[Edward Wadsworth, Street Singers, woodcut, ca. 1914]
While I was busy introducing Barrett Watten, listening to his talk, & doing all the things one does when one has a visiting speaker Thursday night, J. was down in Miami Beach at the opening reception for this exhibit of British modernist prints at the Wolfsonian, Florida International U.'s museum of design. (Typical South Florida – nothing happens culture-wise for months, then the two events I'm most interested in fall right on the same day.)
I'm absolutely mad about the the Futurist-Vorticist British art of the teens & twenties, Edward Wadsworth, CRW Nevinson, David Bomberg, Wyndham Lewis, etc. So even tho J. had been there not two days before, we drug the whole family down yesterday afternoon. The Wolfsonian's show – which has been at the MFA in Boston & the Metropolitan in New York, & I believe is slated to move on to Austin – is wonderful, absolute angle-porn for a modernism-fancier like me. (Lots of great images here.) If you're in South Florida over the next three months, this is a must-see.
As we strolled around Miami Beach afterwards (and for those of you unfamiliar with the area, Miami Beach has a beach, but really isn't a beach – it's the heavily built-up barrier island between the city of Miami proper & the Atlantic Ocean, a Manhattanish sliver of land covered with hotels, restaurants, nightspots, apartment buildings, cottages, bungalows, etc.) I was delighted as always by the famous "Miami Beach art deco," the host of prewar buildings that are the purest examples down here of high modernist architecture. It was entirely appropriate, it struck me, that the Vorticists had found a temporary home in Miami Beach.
And I was reminded again of one of the most compelling affects inspired in a contemporary viewer by modernist design & architecture: nostalgia for the future. If the buildings in the Art Deco District look like houses from the Jetsons, that's because, like the Jetsons, they're a particular imagining of what the future would look like, with their bold curves, pastel colors, & rectilinear lines. When I see a new building going up at Our Fair University or a new strip mall having its few pitiful, false bits of ornamentation glued on, I see an architecture of the now (literally – the shelf life of buildings down here, before they're completely overhauled or demolished, seems to be something like a decade). Walking down Miami Beach's bright & bold streets, you can't help but get a whiff of those prewar architects' imaginings of a sleek, snazzy future – a kind of glitter of utopia, rendered by time – as time renders us all – merely historical.
[Addendum, from the comments box, a passage from Michael Heller's memoir Living Root (SUNY, 2000):]
And yet, as a fairly new and speedily erected vacation place, Miami Beach also seemed constructed to repel time, to assert with Ozymandian arrogance the power of Works over the eons. For the constant peculiar islandedness of the area, which embossed its resort culture with the raised lips of the pleasantly fantastic and the commercially viable improbable, had detached it as well from history and even reality. That sense of time passing, as marker and reshaper of human existence, had been totally abandoned.
In effect, time, the causal element of all contrasts was missing, which led to a kind of free play of the signifiers; it gave to the shops on the streets and the hotels and swimming pools a quality of both distance and familiarity highly original to the tourist. One suspects there were other places like it in the world, certain amusement parks such as The Tivoli in Copenhagen, or the cluttered haut bourgeois sitting rooms of Hapsburg Vienna. Yet nowhere had histories and cultures been so thoroughly ransacked, to be reconfigured on purely different (commercial) lines as in the Miami Beach hotel lobby. There, an imaginary axe had been taken to the historical-cultural continuum. Time and geography had been chopped up into 18th century Chinese lacquered screens, Italian provincial settees resting on the patterned curlicies of Persian carpets where they were positioned in the shadows of plaster Venus De Milos. Strauss waltz music played on the Musak, webbing the entire lobby in the straining strands of violins. There was nothing second rate about these fakes cleverly deployed across vast expanses of thick, dark carpet among which the Jews of the Bronx and Brooklyn and Philadelphia oohed and aahed. They had come here to be provincial in a different way, both to stand in mild awe at their surroundings and to snub, with crude manners, this plaster cornucopia of the past.