NEW YORK – “Herbert Bayer: Bauhaus Master,” which runs through April 5 at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, has an obvious pertinence in this centenary year of the uniquely influential German design school. Bayer both studied and taught there.
The show has a further, open-ended pertinence to the history and practice of applied art: not just because Bayer (1900-85) was so talented, which he was; or so prominent (that, too); but because of how the career provides a case study in what might be called the this-eye-for-hire issue. The matter of what you’ve actually done can be overshadowed by whom you did it for.
The 90 items on display give a sense of Bayer’s range as a designer. They include posters, postcards, dustjackets, advertising, bank notes, brochures, letterheads, packaging, even a page from his proposal for a Fonetic Alfabet.
With its balanced geometric shapes, a postcard design from 1923 looks very Kandinsky (Bayer studied with him at the Bauhaus). More important, its clear, unfussy font declares Bayer’s allegiance to the sans-serif salvation promised by the New Typography movement in which he was a major figure. Newness was to the Bauhaus as wetness is to the ocean: a condition so definitional one could drown in it.
The one thing more bracing than embracing a vision of the future is helping to make that vision a reality. Bayer’s work from the ‘20s has an energy and freshness that a century’s distance doesn’t dim. Clarity and directness (a bit of playfulness, too) are the chief attributes. The result isn’t so much a machine aesthetic — which was very much a clean machine — as an abhorrence of clutter. What makes this impressive is that in the late ’20s Bayer started to rely heavily on photomontage. A growing multiplicity within the frame didn’t mean an abandonment of simplicity as a goal. Bayer’s work came to display even more design elements after his move to the United States, in 1938. Yet he layered and arrayed those elements with care. Even as right angle increasingly deferred to curve (ah, those biomorphic ’50s), the curves stayed simple. What didn’t stay simple was the context in which Bayer placed himself.
In theory, and often in practice, fine art is a closed system. Applied art never is. Its name tells you that: It’s art that’s applied, and that application is for someone. That someone takes two forms: client and audience. For someone committed enough to the designing itself, the audience matters a lot, if not as much as the design, and the sponsor matters not at all (so long as the check doesn’t bounce). To the rest of the world, the sponsor often matters most (unless the design is incomparably good).
This is where things get complicated. Bayer, as noted, left Germany in 1938. The Nazis came to power in 1933. You can see where this is going. During those five years, his clients included the German propaganda ministry. Now it’s true that Bayer was not a Nazi sympathizer. Nor was he alone among major Modernists in having a problematic relationship with the the Hitler regime. Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus, would spend several years trying to accommodate himself with the powers that be in Germany. Eventually, he, too, left for America.
Bayer, like Mies, was soon enough taken up by corporate America. His clients ranged from Fortune magazine to Noreen cosmetics to the Container Corporation of America (for which Bayer designed its longstanding, if dubiously self-congratulatory, “Great Ideas of Western Man" campaign).
That’s quite a range of clients. The US War Department figures in there, too. A character in Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise” declares that “Packaging is the last avant-garde.” Or maybe it’s the last temptation. In Bayer’s emigre career one finds demonstrated intellectual gymnastics of a dumbfounding order. Add in the European years, and intellectual gymnastics become moral contortion. Is that an ex post facto judgment? Sure. But this is an ex post facto exhibition. Elements outside the frame, no matter how carefully layered and arrayed, can produce clutter. Yes, “clutter” in this context is a euphemism.
Spatially, the Bayer show is stimulatingly situated. It takes up the center portion of the Cooper-Hewitt’s third floor. Flanking it are rooms devoted to “Nature by Design” a very happily eclectic show drawn from the museum’s permanent collection. As the title suggests, it looks at design as specifically inspired by the natural world.
That inspiration can be material, such as plastics which were developed to mimic the appearance of tortoiseshell, silk, and other naturally occurring substances. It can be representational: three dozen of Frederic Edwin Church’s transcendentally beautiful iceberg pictures, variously rendered in pencil, gouache, and oils. It can be formal, as in diverse patterning and styling derived from plant life.
All of the works, then, align to some degree with the natural world — as Bayer’s designs, and the Bauhaus generally, very consciously did not. The proximity of such opposed exhibition makes them quite complementary. Think of the Bayer show as a canal, there in the middle of the third floor, defined by two banks that are rain-forest-rich in flora and fauna. This is curatorial interplay of a high order.
Among the more than 250 items, many are worthy of note, starting with those Church icebergs. Some are proudly banal, such as a sale card of gutta-percha buttons, circa 1850. Some are matter-of-factly exotic. A gallery is devoted to items employing cochineal dye, made from the parasitic insect of the same name. Mariá Dávila and Eduardo Portillo’s wall hanging, “Nebula,” from 2015, is one of the most recent. Some are nothing short of hideous. The supreme example of that is an armchair largely made of cattle horns. It dates from 1885 and originated, where else, in Texas. Whether the hideousness partakes more of pride or matter-of-fact-ness would be beyond the power of even Bayer’s Fonetic Alfabet to spell out.
HERBERT BAYER: Bauhaus Master
NATURE BY DESIGN
At Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 E. 91st St., New York, through April 5 and Sept. 20, respectively. 212-257-3047, cooperhewitt.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.