From Hiroshima to the Hula-Hoop, American visual culture was dramatically transformed by World War II and its aftermath. A new aesthetic emerged – as reflected in fine art, architecture, fashion and furniture – that stood in stark contrast to the harder, more machinelike forms of prewar design. And the fruits of this creative renaissance still have the power to inspire, as demonstrated in Phoenix Art Museum's newest exhibition, "Vital Forms: American Innovation in Art and Design, 1940-1960."
Sinuous lines and organic shapes, called biomorphism, came to define the look of the times. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, "Vital Forms" contains 230 objects that exemplify this curvaceous dynamic. From the moment that visitors enter the Steele Gallery, they'll understand the scope of "Vital Forms." A Jackson Pollock drip painting will be on prominent display just beyond the '50s dream living room set up by the entrance. "In an eyeshot you'll have the whole sense of high to low, from material culture to fine art, of what this show is about," says Brady Roberts, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
"This show has two very different bents to it," Roberts explains. "There's Hiroshima and WWII and the Holocaust, and you see in the war period and the immediate postwar period that there's a lot of response to that, particularly in figurative art, which becomes very distorted and impressionistic. Then that sort of anxiety is continued when the Russians get the bomb and the Cold War begins in the late '40s." A molded plywood leg splint designed by Charles and Ray Eames reflects the practical response to war, while paintings by American artists who would eventually develop Abstract Expressionism -- Pollock, Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner – show the influence of Surrealism and the interest in exploring the subconscious mind.
"But at the same time," Roberts continues, "there was a more celebratory look at atomic energy – the atom is your friend.'" A candy-colorful Eames "Hang-It-All," with knobs like floating molecules, and a cheerful orange George Nelson "Ball" wall clock represent the optimistic glee of mass consumption following the Depression.
Mass production prodded the boom of postwar prosperity. "You get this blurring of lines between what's fine art and what's design," says Roberts. "It was facilitated by new techniques and by a demand that was unprecedented. In a way, this was the culmination of the Industrial Revolution – it hit its fullest form after the war machine was fully developed." When peacetime finally arrived, he says, "You had a prosperous country with an incredible capacity to manufacture, then you have these people who are stimulated with avant-garde ideas." Hence, fiber glass could suddenly be used in automobiles, and a military-design coil became the ubiquitous Slinky toy. "It was just an explosion of originality."