In a 1991 oral history interview for The Museum of Modern Art, Philip Johnson, noted architect, collector, former staff member, and Trustee and benefactor of the Museum, discussed Machine Art (MoMA Exh. #34, March 5-April 29, 1934), the influential exhibition he organized in 1934. In the transcript of his reminiscences, Johnson mentions that the initial inspiration for the exhibition derived from conversations with founding Director of the Museum Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and Alan Blackburn, at the time Executive Director of the Museum, all of whom valued the aesthetic merit of certain industrially manufactured objects, those created without artistic intention.
For Machine Art, Johnson selected items such as typewriter carriage springs, a self-aligning ball bearing, an outboard propeller, a toaster, a cash register, pots and pans, a microscope, a compass, and scientific flasks and petrie dishes, as typifying the beautiful in industrial objects. In the forward to the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, Barr identified abstract and geometric beauty, kinetic rhythms, beauty of material and surface, and visual complexity and function as being central to the aesthetic of “machine art.”
Johnson was the founding Chairman (1932-34) of the Museum’s Department of Architecture, the first department of its kind in a museum of art. Johnson, like Barr, believed that industrial objects of good design merited aesthetic praise and validation, a conviction stemming from the Bauhaus approach of dealing with various media on an equal aesthetic scale. This belief led to the expansion of the scope of the department, which, in 1935, became the Department of Architecture and Industrial Art. The establishment of a separate curatorial department devoted to architecture and design was a natural outgrowth of Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s original conception for the Museum; on the eve of the opening of the Museum in 1929, Barr wrote that “the Museum would probably expand beyond the narrow limits of painting and sculpture in order to include departments devoted to drawings, prints, and photography, typography, the arts of commerce and industry, architecture…stage designing, furniture, and the decorative arts. Not the least important collection might be the filmotek, a library of films.”
Excerpt from Philip Johnson Oral History, conducted by Sharon Zane, 1991 (pp. 60–64).
SZ:…We talked about the Modern Architecture show last time. We didn’t talk about Machine Art…
PJ: Oh, yes.
SZ:…which I guess was a highly unusual exhibition for you to have conceived of and put together.
PJ: Well, it sounds as if I conceived it. I never conceived anything, so it must have been…It was really in talks with Alfred (H. Barr, Jr.), because the whole Bauhaus approach—that the decorative arts were no longer in existence, but that art could still be made without the handcraft approach—so it was an anti-handcraft show. The worship of the machine was an important part of it, kept over from the Futurists, but it was mostly based on the Bauhaus approach. But you see, the whole impetus is gone, the whole moral socialism of that day, that Alfred really shared. He came through with his puritanism, and with me it was purely stylistic, as coming from the Bauhaus. But Hitchcock and I were more interested in the style side of things—a word that everybody hated and still do—but we felt that a machine made an ideology, a theme that would be good to substitute for the handcrafts. The word we did coin—Alan Blackburn and I did—while we were drinking.
SZ: While you were drinking, did you say?
PJ: Yes. It was about 4:00 in the morning, and the words “machine art” just came out of the air, a very, very good idea. Funny that it doesn’t seem like an idea anymore, it’s just machine art, but in those days it was an invention from the air. So, that made it very, very easy because we could find the objects all the way from non-designed things—pots and pans (INTERRUPTION)…
SZ: Continuing, yes, you were telling me about the everyday objects—pots and pans…
PJ: Yes, all the way from there, and then we tried to find objects that were designed by names, and there hardly were any names, so we felt we’d better stress just the very fact of the beauty of objects that were just the result of other forces than design. But the beauty of them—like the propeller, which is always beautiful—and things of that kind. The result, of course, was extraordinary. Everybody hated us deeply for being anti-art. Barnett Newman—I’ve been reading his new book—has a strong attack on machine artists being the antithesis of what art should be, which is very funny coming from Barney, who’s a modern artist. That’s an interesting book, by the way, because it shows the prejudices of a modern architect of the early Abstract Expressionism. It’s funny. He didn’t like Alfred Barr very much because Alfred liked Cézanne as the founder of modern art, and everybody knows it was really Manet, an entirely different direction. That’s not the Museum, though, except his attack on Alfred.
SZ: That show’s been called the beginning of the Museum’s life as a tastemaker and…
PJ: Yes. Trying to force pots and pans down…
SZ: When you went looking for objects to include, were you already looking at your…I guess you were looking at your environment in that way all the time anyhow.
PJ: That’s the reason we did the show, because we were looking at…Alfred and I had been looking at beautiful, plain objects like ball bearings. I think we exaggerated that, but it made a good propaganda point.
SZ: Another thing that was said about it…Even though you ran into a great deal of criticism, I guess on the content of the show, your installation technique was heralded.
PJ: I know. Isn’t that funny.