“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Installation photo of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” at The Museum of Modern Art; courtesy MOMA/photo by Robert Gerhardt

When notice of “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented” arrived in my inbox, I gave the e-mail a cursory scan and promptly deposited it in my trash folder. Knowing that curators have a tendency to overlay contemporary mores onto historical precedent, I feared this MOMA show would have “Woke” stamped all over it. The exhibition title reminded me of the initial wave of political correctness some thirty years ago. At that time, “cultural worker” had been mooted as a replacement for the word “artist”—the latter carrying with it the gamey stench of elitism. Starry-eyed soul that I am, I thought “cultural worker” had long been consigned to the circular file of post-Marxist assaults on the language. A quick surf of the internet proved otherwise: “cultural worker” has become part of the lingua franca for the enlightened among us. There is, I learned, an organization dubbed Cultural Workers Organize—its stated mission being the fomentation of “collective responses to precarity.” It’s a hop, skip, and click from this kind of thing to engineers, agitators, and constructors.

“Precarity” was, in fact, my state of mind when I visited MOMA and wandered into “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor.” The first thing to be read on the introductory wall text is that “the title ‘artist’ is an insult.” The exhibition catalogue goes further, including what appears to be a snippet of free verse: “No more painters, no more writers, no more musicians . . . no more, no more, no more, nothing, nothing, nothing.” The “artist-proletarian,” we are duly informed, will usher in “the language of the masses, not the individual.” Should one have the stomach for pronuciamentos of this sort, they can be readily gleaned from any number of Twitter feeds, newspapers, and academic journals. The aforementioned quotes? They come not from a usual suspect like The New York Times, but from Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Louis Aragon, and Raoul Hausmann. Troublemakers all, for a time anyway, and integral figures—dare one say “artists”?—during a signal moment in twentieth-century art. Those with a sense of historical sweep will recognize the names. Or maybe not. Cultural memory ain’t what it used to be. Which is a significant reason “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” proves to be a noteworthy event.

Valentina Kulagina, Maquette for We Are Building (Stroim) (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper, sandpaper, gouache, and pencil on paper, 22 5/8 × 14 1/4″; courtesy MOMA

The exhibition serves as a showcase for the museum’s 2018 acquisition of some three hundred works on paper from the collection of Merrill C. Berman, a financial advisor with a predilection for the graphic arts. The curatorial focus is on the international avant-garde—specifically, how it responded to and was shaped by historical events, chief among them World War I and the devastation of Europe, along with the Russian Revolution. The ascendance of mass media is equally attended to, as is its re-imagining by designers whose artistic agenda was no less radical than their politics. As such, “Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” errs on the side of reproducible materials. It contains a handful of paintings, sculptures, and industrial objects; a sampling of collages; and an abundance of brash and propulsive posters—maybe too abundant. The compositional strategies of the Russian Constructivists, as well as those of their followers, were contrived to arrest the passersby’s attention when encountered at a magazine kiosk or on a city wall. As museum pieces, one bullying tract on the Socialist Offensive followed by another (and another) tends to work against one’s powers of concentration. Artifacts this loud need space and context in which to echo. The installation at MOMA muffles their audacity.

“Engineer, Agitator, Constructor” begins with Russian Constructivism, touching upon its roots in Suprematism with figures like Kazimir Malevich and Lyubov Popova, and then glances upon Dadaism and Neo-Plasticism. Collage and photo-montage are given prominence, as they betoken not only the mixing of mediums, but a concomitant blurring of artistic disciplines. Organized around a discrete set of themes, the exhibition makes a telling shift from subsections titled “Artist as Agitator” and “Activating Data” to “Artist as Adman” and “An Expert in Publicity.” That design innovations predicated on the theories of Karl Marx would funnel their way up—or, depending on how one looks at these things, down—to Madison Avenue is a hindsight rich in irony. Still, the heady atmosphere of “agitation–propaganda” dominates, and the confluence of pictorial innovation and extremist politics is emphasized. In that regard, the MOMA show engenders consternation. The so-called Communist Experiment was an epic catastrophe. Can one commend artists who were in thrall to its illusions for pictorial know-how without making a hash of history?

Solomon Telingater, Untitled (1929), cut-and-pasted printed and painted paper on paper with gouache and pencil, 17-11/16 × 15″; courtesy MOMA

Not a few engineers, agitators, and constructors found themselves crushed by those they sought to lionize. Gustav Klutsis, a gift- ed artist hailing from Latvia and a Stalinist through and through, was summarily executed as “an enemy of the state” in 1938. (No utopian deed, it seems, goes unpunished.) Klutsis’s work is given a prominent berth at MOMA, as are other talents whose work merits consideration, including Natalia Pinus, Nikol Sedelnikov, Elena Semenova, Varvara Stepanova, Wladyslaw Strzemiński, and Valentina Kulagina, but not Lydia Naumova, whose posters commemorating the International Trade Union privilege bureaucratic didactics over visual legibility. The Tbilisi-born Solomon Telingater is a find—his nimble employment of collage brings a rare and welcome wit to the proceedings. Humor, albeit largely unintentional, figures into Bart van der Leck’s studies for an ad campaign commissioned by Delft Salad Oil. Van der Leck applied de Stijl principles to the image of a mustachioed gentleman surrounded by bottles of salad dressing. The corporate overlords were not amused by the resulting array of dancing geometric shapes. Van der Leck lost the job. The moral? Revolutionary impulses will only get you so far—the real world is obstinate in that way. This sobering lesson may not be the starting point of this ambitious and instructive exhibition, but it is the finish line for those with the eyes to see it.

(c) 2021 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 edition of The New Criterion.

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