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Eames-scape

It’s strange, but for some reason many of the best recent shows about the history of Los Angeles art have been put together elsewhere. One case in point is the Ed Ruscha print retrospective at LACMA, organized by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center. Another, also at LACMA, is “The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention,” organized by the Library of Congress and the Vitra Design Museum and funded by longtime Eames collaborators IBM, Herman Miller Office Furniture and Vitra AG. The excellently cluttered exhibition recalls the Eameses’ own experiments in educational displays (not to mention their propensity for hoarding), tackling its already diversified subject matter with a variety of display strategies, including several small theaters, scale models, furniture prototypes and molds, architectural modifications, interactive stations, and outsize photographs and text. In addition, the Eames Office, whose “mission is to communicate, preserve and extend” the designers’ legacy, is presenting numerous parallel exhibits and events in what it’s calling “The Summer of Eames.”

Charles and Ray Eames were a husband-and-wife design team who migrated to Los Angeles in 1941 after meeting at the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside Detroit. Charles was a designer and architect who had experimented with his friend Eero Saarinen in the design of molded plywood furniture, resulting in their winning first prize in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Organic Design in Home Furnishings” competition of 1940. Ray had been a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group (a NYC collective of unjustly snubbed early American abstract painters) and studied push & pull with Modernist guru Hans Hoffman, twin milieus that would shortly burst forth in the form of Abstract Expressionism. Charles’ structuralist sensibilities and familiarity with industrial materials meshed improbably with Ray’s keen eye for 3-D biomorphic design. At first attempting to overcome earlier technical limitations in the molding of plywood in their Westwood apartment with a curing oven pieced together from scrap wood and bicycle parts — called the Kazam! Machine — Charles and Ray briefly abandoned furniture design when the U.S. Navy commissioned them to produce molded plywood leg splints and glider parts. After the war, they discarded their vision of a single-shell molded plywood chair in favor of a separate back and seat. The result was deemed “chair of the century” by architectural critic Esther McCoy, and the chair and subsequent variations, marketed by Herman Miller, spread throughout the real and symbolic landscape, filling office buildings and becoming an icon for postwar consumerist Modernism and L.A.’s emergence as a highbrow cultural hot spot.

Their innovative and pragmatic furniture design alone assured them a place in the pantheon of 20th-century design luminaries, but it served merely as the launch pad and backbone for a bewildering variety of activities over the next several decades. In 1949, as part of the Case Study House Program instigated by Arts and Architecture Magazine editor John Entenza, Charles and Ray designed and built their now-famous home on a beachfront cliff in Pacific Palisades, using only prefabricated off-the-shelf building materials. The Eames house, something of a mecca for Modernist architecture buffs, exemplifies the deeply humanist cross-fertilization of Charles and Ray’s separate visions of Modernism, its industrially practical rectilinear structure rendered expansive through the judicious choices of colors and materials, its minimalist Modernist grid adorned with clusters of folk and popular design elements that provide infinitely engaging layers of sensory information. The house, kept intact since the death of Ray in 1988 (10 years to the day after Charles), now houses the Eames Office. For the duration of the LACMA exhibit, it’s offering staff-guided tours of the building’s exterior every Thursday at 11 a.m.; phone first for reservations and directions.

In the ’50s, the Eameses started producing short films and slide presentations, both for corporate clients and for their own amusement. ã The films ranged from the abstract patterns of soap suds on a schoolyard playground documented in their first completed film, Blacktop (projected down onto the gallery floor at LACMA), to straightforward promotional films like the one made for the Polaroid SX-70 camera in 1972. In between there are little vignettes on every imaginable subject, from the pure cinematic visual obsession with a Japanese wrestler’s ritual hair preparation in Sumo Wrestler or a tiny jellyfish’s improvisational choreography in A Small Hydromedusan (1970), to the elaborately orchestrated narratives of Toccata for Toy Trains (1957) or Powers of Ten, the widely shown 1977 animation that zooms metrically from subatomic to cosmic (and back again) views of a picnic scene over eight and a half minutes. (A recent CD-ROM version adds a dizzying amount of associative content structured around six parallel streams running across a large image of a fish trap.) For the LACMA exhibit, there are several stations at which to view video-formatted versions of the 100-some short films the Eames completed, but these are marred by poor sound design and the limited resolution of video projection. Instead, catch the separate actual film screenings organized at LACMA’s Bing Theater or through the Eames Office over the course of the summer.

 

Also on view at LACMA is a small-scale reproduction of perhaps the best-known of the Eameses’ multiscreen slide presentations, the seven-screen Glimpses of the USA (created for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow), whose visually exciting, sweetly propagandistic barrage of 20-by-30-foot views of freeways and supermarkets inadvertently became the backdrop for Nixon and Khrushchev’s infamous “kitchen debate.” Slide shows like Glimpses and Think, a 22-screen extravaganza designed for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, were an outgrowth of the Eameses’ obsessive photography habit, which resulted in a library of more than 350,000 images, and projects such as their famous House of Cards toy. Apart from encouraging the close and ongoing examination of one’s visual surroundings, the Eameses’ films and slide shows extended their structuralist and Modernist ideas into the medium of information exchange. The Eameses looked at education as a design problem, addressing the issue from traditional pedagogical models of instruction as well as by devising games, films and displays that jump-start associative thinking, and by demonstrating the power of new media for cultural communications (as in their extensive and ongoing engagement with the culture of India). Their recognition of television, computers, film and the language of display as tools for shaping the architecture of intellectual exchange was prescient and typically ambitious. These interests eventually found form in a series of museological Gesamtkunstwerks, beginning with the 1961 “Mathematica” exhibit for the California Science Center, and culminating in the overwhelming and misunderstood (panned by Hilton Kramer — how more righteous can you get?) bicentennial show “The World of Franklin and Jefferson.” The “Mathematica” exhibit, which was removed from the CSC more than a year ago, is being reinstalled at Art Center’s Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery and will be on view from July 30 through October 1.

Over the last decade or so, discussion of the Eameses’ work has often focused on exactly who was responsible for what. Charles was a bit of a prima donna, and has been accused of taking credit for others’ work, Ray’s not the least. However the actual breakdown of attribution winds up, it should be noted that the business was always the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, and that some of the blame must be laid on sexist and star-hungry media. The current batch of exhibits, as well as the excellent accompanying catalog, goes a long way in sorting out the individual contributions of the Eameses (as much as such a thing is possible) as well as those of other members of their design team. As a modest sidebar to this rehabilitation, the Eames Office has mounted a small and charming show of Ray’s early drawings and paintings in its Main Street gallery in Santa Monica.

But the most problematic and perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Eameses’ disparate oeuvre is its relationship to corporate capitalism and the American government. It seems unlikely that such a convoluted and idiosyncratic path — from utopian furniture and architectural design through toy design, quirky films, slide shows and interactive educational exhibits — could be supported, even nurtured, by the skittish, top-heavy bureaucracies of today. But in the emerging military-industrial complex of the Cold War, things were not as carefully regulated as they seemed. Charles and Ray Eames rode the crest of a distinctly American cultural wave, with a vision of the world’s social problems eliminated by great design and effective communication. And while, in context, their long collaborative relationships with IBM and the United States Information Agency may be read as public-relations spin control in the midst of the Vietnam War, the obvious sincerity and dazzling inventiveness of their lifework easily puts to rest any suspicions of black-budget allocations paying for movies of spinning tops. Instead, these shows stand in nostalgic testimony to perhaps the last period in American history when intelligent, humanist, creative and optimistic individuals could be comfortable, even to the point of attaining the heights of their discipline, as official, unironic representatives of their society and culture.

THE WORK OF CHARLES AND RAY EAMES: A Legacy of Invention At the L.A. COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Through September 10

CHANGING HER PALETTE: Paintings by Ray Eames At the EAMES OFFICE GALLERY & STORE, 2665 Main St., Suite E, Santa Monica | Through September 30

MATHEMATICA | At ALYCE DE ROULET WILLIAMSON GALLERY, Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena July 30–October 1

EAMES HOUSE Call (310) 459-9663 for tour appointment.

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