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A Child's Garden of Modernism 

Kindergarten at Art Center

Wednesday, Oct 25 2006

Frank’s mother was ambitious for her young son. In fact, she was a bit of a stage mom. In 1876, she visited America’s epic Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. There, she happened upon a small building attached to the Women’s Pavilion that demonstrateda decades-old experimental German day-care system, and had an epiphany. Here, thought Mrs. Lloyd-Wright, were the fundamental building blocks to set her son on the path to architectural greatness. She returned home to Boston with a selection of the specialized learning equipment she discovered (including the building blocks), enrolled in an authorized teacher-training course, and set to work very deliberately and very successfully molding the mind of the quintessential Modernist architect. The name of the little building in Philly? Kindergarten Cottage.

Most of us know of kindergarten only from its contemporary incarnation as a sort of grammar-school-lite, designed to act as a transitional decompression chamber between free-range toddlerhood and the Long Incarceration. I remember reciting the alphabet and Mrs. Hubble yelling at me because I didn’t know how to tie my shoes yet. Bitch. Set the tone, though. We may know — at least from the name — that it was some kind of German innovation, and maybe even that those building blocks were originally designed exclusively for use in kindergartens. But the prevailing impression is of a convenient parental-time-freeing baby school composed of meaningless busywork slotted into the all-important micromanaged timetable. (Heads up, Superintendent Brewer!)

In fact, kindergarten began as almost the complete opposite: a radical educational-reform movement envisioned by one man — crystallographer Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852) — as a way to channel children’s innate curiosity into a nonverbal, geometry-based understanding of the essential unity and interchangeability of everything in the universe. Although the curriculum included singing, dancing and gardening, the core of kindergarten practice lay in its 20 “gifts” — a system of two- and three-dimensional geometric learning tools that were deployed on a special mathematically gridded tabletop. While most of these artifacts have disappeared from the contemporary educational environment, scholar/collector Norman Brosterman has amassed a dazzling array of unique and mass-produced kindergarten materials from the movement’s early-20th-century heyday, a selection of which is currently on view as “Inventing Kindergarten,” under the auspices of Art Center College of Design and the Institute for Figuring.

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It’s been a busy season at the IFF, the free-floating L.A.-based post-Jurassic cultural institution founded and co-directed by science writer (and L.A. Weekly Quark Soup columnist) Margaret Wertheim with her twin sister, critical-studies scholar Christine. Established in 2003 to “enhance public understanding of figuring and figuring techniques,” the IFF explores the fuzzy conceptual zone between science and art with lectures, publications and exhibits ranging from the SMMoA show of James Carter’s beautifully envisioned outsider physics in 2002 to mathematician Dr. Jeannine Mosely’s crowd-pleasing three-dimensional origami fractal sculpture The Business Card Menger Sponge, which occupied Machine Project last month, to the nearly completed Museum of Jurassic Technology guest exhibit featuring the drawings and models of maverick logician Shea Zellweger. Given the IFF’s pronounced penchant for quirky visionary geometrical articulations of invisible realities, Brosterman’s “Inventing Kindergarten” is a match made in heaven.

The exhibit materialized out of Brosterman’s beautiful and insightfully (and often poetically) argued 1997 book documenting his collection and the history of the kindergarten movement and presenting a startling thesis: that the roots of Modern art and architecture, as exemplified by the geometric abstraction inherent to the work of Lloyd-Wright, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Klee, the Bauhaus, Bucky Fuller — you name it — lay not so much in Freemasonry or quantum physics as in the early childhood experiences of several generations of aesthetic movers and shakers who had attended Froebelian kindergartens. His case is strong, both from the anecdotal evidence and the striking visual congruities between the renowned work of these Modernist masters and the forgotten K-teachers’ workbooks of geometric designs made from cut, woven and folded paper. The implications of this revelation are staggering — particularly to the received version of art historical patrimony and logocentric theories about the origins of Modernist ideas.

“Inventing Kindergarten” doesn’t present a visual analogue of this argument, although anyone who is familiar at all with 20th-century geometric abstraction will be startled by the obvious similarities. The show’s installation in one of the world’s foremost contemporary commercial design and art colleges is a masterful and nuanced coup. The exhibit begins with a sidebar summation of the history of kindergarten — vintage textbooks, post cards showing Japanese children working the gifts (by 1911 there were nearly 500 kindergartens operating in Japan), and a sequence of sepia-toned turn-of-the-century-before-last photographs. The meat and potatoes of “Inventing Kindergarten,” though, lies in the obliquely lit main gallery, where the kaleidoscopic visual output of the movement is on display.

The meat is the “gifts” — crocheted wool balls; milled maple spheres, cubes and cylinders; those building blocks; precut mosaics units; interlaced wooden slats; pin-pricked and intricately sewn patterns; cut, folded or woven paper; peas-’n’-toothpicks geodesics; and all-of-the-above modeling clay. I may have missed a couple in there, but the gifts are — quite intentionally — aspects of a unified, recursive system where forms and media perform an elaborate and ever-expanding square dance, hypothetically encompassing every facet of a student’s being — including the spiritual. The pedestaled vitrines full of narrative-heavy mass-produced examples of each geometrical gewgaw (proto game designer Milton Bradley was the American populizer) are necessarily bittersweet, as they foretell the absorption of Froebel’s vision into the sameoldsameold while making tangible the very principles that were eventually compromised. Still, it’s some cool shit to look at.

The potatoes are the many examples of K-teachers’ (and occasionally K-students’) workbooks that fill the walls and wall-mounted showcases surrounding the gift pedestals. From the flat but intricate maroon-and-gray paper cuttings of Grace Lynde to the remarkable 1875 teacher’s album of Abigail A. Herrick — with its idiosyncratic volumetric tinting, subtle color decisions and tightly oscillating shifts in value — these unrecognized visual virtuosi deliver the goods. H.B. French and Elma Korb emerge as exceptional colorists. Ina C. Getz’s late-19th-century black-and-white studies suggest a confluence of Bridget Riley and Sol Lewitt. In “Inventing Kindergarten”— the book — Brosterman doesn’t extend his thesis past those artists directly impacted by hardcore Froebelian tutelage, but the synchronicities are painfully obvious.

Painfully, mostly because it didn’t take. Certainly, important men took the lessons of kindergarten to heart and translated them into important cultural artifacts. But there is a distinctly grown-up arrogance to much of late-20th-century (and early-21st-century) abstract art: an attitude that screams, “I never pooped my pants!” While kindergartens were educating generations of innovative artists, they were also creating a community of visually informed chemists, plumbers, anthropologists and judges who instinctually embraced Modernist design as part of their own language and philosophy. Those were the days.

The gradual disintegration of Froebel’s visionary kindergarten child-rearing technology into a mishmash of sound-bite-friendly curriculum schedules prefigures the consumption of visual modes of being-in-the-world by their verbal factotums, in both the productive and consumer sectors of society. Modern art and art education have been equally impoverished by the disappearance of this early educational depth charge. The lamented global cultural moment of the ’60s — when unifying political, spiritual and aesthetic cultural currents seemed to peak and dissipate — may have been the last gasp of kindergarten’s influence. Still, if people like Steve “Oops!” Wynn could wake up and kick in their $139 million to help revive sensory-based childhood arts education instead of designating authoritarian status icons, there’s still a chance that our century could look as good as the last.

INVENTING KINDERGARTEN |Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena | Through January 7, 2007 | (626) 396-2446 or www.theiff.org

  • Kindergarten at Art Center

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