing of Color Reproductions, MoMA opened Objects: 1900 and Today. This was to be an “educational exhibition” that would point out “the attitude towards design, of two modern periods” by comparing and contrasting turn-of-the-century art nouveau or Jugendstil decorative objects with contemporary useful ones.64 The exhibition comprised sixty-one works in thirty-one comparisons. This meant that one object, an art nouveau ornamental piece, had no pairing, being juxtaposed with a “blank space,” as “[o]rnamental objets d’art are avoided in modern interior architectural schemes.”65 The contrasts were meant to be unambiguous and illustrative. Two large wall titles that read “Decorative Objects of 1900 vs. Useful Objects of Today” and “A Style of Ornament vs. an Unornamented Style” carried the point across and oriented the minds of visitors.66 These comparisons, however, were not intended to be derogatory, as “[b]oth periods considered themselves modern and entirely free from tradition.”67 In this show, as Terence Riley points out, Johnson softened his polemical stance, and the potentially confrontational tone between past and present was reduced.68 This was certainly the case; yet there was a continued confrontation with Mexican muralism, going beyond the purported dualism of this exhibition, which fully emerges in the theme of color.

The works in Objects and their comparisons were shown in two “completely remodeled” front rooms on the third floor of MoMA’s West Fifty-Third Street townhouse, paired on “tables of curly maple supported by chromium posts … arranged along the wall.” Small objects were placed on “black carrara glass shelves protected by six foot sheets of plate glass held by chromium brackets.”69 Two textiles hung from the ceiling. “Against the simplicity of white walls and ceilings,” the Times reported, “the objects on display stand out in sharp emphasis.”70 Contrast carried the show. The radical transformation of the townhouse spaces was highly celebrated, prompting demands to give Johnson “a free hand on the other rooms.”71 Two interior environments, one for “1900” (fig. 4) and another for “Today” (fig. 5), were arranged in the Architecture Room. These, however, were not mentioned in the press or in any museum announcement, and although clearly related to the exhibition, were not part of the visitor’s gallery experience.72 These mise-en-scènes, particularly that shown in figure 5, are to be understood within a larger story of interior environments produced by Johnson as part of the montage of images and ideas analyzed here.

The “1900” mise-en-scène (fig. 4) consisted of a Tiffany floor lamp and a Eugene Colonna table and chair staged in a line in front of a raw-silk curtain. Behind the table and floor lamp, covering a section of the curtain, hung a velour wall hanging with a hand-painted design of corn and pumpkins by Tiffany.73 On the table were a jewelry box designed by Archibald Knox, a “[s]umptuous, elaborate, and purely decorative” bronze centerpiece figure, and a purely ornamental Tiffany object inspired in shape and color by a tulip.74 This last item was juxtaposed with the “blank space” of “Today” on the glass shelves of the exhibition. The landscape frame of the photograph is at an angle with respect to the back wall, a white wall with a window and radiator cover is visible, and both are covered with a fishnet curtain. When compared with the photo of the staging of “modern interior architecture” (fig. 3), this image gives ample reason to conclude that one is back in the Architecture Room. The linoleum floor provides further evidence that this is the same space. In the photograph, the angle of the picture plane directs the eye toward the corner of the room, where the navy-blue raw-silk curtain and the white fishnet curtain meet. The photographic plane extends across the floor in front of the table and the floor lamp, helping establish a visual focus toward the corner and opening its space toward the softly lit window. The space, however, remains somewhat static.

Similar to the “1900” setting, the “Today” mise-en-scène (fig. 5) was arranged in front of the raw-silk curtain and on the dark linoleum floor of the Architecture Room. In this view, however, the wall plane runs across the entire background of the space, with no apparent end. The landscape format of the photograph enhances the continuous nature of the wall curtain, showing no corners of the room. The space of the room opens from left to right, as the picture plane is at a slight angle to the background wall. This creates a subtle movement, a spatial opening reinforced by the furnishings, especially by the chair that breaks with the back wall and directs the eye to the projected space of the room beyond the photograph. The careful photographic construction of Miesian space is supported by Mies van der Rohe’s 1926 MR side chair, which has replaced the fauteuil.75 Other furnishings for this staging have also changed. The 1928 table by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, and Perriand and the 1933 Werkstätten der Stadt Halle floor lamp—used in the previous environments—remain but are now complemented with a 1923–24 Bauhaus desk lamp designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld; a clear-glass teapot by Schot & Company of Jena, Germany; a teacup and plates, as well as a cylindrical vase, all in white glass by the Staatlich Porzellan Manufaktur in Berlin; and an unidentified small circular chromium tray.76 The small vase was decorated with daffodils. As these tend to be yellow, one can establish a subtle floral link with the yellow tulips used in the Color Reproductions mise-en-scène. The space was strongly lit, and the chromium elements, especially those of the MR side chair, flare with incandescent accents. The raw-silk curtain shimmers, its deep folds casting dark vertical lines. This corrugated effect fragments the shadows cast by the furnishings on the raw silk. The Bauhaus desk lamp on the table appears to glow, and since there is no visible power cord, the effect is uncanny.77

As already mentioned, these two environments were not part of the gallery experience; in other words, after engaging the juxtaposition of industrial artworks on the third floor of the museum, visitors were not expected to proceed to another room or climb to the fourth floor to see the “1900” and the “Today” mise-en-scènes staged in the Architecture Room. Interior environments for each period were presented in the exhibition, but only through black-and-white photographs hung on the gallery walls. These were not staged mise-en-scènes but rather actual spaces from Victor Horta’s Hôtel van Eetvelde in Brussels and Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House in Brno. In front of each photograph was a representative period object: the Eugene Colonna chair and the MR side chair, respectively. Moreover, the checklist of the exhibition did not consider the duplication of the objects for their use in the mise-en-scènes captured in figures 4 and 5. Nonetheless, Johnson went to the trouble of arranging these two environments with the objects from the exhibition. As there is no mention in the press or in the museum’s records of their being part of the gallery component of the exhibition, one must conclude that these two environments were staged for publicity purposes. They were, in fact, used in this capacity, illustrating a New York Times article on the exhibition titled “The Decorative Art of 1900—and Ours.”78 Following these two examples, one can conclude that the environments created for Color Reproductions and for “modern interior architecture” staged in the Architecture Room can also be considered “publicity shots,” albeit unused. These five environments, then, establish a definite promotional propaganda series.

Abstraction Unleashed

The Architecture Room established a fundamental relationship between all these environments, as they were all staged in the space Johnson had referred to as the “Permanent Exhibition Room of the Department of Architecture.”79 Among its multiple and unfolding spatial qualities, the room established a color palette of dark brown, navy blue, white, and gray, against which all curatorial choices had to be coordinated. Color was a key element with which to articulate the difference between Rivera’s figurative works, temporarily exhibited, and the example of “modern interior architecture”—between decorative and nondecorative works that defined the principles of the International Style. In this sense, the pieces by Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, and Perriand, particularly the chaise longue and the fauteuil, can be singled out for their introduction of various color tones—presumably in a range of browns—in canvas and leather upholstery.80 In all, the coloration introduced by these two modern objects had the potential to bring together the two stagings—“modern interior architecture” and Color Reproductions—within a topology of color. It seems that the fauteuil used was upholstered in a red canvas, as one was available in Thonet’s New York store.81 The solid red tone of the fauteuil, as well as the three-tone canvas-and-leather upholstery of the chaise longue, would have accentuated a harmonious atmosphere, a symphonic space, in keeping with Rivera’s “earth tones.”82 His work would then have complemented the mise-en-scène, highlighting the juxtaposition of industrial and “natural” materials in the furnishings, a juxtaposition Perriand noted that Le Corbusier had intended.83 This formal and symbolic association between nature and industry was further developed by the Cuernavaca prints, which linked agrarianism and modernity by insisting on peasant labor and struggle. In the note accompanying the folio, however, Abbott made no reference to the theme of the prints, focusing instead on color and technique. By celebrating the autonomy of color, he sundered Rivera’s color palette from his subject matter. This interpretive strategy helped erode the powerful imagery, offering a way out from the world of labor displayed in and by the prints. Color, then, was a paradoxical stage upon which abstraction enabled a definitive rupture from Rivera’s figurative representations while at the same time maintaining a link to this world through its chromatic environment. Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, and Perriand’s furniture helped further this separation by transposing Rivera’s earth tones to the world of machine objects. To further illustrate this transformative aesthetic operation, one can compare the furniture used in the Architecture Room with the animal-hide-upholstery versions of the chaise longue and the cowhide fauteuil that had been presented in the 1929 Salon d’automne in Paris.84 The staging of animal textures and the biomorphic patches of the cowhide would have radically changed the topology of the objects and the atmosphere of Johnson’s modern environment, accentuating the ideas of the primitive and of craft along with the mechanization of agrarian products. But more important, perhaps, it would have highlighted the realm of rural work that the Rivera prints clearly manifested.85 The cowhide upholstery would have established strong visual and material links between rural and urban labor conditions along the line of commodity production, exposing the coexistence of craft and industrial production and the heterogeneity of modern time.86 Moreover, the animal-hide upholstery would have reinforced the message of hybridity embodied by the Rivera prints. The removal of the three-tone chaise from the “modern interior architecture” staging in the Architecture Room appears to have been a fundamental move to distance this environment from Rivera’s imagery. Replacing the fauteuil with the MR side chair for the “Today” staging in Objectscompleted the operation, erasing all color traces from the previous environments.87 In the “Today” mise-en-scène, only the Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, and Perriand table and the Werkstätten der Stadt Halle floor lamp remained as witnesses to Color Reproductions. As the montage of interior environments progressed, the color dissipated, and the world of industrial machine objects was asserted.

Unfolding the Architecture Room

It is productive to return to the violent cropping operated by the photographic eye in the staging of Color Reproductions to further analyze the techniques and strategies of inclusion and exclusion deployed in and through the Architecture Room (fig. 1). The installation photograph hardly shows the chrome-plated floor lamp; only the top is visible. The arching and looming shadow of the lamp gives a better sense of the dimensions and shape of the object than what is visible of the actual piece. The fauteuil and the table with glass top are also cropped. It is as if these three objects are being called out of the picture, being visually removed from the ensemble to take part in another staging. This photograph is performative. It advances the moment of removal and highlights the temporality of the Rivera prints as voiced in the press. It heralds the appropriate staging of “modern interior architecture” (fig. 3) and prefigures the staging of the prints after the spoliation of the Rivera exhibition captured in figure 2. In this sense, the mise-en-scène of Color Reproductions with only the chaise longue serves as the installation shot of the Rivera exhibition. It is the other side, literally and figuratively, of the Architecture Room and of Johnson’s “modern interior architecture.”

The inaugural exhibition of the Architecture Room was a dual show consisting of the two mise-en-scènes captured in figures 2 and 3. It appears that in 1933, two exhibitions were arranged at opposite ends of one of the back rooms on the fourth floor of MoMA’s new home. The museum experience must have been peculiar. It would be productive to reconstruct the exact exhibition space or grasp how the public experienced this dual exhibition by redrawing a plan of the spatial arrangement of the room using the installation photographs (figs. 2 and 3). Yet figure 1, a galvanized contact zone, demands a different strategy, akin perhaps to Sergei Eisenstein’s filmic diagrams that insist on relational conditions, articulate distinctions, and expand our analysis beyond single exhibitions.88This set of images (figs. 1, 2, and 3) is not a mere juxtaposition of photographic frames but an active cinematic story that triggered future curatorial moves (fig. 5) as part of a dispersed discursive montage of ephemeral actions weaving together spaces and images.89

In the emptied environment of figure 2, the chaise longue occupies the void left by the other furnishings. The space appears incomplete; the staging, a collection of elements that could not make it into Johnson’s “modern interior architecture.” The chaise longue appears to have been sacrificed for the purpose of aesthetic clarity. But the curatorial efforts did not stop there, as the lighting in this staging moves the story forward. The environment was flooded with a strong light from above, which flattens the view and empties space. The abstracting effect of light was complemented by a clear curatorial position on color mediated through black-and-white photography. In modern interiors, such as those promoted by Johnson and Hitchcock in The International Style, color manifested a moral atmosphere. Color, material, and texture were key components of a modernist psychology that revealed and constructed a progressive subjectivity.90 The play of light and shadow was a crucial aspect in all the environments staged in the Architecture Room because the modernist ideology of color was revealed only in the measured and tactical operations deployed through the careful manipulation of light. The absence of color installation photographs guided and intensified the need for precise lighting. In this sense, Johnson was at a disadvantage, as Color Reproductions clearly announced a modernity, the world in color, and a technology that he was not able to mobilize for his “modern interior architecture.” Objects: 1900 and Today served as a counterpoint in the montage of interior environments in 1933. Johnson was quite emphatic about the sources and colors of the objects that exemplified the “Today” section, which also composed its mise-en-scène. These, as he stressed to MoMA’s Junior Advisory Council, had to be “modern objects from German sources.” Moreover, they had to be in “chromium” and “pure white,” exemplifying “clarity” and exhibiting the “simplest” of materials, all being “uncolored.”91 The absence of color then can be posited as a response to Rivera’s chromatic environment and modern heterogeneity.

The origins of Objects: 1900 and Today can be traced back to December 1932, when Johnson undertook the chairmanship of the Advisory Subcommittee on Industrial Art at MoMA.92 Johnson, however, had been tinkering with the idea of a large industrial art exhibit, an idea that was “decidedly frowned upon” by the trustees, prompting Nelson Rockefeller’s suggestion to “slightly revise your plans and reconsider the matter from the point of view of a small exhibition first.”93 This revision became Objects: 1900 and Today. Johnson’s original, larger project came to fruition later in 1934, with the much-acclaimed exhibition Machine Art.94 The Architecture Room was the first step toward achieving this comprehensive goal. It was the first staging of the aesthetics of the machine at MoMA, as this was the first time that actual modern industrial objects were exhibited at the museum. The Rivera prints claimed the same technological modernity as any and all of the objects presented by Johnson. In fact, these reproductions went beyond mere rhetorical claims, being actual material products of “industrial civilization.” Mechanical reproduction brought Rivera’s frescoes fully within the realm of the machine and announced the syncretic power of technology.95 Johnson turned to the question of mechanical reproduction in Objects to establish a clear topology of modern works. In the set of object lessons presented in the exhibition, Johnson contrasted a color lithograph by Alphonse Mucha, titled Eté, with a black-and-white photograph by Edward Steichen. Steichen’s 1923 photograph, titled The Blue Sky—Dana Steichen, shows the head and arm of a sunbathing girl lying peacefully, eyes barely open, in tall grass. Mucha’s lithograph, part of the 1896 series Les saisons, depicting the four seasons, presents a sensual female figure, loosely draped, resting on a sprouting branch amid leaves and flowers.96 The images were similar in their subject matter. Their differences, Johnson pointed out, lay in their “medium,” their “artistic approach,” and their “sentiment.”97 The “sentimentality of the lithograph,” he argued, was “opposed to the sentiment of the photograph.”98

With the two chosen examples, Johnson separated mediums that had been brought together to create the Rivera prints, as the collotype shared in the techniques of photography and lithography. Johnson was silent on the soft pastel and earth tones that enhance the “sentimentalism” of Mucha’s color lithograph. Steichen’s black-and-white photograph created a clear contrast; its cropping, lighting, and composition can be singled out as key agents in the transformation of the subject matter from nineteenth-century sentimentalism into modern sentiment. But what sentiment was this exactly? Steichen’s photograph transports the viewer back to the world of rural images and sensibilities. The Blue Sky—Dana Steichen is clearly far from the social realism of the Farm Security Administration photography program that would start in 1935.99 But it was not far from Johnson’s own rural sentiments. During his 1930 sojourn in Berlin, where he was working on what would become Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, he anxiously wrote to his mother about his return to the United States: “I don’t know what I would do without the farm,” he confessed, “not that I am there, but always when I get ready to go back to America, the farm gets irresistibly attractive. … And I am afraid [that on my return] New York will have to wait. … The farm looks much too attractive to me to desert too early.”100 In Johnson’s comments to his mother, the rural was manufactured into a site of leisure and recovery, in clear contrast to the urban. Steichen’s photograph in the exhibition Objects poignantly captured Johnson’s modern sentiment, one of rural tranquility that afforded relaxation and rejuvenation after the perils of urban living. This romantic imaginary was put in question by the Rivera prints, which presented the rural world as a stage for work and exploitation, of political and social conflict. If Steichen’s photo corrected nineteenth-century sentimentality, as Johnson declared, Rivera’s prints corrected Johnson’s modern sentimentalism, which transformed the countryside into the retreat of the leisured class, by articulating the ongoing rural struggle for social justice.

The Architecture Room was in dialogue with interior environments staged as vignettes of domesticity that had been pioneered in New York by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.101These mise-en-scènes were an integral part of commercialization efforts that reached a zenith in the 1925 Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industrielles modernes in Paris. In New York, exhibitions such as The Architect and the Industrial Arts, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had made clear inroads in commercializing diverse modern aesthetics for domestic consumption.102 Contextualized within other efforts to create stylish modern interiors, Johnson’s Architecture Room, with its object lessons, acquires the proselytizing agenda of modernism, one generally aimed at dismissing “modernistic” styles such as art deco. The staging of Color Reproductions of Mexican Frescoes by Diego Riverachallenges this single-focus aim and posits Mexican muralism as a key concern for the proponents of the International Style. The modernization of fresco painting, however, was not without cost. In his review of the state of mural art, its relationship to architecture, and the initiatives of New York’s Architectural League and “the Museum of Modern Art’s Project,” Edward Alden Jewell deployed a brief yet pointed critique of the tensions staged by Johnson in his “attractive and very up-to-date room.” In this setting of modern materials and colors, of “grey homespun, navy blue raw silk, aluminum and ribbed translucent glass,” the reproductions, Jewell concluded, “glow in somewhat the manner of Persian miniatures.” With this, a reference to MoMA’s exhibition Persian Fresco Painting, which had opened in October 1932, Jewell drove a decisive wedge between Rivera’s work and Johnson’s modern interior architecture. The portfolio was without flaw, worthy of the art it recorded. The reproduction duplicated the colors in beauty and quality so faithful to the originals that, according to Jewell, it “closely approximates perfection.” At the same time, the Architecture Room was timely and elegant. He even praised the florist for the “truly incandescent bouquet of yellows tulips.” This sly and back-handed remark pointed to the private space that Johnson had staged for domestic actions, setting up Jewell’s piercing critique; the key issue was that for the New York Times critic, murals belonged “in the architecture frame for which they were created.”103 Simply put, muralism could not be house-trained. Domestication, the reduction of the architectural stage of enunciation, was the price of fresco’s technological modernization in the regime of commodity circulation: a price that Rivera was ostensibly willing to pay. Jewell’s defense of muralism as a social and communal experience based on the monumental matrix of architecture was not necessarily an indictment of domestication but a warning against the museum’s retreat from the stage of architecture, as this was the only critical site for the development of a US muralist school.

If MoMA was to advance the cause of modern architecture as a collective social project, as a synthetic modern experience, it would have to cultivate the International Style’s relationship with muralism. This, however, was not the case. In the atmosphere of 1930s New York, the domestic environments staged in the Architecture Room stood as a general polemic against Mexican muralism. The overall trajectory of fresco painting drawn by MoMA with the celebration of Rivera’s work in 1931 reached modern domesticity in the United States within the spaces of the International Style. This course of action had brought Mexican modern art and modern architecture close together—dangerously close together, Johnson would argue, opening a wrong path to modernism in the United States. But he did not have to worry for long. The confrontation over the Rockefeller Center fresco decisively terminated the relationship between Mexican art and modern architecture in the United States for good.


Patricio del Real works on modern architecture and its transnational connections. He is assistant professor at Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture, was visiting associate research scholar in the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton, and co-curated Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980 at MoMA.


  1. 1. Mary Louise Pratt developed the idea of contact zones in the early 1990s in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992); see also her “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33–40. Pratt’s idea highlights colonial encounters, where a dominant culture provided the space of encounter—thus the asymmetrical power relations—as well as the means of exchange and translation. Her idea of the contact zone brings with it the notion of autoethnography as essential to the process of transculturation. The permeability and malleability of culture, cross-cultural negotiations, exchanges, and translations are part of the process of transculturation elaborated by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz. James Clifford extended Pratt’s notion of the contact zone to anthropological museums; “Museums as Contact Zones,” in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). Claudio Lomnitz mobilized Pratt’s notion in his examination of transnational sites of national identity formations: Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico: An Anthropology of Nationalism (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). In architecture, the concept was studied in Felipe Hernández, Mark Millington, and Iain Borden’s Transculturation: Cities, Spaces and Architectures in Latin America (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005).
  2. 2. In this exhibition, Rivera’s mural works carried more symbolic than actual material presence. Such transformation points to what Robin Boast, in his critique of contemporary museum practices, argues is a form of resource extraction and appropriation that feeds and maintains a colonial cultural matrix. “Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited,” Museum Anthropology 23, no. 1 (2011): 56–70. For the coloniality of power, see Walter Mignolo, Local Histories / Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges and Border Thinking(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), especially chapter 1.
  3. 3. As Walter Mignolo argues, the colonial matrix that organized world systems—in which we must include “modern architecture”—is the product of a self-referential European culture that created its own interiority: the heart of Europe in England, France, and Germany, and its externality invented through an imperial difference within Europe itself. To this one has to add nineteenth-century European global imperial projects such as that of the United States. “On Comparison: Who Is Comparing What and Why?,” in Comparisons: Theories, Approaches and Uses, ed. Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 102–3.
  4. 4. I borrow the idea of an “entanglement” from Mignolo, who uses it not to compare cultural forms but rather to “unveil the entanglement” produced by the colonial matrix in order to “move from the ontology of essence to a relational ontology.” “On Comparison,” 110–12.
  5. 5. The museum’s early global interests are patent in Alfred Barr’s “torpedo diagram,” which incorporated “non-European Prototypes and Sources” of modern art, and in exhibitions such as Persian Fresco Painting, October 12–November 20, 1932, and African Negro Art, March 18–May 19, 1935. Such early interests, which included “primitive” and “ folk art,” should not be blown out of proportion; these, however, announce the museum’s global projection in the second postwar period. On Barr’s torpedo diagram, see Kirk Varnedoe, “The Evolving Torpedo: Changing Idea of the Collection of Painting and Sculpture of The Museum of Modern Art,” in The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-Century: Continuity and Change (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1995), 12–73.
  6. 6. For a historical note on the creation of the Department of Circulating Exhibitions, see Rona Roob and Rachel Wild, “Department of Circulating Exhibitions Records in the Museum of Modern Art Archives,” updated by Jennifer Waxman (New York: Museum of Modern Art Archives, 2008), https://www.moma.org/learn/resources/archives/EAD/CEf.html.
  7. 7. Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).
  8. 8. On the concept of culture as heterogeneous and the hybridity of culture, I am drawing from Antonio Cornejo Polar, Mestizaje e hibridez: Los riesgos de las metáforas, Cuadernos de Literatura 6 (La Paz, Bolivia: Carrera de Literatura, Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación, UMSA, 1997); Néstor García Canclini, Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995); and Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), among others. For the asymmetries of cultural exchanges, see Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Public Worlds 1 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
  9. 9. For more on this innovation, see the recent exhibition on the 1931 Rivera solo show. Leah Dickerman, ed., Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011).
  10. 10. For the differences between the exhibition and the book, see Barry Bergdoll, “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition,” in Partners in Design: Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Philip Johnson, ed. David A. Hanks (New York: Monacelli Press, 2015).
  11. 11. “Release Saturday afternoon or Sunday, February 18, 19th, 1933,” press release, Registrar Exhibition Files (hereafter REG). Exh. 24a, 1, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York (hereafter MoMA Archives), https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_332969.pdf.
  12. 12. Bhabha, Location of Culture. Each museum department kept its own exhibitions files until 1989, when these were transferred to the archives. Conversation with Michelle Elligott, chief of archives, MoMA. See also “The Museum of Modern Art Names Michelle Elligott Chief of Archives,” MoMA Press, Museum of Modern Art, June 30, 2014, http://press.moma.org/2014/06/michelle-elligott-chief-of-archives/. For access to the files, see MoMA’s exhibition history search page, http://moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/history.
  13. 13. All but one of the photographs carries the seal of the photographers, “Wurts Brothers Photo. N.Y.C.” The exception is one of the images with the Rivera prints. I have found no records indicating the specific day these installation shots were taken.
  14. 14. “Release Saturday afternoon or Sunday.” See also “Architecture Room at the Museum of Modern Art,” American Magazine of Art 26, no. 4 (1933): 209–10.
  15. 15. David Hanks, “Laboratories of Modernism: The Johnson and Barr Apartments,” in Hanks, Partners in Design, 68. I develop the relationship between the exhibition Color Reproductionsand Johnson’s New York apartments in the manuscript that I am currently writing.
  16. 16. For more on this, see Anna Indych-López, Muralism without Walls: Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros in the United States, 1927–1940 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).
  17. 17. The museum was engaged in commercial activities with color reproductions as extensions of exhibitions, for example, A Brief Survey of Modern Painting ( June–October, 1932), which spun A Survey of Modern Painting in Color Reproductions. Memo from Nelson A. Rockefeller, regarding “Sales Executed at MoMA,” September 23, 1932, Office of Messrs. Rockefeller records (hereafter OMR) record group III 2E, box 20, folder 197, Rockefeller Archive Center, Tarrytown, NY (hereafter RAC).
  18. 18. Alfred Barr to Nelson A. Rockefeller, June 23, 1932, OMR record group III 2E, box 20, folder 197, RAC. Although the folio was a museum publication, Mrs. Murphy carried the entire cost of the project.
  19. 19. Alfred Barr to Nelson A. Rockefeller, May 11, 1932, and Nelson A. Rockefeller to Alfred Barr, May 12, 1932, OMR record group III 2E, box 20, folder 197, RAC.
  20. 20. See “Extracts from Alfred Barr letters to Nelson Rockefeller,” June 27–28, 1932, OMR record group III 2E, box 20, folder 197, RAC.
  21. 21. Abbott had presented his views on Rivera’s technique and color palette in the catalogue for the 1931 Rivera show. “Fresco Painting,” in Diego Rivera (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1931), 41–42. See also Jere Abbott, “Technique of True Fresco,” New York Times, January 3, 1932.
  22. 22. Alfred Barr to Alan R. Blackburn Jr., September 17, 1932, REG Exh. 14, MoMA Archives. Anna Indych-López points out that the idea of the monotone prints with views of greater areas of the frescoes in the portfolio responded to criticism over the aestheticized, fragmented, and compartmentalized nature of Rivera’s movable frescoes at MoMA. Muralism without Walls, 153–54. This could be the reason Barr wanted to include the monotone prints in the staging.
  23. 23. I am following here the traditionally accepted attribution advanced by Perriand scholars such as Jacques Barsac, who have nonetheless insisted on Perriand’s authorship. As Barsac points out, Le Corbusier was the instigator, not the designer, of such furnishings. Charlotte Perriand: Complete Works, vol. 1, 1903–1940 (Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2014), 100. The numerical classification of the furnishings is that of the manufacturer, Thonet.
  24. 24. The workshops were part of the Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule in Halle. For the history of the school, see “Geschichte der Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle,” Burg Giebichenstein, University of Art and Design Halle, accessed October 10, 2016, http://www.burg-halle.de/hochschule/hochschulkultur/geschichte/.
  25. 25. “Excerpts from Introduction to Diego Rivera Portfolio by Jere Abbott,” published by Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, REG Exh. 14, MoMA Archives.
  26. 26. In fact, the press release gave information on three exhibitions: the two already mentioned and the continuation of a retrospective on Maurice Sterne, which had opened on February 15, 1933.
  27. 27. “Museum to Show Architecture,” New York Times, February 21, 1933. See also “Architecture Room at the Museum of Modern Art,” 209–10.
  28. 28. On the PH lamp, see Tina Jørstian and Poul Erik Munk Nielsen, Light Years Ahead: The Story of the PH Lamp (Copenhagen: L. Poulsen, 2000). This extensive monograph on the lamp is short on the manufacture of its hand-blown glass shades; references to this can be found throughout the text, but especially on p. 134. The shades were hand blown in Germany because of cheaper cost (180). See also “Fremstilling: PH’s Lamper,” Trapholt Kunstindustrimuseet, 2008, accessed October 10, 2016, http://www.designprocessen.dk/idetilbrug/fremstilling/ph-lampen/.
  29. 29. In 1935 and until 1940, MoMA’s Department of Architecture became the Department of Architecture and Industrial Art. “Chronology of the Department of Architecture and Design,” Museum of Modern Art, May 1964, accessed February 2, 2018, https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/press_archives/3398/releases/MOMA_1964_Reopening_0024_1964-05.pdf?2010.
  30. 30. Jere Abbott, “A Note on the Technique of Rivera’s Frescoes,” in Diego Rivera, Frescoes of Diego Rivera (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1933), n.p. See also “Excerpts from Introduction to Diego Rivera Portfolio,” REG Exh. 24a, MoMA Archives.
  31. 31. Edward Alden Jewell, “A Diego Rivera Exhibition,” New York Times, February 19, 1933, and Edward Alden Jewell, “New Mural Adventures: The Architectural League Show and the Museum of Modern Art’s Project,” New York Times, February 26, 1933.
  32. 32. Collotype was a photomechanical reproduction process first used in the nineteenth century for the large-volume printing of items such as postcards. Its capacity for fine detail made it the preferred process for reproducing artworks and for business cards. For the technique of collotype, see Bernard Baer, Ganymed: Printing, Publishing, Design (New York: Faber & Faber, 1980); Arthur Jaffé, The Max Jaffé Concern and Its Process (New York: Arthur Jaffé, 1933); and “The Process: Collotype Prints,” Collotype Prints, Pittsfield, MA, accessed July 15, 2015, http://www.collotypeprints.com/collotype-process/.
  33. 33. The accessibility of the portfolio during the Depression is questionable. Although “produced at great expense,” it was being sold for “only $15 dollars.” Jewell, “Diego Rivera Exhibition.”
  34. 34. For this practice at MoMA, see Nina Stritzler-Levine, “Curating History, Exhibiting Ideas: Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Architectural Exhibition Practice at the MoMA,” in Summerson and Hitchcock: Centenary Essays on Architectural Historiography, ed. Frank Salmon (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 33–67; see also Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).
  35. 35. “The Smart Shops and Galleries,” Arts and Decoration, July 1933, 2. The picture frame was illustrated with one of the Rivera monotone prints. The picture frame and one of the Rivera color reproductions were used in Useful Household Objects under $5.00, organized by John McAndrew, curator of architecture and industrial art, in 1938. Johnson used this same frame in Objects: 1900 and Today.
  36. 36. Edward Alden Jewell stressed the color of the tulips in “New Mural Adventures.”
  37. 37. Barsac, Charlotte Perriand, 1:78–84; see also Arthur Rüegg, ed., Charlotte Perriand: Livre de bord, 1928–1933 (Basel and Boston: Birkhäuser, 2004). Charlotte Benton, “Le Corbusier: Furniture and the Interior,” Journal of Design History 3, no. 2/3 (1990): 116; see also Charlotte Benton, “‘L’aventure du Mobilier’: Le Corbusier’s Furniture Designs of the 1920s,” Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1890–1940, no. 6 (1982): 7–22.
  38. 38. Margaret Scolari Barr, “Our Campaigns: Alfred Barr, Jr., and the Museum of Modern Art; A Biographical Chronicle of the Years 1930–1944,” New Criterion 5, nos. 6–10 (1987): 25.
  39. 39. Barsac, Charlotte Perriand, 1:156.
  40. 40. Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), 122–23. In furniture, the neotechnic phase would come about with the introduction of aluminum, which would continue the development of lightness in machined forms (230–31).
  41. 41. Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History(New York: Norton, 1969), 497, 500–503. Although Giedion was referring specifically to Perriand’s revolving chair, he cast a shadow over “all European furniture.” For him, the inner contradictions of French culture, the obstinate academicism that confronted modern positions, remained an impediment to full mechanization.
  42. 42. I am drawing here from Michel Foucault’s 1982 lectures at the Collège de France on the subject and truth. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–82, ed. Frédéric Gros (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
  43. 43. Harry Harootunian, Marx after Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism(New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), chapter 1, especially 55–72.
  44. 44. Ibid., 10.
  45. 45. Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 107–9.
  46. 46. The relationship with different body postures, as argued by Le Corbusier, was a key aspect of Perriand’s furniture. Barsac, Charlotte Perriand, 1:160.
  47. 47. On Johnson’s apartments, see Hanks, “Laboratories of Modernism.”
  48. 48. Philip Johnson, “Rejected Architects,” Creative Arts 8, no. 6 (1931): 435.
  49. 49. Anna Indych-López points out how most of the color plates were “quaint scenes of everyday life from the Mexican murals.” Although there is much truth to this, plates such as Head of Slain Indian are hardly quaint. Indych-López also points out that in Rivera’s 1931 movable fresco at MoMA, the title for Cane Workers had been softened to Sugar Cane. The return to the original title made a clear statement on the recovery of the political nature of Rivera’s art. Muralism without Walls, 153.
  50. 50. The selection of the plates, that is, of which sections of the murals were to be reproduced, appears to have been made by William Spratling. Taylor Littleton, The Color of Silver: William Spratling, His Life and Art (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 170–75.
  51. 51. Ernestine Evans, The Frescoes of Diego Rivera (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929), 32.
  52. 52. Brian Lloyd, Left Out: Pragmatism, Exceptionalism, and the Poverty of American Marxism, 1890–1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 356. Although clearly left-oriented, syndicalism in the United States, with its mass action and worker organization, offered a pragmatic, antitheoretical alternative to Soviet state socialism that fit US exceptionalist ideas.
  53. 53. On the John Reed Clubs, see Virginia Hagelstein Marquardt, “‘New Masses’ and John Reed Club Artists, 1926–1936: Evolution of Ideology, Subject Matter and Style,” Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 12 (Spring 1989): 56–75; and the exhibition Hard Times: 1929–1939, Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, Archives of American Art, August 10–November 8, 2009.
  54. 54. For a critique of Rivera’s work and his passion for indigenous issues, see David Alfaro Siqueiros, “Rivera’s Counter-Revolutionary Road,” New Masses, May 19, 1934, 16–19.
  55. 55. Karin L. Huebner, “An Unexpected Alliance: Stella Atwood, the California Clubwoman, John Collier and the Indians of the Southwest, 1917–1934,” Pacific Historical Review 78, no. 3 (2009): 337–66; and Tisa Wenger, “Land, Culture and Sovereignty in the Pueblo Dance Controversy,” Journal of the Southwest 46, no. 2 (2004): 381–412.
  56. 56. For example, see Eugenio Maldonado, “The Indian Problem,” Mexican Art and Life, no. 4 (October 1938): n.p.
  57. 57. On Morrow’s patronage of Mexican art, see Indych-López, Muralism without Walls, chapter 3. On the political valence of the different iterations of the images, see chapter 4.
  58. 58. Alan Blackburn to Nelson A. Rockefeller, April 26, 1933, OMR record group III 2E, box 20, folder 197, RAC.
  59. 59. In the early 1930s, Spratling became involved with the Mexican silver craft industry and developed the idea of the Rivera portfolio for New York’s Wehye Gallery. The project antedated MoMA’s 1931 Rivera show. Ray Slater Murphy took over Spratling’s project by becoming its main funder. Littleton, Color of Silver, 169–71; and Indych-López, Muralism without Walls, 153, 224n79.
  60. 60. Philip Johnson to Nelson Rockefeller, December 14, 1932, OMR record group III 2E, box 20, folder 197, RAC. In this letter, Johnson excuses himself for not attending the meeting of the Junior Advisory Committee “in which you discussed the question of the committee to be in charge of the proposed exhibition of Art in Industry.” Johnson underscored that he was “ready to undertake the chairmanship of this committee according to [Nelson Rockefeller’s] appointment.” For Johnson’s recollection of the workings of the Junior Advisory Committee, see Sharon Zane, interview with Philip Johnson, December 18, 1990, Museum of Modern Art Oral History Program, https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/learn/archives/transcript_johnson.pdf. Color Reproductions also circulated, falling within the realm of the Department of Circulating Exhibitions.
  61. 61. Nelson Rockefeller to Philip Johnson, December 30, 1932, REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives. It appears that Mrs. Murphy resigned from the Junior Advisory Committee before the opening of Color Reproductions. Ray Murphy to Nelson A. Rockefeller, February 27, 1933, OMR record group III 2E, box 20, folder 197, RAC.
  62. 62. Kirstein’s appreciation of mural painting and its social subject matter was not a passing fancy, lasting well into the 1940s and 1950s. See Erika Doss, “Sharrer’s ‘Tribute to the American Working People’: Issues of Labor and Leisure in Post–World War II American Art,” American Art 16, no. 3 (Autumn 2002): 54–81.
  63. 63. I have yet to find any direct assessment of Mexican modern art by Johnson. It is likely that his opinions sprung from Barr’s views on the subject.
  64. 64. Philip Johnson, “Exhibition: Objects 1900 and Today, April 3 to May 1, 1933.” See also Philip Johnson, “Report from the Sub-Committee on Industrial Arts to the Junior Advisory Committee of the Museum of Modern Art,” January 30, 1933. In what must have been an earlier report, Johnson stated that the show consisted of forty-eight objects. “Report: Exhibition of Modern Objects: 1900 and Today,” n.d. All these documents are in REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives.
  65. 65. Exh. 27 master checklist, n.p., REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives. The object is described in comparison no. 19, “Ornamental Object vs. Blank Space.”
  66. 66. “Art Show Contrasts 1900 and the Present,” New York Times, April 5, 1933.
  67. 67. “Contrasts ‘Modern’ Art: Exhibition Wednesday to Show That of the 1900s and of Today,” New York Times, April 2, 1933.
  68. 68. Terence Riley, “Portrait of the Curator as a Young Man,” in Philip Johnson and The Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 48–49. Johnson would have free rein to transform all galleries of the museum in Machine Art.
  69. 69. Untitled and undated document, REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives. This appears to be a draft of the catalogue or the article for Creative Art, April 1933, by Philip Johnson. See also “Exhibition of Modern Objects: 1900 and Today, Report,” REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives.
  70. 70. “Art Show Contrasts 1900 and the Present.”
  71. 71. Cited in Riley, “Portrait of the Curator,” 51.
  72. 72. The press mentioned only two gallery rooms. See Walter Rendell Story, “The Decorative Art of 1900—and Ours,” New York Times, April 9, 1933.
  73. 73. Exh. 27 master checklist, n.p. The object is described in comparison no. 10, “Hangings.”
  74. 74. Ibid. The jewelry box is described in comparison no. 1, “Jewelry Boxes.” It does not reveal the designer; however, Knox’s name appeared in several letters regarding this object. The centerpiece is in comparison no. 9, “Centerpieces”; the decorative objects, in comparison no. 19, “Ornamental Object vs. Blank Space.”
  75. 75. Riley includes the fauteuil in Objects: 1900 and Today. This object, however, is not in the checklist. The confusion is understandable, as all environments were filed under this exhibition. “Portrait of the Curator,” 50.
  76. 76. See comparisons no. 14, “Tea Pots”; no. 15, “Bud Vases”; no. 16, “Plates”; no. 22, “Chairs”; no. 28, “Standard Lamps”; and no. 29, “Table Lamps.” The small metal plate could fall under comparison no. 7, “Trays,” which highlights glass and chromium as the key materials. The checklist mentions a design by Rena Rosenthal.
  77. 77. As Juliet Kinchin points out, the snipping of power cords in lighting and electric appliances was a common curatorial strategy used in MoMA exhibitions. “Machine Art: Elements of a New Beauty,” in Hanks, Partners in Design, 153.
  78. 78. Story, “The Decorative Art of 1900—and Ours.” In this article, Story includes the “canvas-and-metal chair designed by the Frenchman Corbusier, and a glass-topped metal table by the German architect Mies von [sic] der Rohe.” However, only Mies was included in the exhibition. The Le Corbusier chair was not in the checklist, and it was not part of the mise-en-scène that illustrated the article.
  79. 79. Philip Johnson to Nelson A. Rockefeller, February 18, 1933, REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives.
  80. 80. Further research is required to determine the precise color of the canvas textile and the leather of the furniture. The press release did not include this information. The color palette of the room, the installation photos, and the color possibilities of the furnishings, however, point to a combination of brown and related colors. The material choices as advertised in Arts and Architecture were leather, canvas, cane, rattan, “or the usual materials” for upholstery. “Decorations of Distinction,” Arts and Architecture, January 1932, 11.
  81. 81. Ibid., 12. One would have to turn to the manufacturer’s catalogue to determine the exact hue and tone of the red noted in the article. Le Corbusier had developed his polychromie architecturale in 1931 for the Swiss wallpaper company Salubra. Arthur Rüegg and Le Corbusier, Polychromie Architectural: Le Corbusiers Farbenklaviaturen von 1931 und 1959 / Le Corbusier’s Color Keyboards from 1931 and 1959 / Les claviers de couleurs de Le Corbusier de 1931 et de 1959 (Basel and Boston: Birkhauser, 1997); and Jan De Heer, The Architectonic Colour: Polychromy in the Purist Architecture of Le Corbusier (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2009). The fauteuil or siège à dossier basculant that entered MoMA’s collection in 1934 has black canvas upholstery and is distinct from the one used in these stagings, as this appears to be a lighter-tone canvas or leather. The chaise longue entered MoMA’s collection in 1950, and the color pattern is different from that used in 1933.
  82. 82. By 1931, in his work and with the polychromie architecturale, Le Corbusier had turned to natural materials, textures, and colors.
  83. 83. Benton, “L’aventure du Mobilier,” 16.
  84. 84. Barsac, Charlotte Perriand, 1:99.
  85. 85. On Le Corbusier and primitivism, see Romy Golan, Modernity and Nostalgia: Art and Politics in France between the Wars (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), especially chapter 4.
  86. 86. This turn away from pure machine aesthetics was being addressed by Le Corbusier and was presented at MoMA in The Recent Work of Le Corbusier, October 1935.
  87. 87. With its woven cane upholstery, albeit stained in a dark color, Mies’s MR side chair established a productive connection with the Rivera prints along the lines of manual work and the organic materials of rural environments.
  88. 88. Sergei M. Eisenstein, Yve-Alain Bois, and Michael Glenny, “Montage and Architecture,” Assemblage, no. 10 (1989): 111–31; and Gilles Deleuze, La imagen-movimiento (Barcelona: Paidos, 1984), 51–86. For English, see Gilles Deleuze, The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
  89. 89. These actions extend to Johnson’s apartments, which I develop elsewhere.
  90. 90. For the notion of moral atmosphere as the cornerstone of modernity, see Maurice Merleau-Ponty, El mundo de la percepcion: Siete conferencias (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006), 27–28. For the French, see Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Stéphanie Ménasé, Causeries: 1948 traces écrites (Paris: Seuil, 2002).
  91. 91. There are two reports to the Junior Advisory Council on the formation of the show: one dated January 20, 1933, which uses the title “Decorative Objects of 1900 vs. Useful Objects of Today,” and another, undated, which uses “Exhibition of Modern Objects: 1900 and Today.” REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives. In these, Johnson decides to limit art nouveau examples to Tiffany pieces and “the modern objects from German sources.” The statements on the color of the objects are dispersed in multiple files; see Objects 1900 and Today, REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives.
  92. 92. Nelson Rockefeller to Philip Johnson, December 14, 1932, REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives.
  93. 93. Nelson Rockefeller to Philip Johnson, January 13, 1933, REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives.
  94. 94. On this exhibition, see Jane Marshall, Machine Art, 1934 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
  95. 95. This was not without a cost.
  96. 96. See “The Seasons (series),” online gallery, Mucha Foundation, 2018, accessed February 1, 2018, http://www.muchafoundation.org/gallery/browse-works/object/80. For Steichen’s photograph, see the Harvard Art Museums online collection record, http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/art/350205.
  97. 97. Exh. 27 master checklist, n.p. This is comparison no. 16
  98. 98. Untitled and undated document, REG Exh. 27, MoMA Archives. This appears to be a draft of the catalogue or the article for Creative Art, April 1933, by Philip Johnson.
  99. 99. It is critical to recall that Depression-era relief programs started during the presidency of Herbert Hoover in 1932, with the Emergency Relief Administration. In 1962, Steichen organized the exhibition The Bitter Years: 1935–1941; Photographers of the Farm Security Administrationat MoMA. Documents can be accessed through MoMA’s exhibition history search page, http://moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/history.
  100. 100. Philip Johnson to Louise Pope Johnson, September 1, 1930, Philip Johnson Correspondence, Architecture and Design Department Files, MoMA. Johnson was referring to the 1,800-acre dairy farm at Townsend, near New London, Ohio. Franz Schulze, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 55.
  101. 101. The Metropolitan was not the only museum promoting industrial arts. In 1915, the National Museum in Washington, DC, held the Exhibition of American Industrial Art. “Exhibition of American Industrial Art,” Art and Progress 6, no. 9 (1915): 333.
  102. 102. Kristina Wilson, The Modern Eye: Stieglitz, MoMA and the Art of the Exhibition, 1925–1934(New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2009), especially chapter 2. Wilson, however, does not examine the Architecture Room at MoMA.
  103. 103. Jewell, “New Mural Adventures.” MoMA held Persian Fresco Painting from October 12 to November 20, 1932.

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