Douglas Macagy and the foundations of modern art


An essay by David Beasley
Written to draw the reader's attention to David Beasley's biography


Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1913, Douglas MacAgy grew up in Toronto, Ontario ,and died in Washington, D. C. in 1973. He became an American citizen in 1968 when he was made deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

A reviewer of the art scene in New York commented:

"What's seen at MOMA, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the bizarre Lila Acheson Wallace Wing of the Met are ventures in systematic misrepresentation of contemporary art. Manhattan's museums primarily co-opt works of art to make them tell the story of the museum, confirm and reinforce the museum's pretensions and authority, and repel certain forms of curiosity.(1)"

Seventy years ago when MacAgy began his career in art, museums were regarded as little better than mausoleums, the curators of which looked with disdain on the vastmajority of Americans for their ignorance of art. Could it be possible that there has been no modern art curatorship,
or that it was here for a while but went away? MacAgy might have agreed with Pablo Picasso who wrote in 1939:

"Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly imposters.... We have infected the pictures in museums with all our stupidities, all our mistakes, all our poverty of spirit. We have turned them into petty and ridiculous things.
We have been tied up to a fiction, instead of trying to sense what inner life there was in the men who painted them. (2)"

Picasso's statement appeared in the catalogue to a show of his paintings, Picasso, forty years of his art, edited by Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show toured several museums in America,and;when it came to the Cleveland Museum of Art where MacAgy had just landed his first job as a curatorial assistant, the museum director, alarmed by the show's naked impact, asked him to provide a cultural cushion. MacAgy renamed the show "Picasso's Artistic Background" and drew upon the Museum's great collection of ancient, medieval, Renaissance, modern and primitive art to illustrate the collective power of past art as it reappears in the modern idiom. This method also showed the originality of Picasso's work. In defending his treatment of the exhibit, MacAgy wrote that scholarship was fundamental to museum enterprises in order for the museum to fulfill its responsibility of transmitting the cultural heritage and that scholarship "must penetrate the field of public education in art and clarify its issues." This remained his credo.

Grace Morley, Director of the San Franciscbo Museum of Art, saw the show and hired MacAgy to be her assistant. MacAgy's life work of transforming museums from mausoleums to happenings got underway with the work he did in San Francisco in the early forties. His studies in the psychology of art with Thomas Munro, the well-known teacher of aesthetics at Western Reserve University, and his student years in the intellectually stimulating Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, gave him the means "to trace the clues that bind an art, in all its verifiable aspects, to the culture in which it was created as well as to the culture of the present day." Two of his innovations at the San Francisco Museum illustrate his method.

He called his first large exhibit "Sawdust and Spangles." It attracted large crowds and repeated visits by people who had never been to a museum. Indeed, Grace Morley declared it "the most popular exhibition in the breadth of its appeal and the inclusiveness of its art and related matters that the Museum has ever attempted." MacAgy chose the circus as the theme because it had a substantial and popular tradition in America and combined a complex development of the arts of time and space with a strong appeal to the emotions. He felt that these characteristics could help him demonstrate that the public enjoyed, certain experiences which were unspecialized forms of art and that its enjoyment was increased if it was made aware of the variety of emotional aspects of these art forms and of their relationship to other experiences.

Performers--clowns, acrobats, freaks--took part throughout the show (MacAgy wrote). Local artists made side-show facades; Calder mobiles swung over swingers on the trapeze and slack-wire walkers; freaks were reflected in pictures by Tchelitchew; clowns demonstrated conventions of make-up near Picasso and Rouault. The scheme of presentation was analytic, although it aimed at an effect of special synthesis. The Bel Geddes circus models were juxtaposed with models by buffs of the 19th century compounds.(3)

He presented the modern circus as a collection of units--the Menagerie, the Ring, the Clown, the Acrobats, etc.--so that the observer could see what highly sensitive artists felt about them back through centuries and feel the cumulative power of tradition expressed alongside the modern works of art. Thus he exposed elements of art inpublic activities that were not associated with "museum" art.

His second innovation was the theme of Jazz, a forgotten native American art form from the turn of the century. He gave lectures on Negro art and music in connection with a series of dance performances by Katherine Dunham at the Museum, and, remarking on the interest they stirred, he arranged for a local connoisseur of jazz, Rudi Blesh, tolecture at the Museum on "Hot Jazz and Its Origin."

The response was so encouraging that MacAgy sponsored Blesh in a series of free Jazz concerts at the Museum on Sunday afternoons. MacAgy and Blesh took great pains to present an accurate picture of the early instrumental and vocal groups--in ragtime, the blues, boogie-woogie and other manifestations of jazz in its highest and purest forms--which set the course of popular music. Blesh indicated the salient features, but the balance of each program was made up of music played by local men and some imported musicians of the original New Orleans type. The concerts drew record crowds to the Museum. MacAgy planned a final concert for which San Franciscans raised funds to bring Bunk Johnson from the rice-fields, Mutt Carey from the pullmans, and Kid Ory and Wade Whaley and others from obscure dives.

The enthusiasm for these great performers who had stepped out of the past led to a concert at the Geary Theater in San Francisco several weeks later. The CBS network recorded it,and, subsequently, the Office of War Information broadcast it "ad nauseam" to the troops abroad. "The result," commented MacAgy, "was a boost to the post-Warrevival of national - and to some extent international - interest in Dixieland music."

MacAgy admitted that the most excitingly innovative period of his life was spent as Director of the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco from 1945 to 1950. He assembled the faculty that changed the face of American art and gave birth to the only original American art movement; American Abstract Expressionism. He emphasized vision over craft and spirit over method. His articles on the artists in his faculty and on the School art programs attracted students from around the world. He promoted the artists to gallery owners. His article on Mark Rothko led to Rothko's acceptance in the Museum of Modern Art, which was a breakthrough for the movement. "MacAgy was a perceptive critic," said the painter Dorr Bothwell. "I think that if he had been in Europe, he would have had the kind of influence that Apollinaire had during the French modern period." He used his writing to change the thinking of the art world just as he used museums to revolutionize the way in which the public looked at art. The fact that artistsaccepted him readily and that he could grasp the most difficult new work with ease kept him in the forefront of modern art.

The accelerating change in the environment caused by the war brought increased responsibilities to art schools in MacAgy?s view. The idea of liberty provoked by the war created a bond of sympathy between the artist and the community. The student was to be trained over three years to take his place as an artist in the community by experiencing design through work in many mediums, relating it to cultural beliefs and social structures, and planning and instructing community units under the advice of architects, painters, weavers and so on. The international attention the school received reflected glory on MacAgy's stewardship, but, as he was one of the first to admit, the student body, many of whom were war veterans on the G.l. Bill for free tuition, brought a maturity to the school which challenged and stimulated the faculty. This new freedom, however, did not last.

Dorr Bothwell explained that whereas the professors felt liberated by the new ideas, the students began to express this "release" by "destroying things left and right, painting the walls and furniture." Perhaps the war veterans had graduated by 1950 and the younger, less mature student who entered the School lacked self-discipline. Certainly the conservative element, which always lay in the background, seized upon the change in climate to take back control of the School. MacAgy may have sensed the change in December 1949 when in Cincinnatti he defended the teaching of fine arts as distinct from commercial art against two adversaries from the Cincinnatti Art Academy and the Albright Art School of Buffalo. Commercial art and decorative art, he argued, involve the artist in a role which is reflected in its social counterparts in the external world. "If you have to sell a commodity to a certain type of person you must account for his role in your design." In fine art, on the other hand, communication is uncertain. The fine artist does not lend himself "to manipulation in conventional causal sequences." MacAgy warned that an emphasis on commercial art would lead to the reestablishment of the classical academy where reason was valued over imagination and knowledge over passion. "Buying habits," he said, "are becoming, at least in the minds of researchers, codified. The expense of plant reconversion tends to fix designs at an already accomplished level. Public inertia, here an active determinant, is a conservative force."(4)

In June 1950 Ernest Mundt became Director of the California School. The School?s trustees adopted a resolution in praise of MacAgy's five years' leadership. The bright lights of the faculty departed.

The distinction between fine and commercial art preoccupied MacAgy's thinking and later appeared as a theme in his exhibitions. Meanwhile his work reorganizing the governing structure of the Museum of Modern Art, advising the formation of the International Program at the Museum whereby American art was sent abroad, writing a Report of the role of television in promoting art, and creating a museum advisory service at Wildenstein Gallery in New York, contributed to making museums more useful and accommodating to the community. His impact on the museum world was most noticeable between 1959 and 1963 when he was director of the new Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts. The originality of his shows irritated some Dallas folk: for instance, he had the first exhibit of Magritte in America. He showed the works of new American artists such as Bill Kommodore, David McManaway, Jim Love, Roy Fridge and others whom he helped to " believe in themselves", as they worded it, and propelled on theircareers. He had the first museum happening in a Claes Oldenburg show.

The show bringing the most acclaim was "The Art That Broke the Looking Glass." It represented the change in the viewer's conception of art from the Renaissance and traced two simultaneous histories of thought and action in relation to art; the elusive history of transforming art in the mind of the artist, and the other, more accessible history of the reaction in society to works of art. Aside from periods of patrongge in the high circles in Renaissance art and the low circles in late nineteenth century art when the artist's view accorded with the wishful imagery of his patrons, there was a tension between these histories which created a third: the evolution and devolution of the pictorial object, the subject of the exhibit. It was the art of make-believe where, MacAgy explained, "the history of recognition in representational art is the story of a submission to illusion which ranged somewhere between the voluntary and the involuntary."

The Show revealed the nimble and quick-moving course art took before museums caused art to be identified with museum order in an "unrelieved fenestrational monotony." It recovered some of the excitement of the artist and viewer at the discovery of the illusion of space. It demonstrated the role of art in conveying knowledge and the role of the so-called rounded Man of the Renaissance who was expected to design buildings, paint pictures, Compose plans for fortifications, bridges, machines, design parks, chariots, costumes, spectacles, execute sculpture and chart the seas. So long as geometry acted a as a lingua franca for communication between thinkers engaged by fields of inquiry which had elite support, the trained artist felt secure. But after epistemological development turned the mind again towards inventing and using instruments like mathematics rather than being used by them, artists sought more precise measurements, demoted the importance of geometry in their thinking and gradually became specialists--medical artists, map-makers, architectural draftsmen. Those who did not change faced a profound shift of scientific visualization, from geometry to trigonometry, and loss of their honorific position in society. Visual symbols in two dimensions - from left to right and up or down - replaced graphic illusion and required no artistic skill in putting them on paper. Clinging to a vestigial role, artists who began representing objects valued for something other than their geometrical setting (i.e., sentimental, erotic, compassionate, morbid aspects) suffered another blow in the nineteenth century from photography and photo-engraving. The artist's special appeal had been calamitously downgraded.

His address (wrote MacAgy) was mainly to a class with aspirations to possess the physical relics of symbols made for past elites, but without benefit of the education or outlook that once was used to interpret them. Divested of the ideas which had given them high significance, the physical matter of the symbols became a main attraction. For the new patrons, possession had become nine tenths of artistic law.(5)

The setting having lost its significance, the objects in the setting became the source of interest. They became associated with meanings outside the picture frame and reflected in their arrangement in paintings the sort of order found in the placement of furniture and bric-a-brac in the rooms where pictures were hung. The pictures most widely admired were pictures of things the patrons liked.

The Impressionists of the late nineteenth century returned to representing the scene but made the scene the object and thus integrated items in the scene that had formerly been separated for social ranking or conceptual classification. "Like disinterested scientists," MacAgy continued, "though keenly interested artists, the Impressionists reduced the symbolic stature of single objects to a relationship that was comparativelyobjective with respect to the whole."

Cubism, on the other hand, accepted the domestic repertory of late nineteenth century still life painters, but disintegrated and reunited the prized objects in a geometrical order that seemed more dramatic than the tag-end meanings society had attached to the objects in life. The Cubists still regarded objects in relation to the environment that was made for them but sought to remake the hierarchy of values associated with them. As reflected in art, the morality of the twentieth century was no longer tied to domestic motives. Using the close-up they had learned indoors, artists began picturing relics, not of one man's history, or a family of men within the many, but of the volatile waste of society at large.

Torn and beaten flotsam, ready-made by time, weather and use, set up its own patterns, its own arrangements. Hazard was taken seriously.

How did MacAgy convey these complex ideas and sensations in "The Art That Broke the Looking Glass?"

Besides paintings (from European and American art produced over 450 years), prints and drawings (he wrote) the exhibition will include perspective boxes, peep-shows, theatrical models, the camera obscura, the camera lucida, a Claude glass, anamorphoses, maps, sundials, a stereopticon, pin-prick pictures, early decoupages, demonstrations of optical illusion, toys, wax effigies, furniture, etc.(6)

MacAgy sought to show analogies between the arts: for example, such as that of disposition, proscenium and space between theater and the framed paintings. In this case he hung a painting by Poussin alongside a contemporary stage design for a Racine play because Poussin did the painting in Paris on a sojourn from Rome during a controversy about Racine's innovations in staging which profoundly influenced the painter.

The growing popularity and international recognition of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts intensified the fears of conservatives in the Dallas community. A retrenchment owing to a downturn in the economy and community pressures to merge it with the tradition-bound Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, a move which MacAgy opposed, brought an end to the Museum in 1963 and unemployment to MacAgy.

In the years following his work in Dallas he pondered the Marxist view of science which made no distinction between pure and applied science, and he related this view to the new movements using scientific laws to produce works of art. MacAgy's fascination with the new art of Yvarel, Le Parc, Len Lye, Tinguely and others began with his preparing the exhibit "On the Move" for the Howard Wise Gallery in January 1964. He began a study of Russian Constructivism of the 1920s and the movements preceding it, which were inspiring the artists of the sixties to a sense of spatial freedom of movement involving the spectator as a participant within the work of art. The title "On The Move," was derived from the sensation caused by Moire patterns created by the overlapping of two repetitive figures which, when the observer moved, had "dizzying" effects. These optical illusions also could represent mathematical solutions to physical problems such as those involving fluid flow, acoustical phenomena and electromagnetism, thus relating the art to scientific use and, in a larger sense, to man's environment. Some art critics hoped that this optical art by requiring audience participation would restore the importance of the work of art over the artist, as in medieval times when the artist was an accessory to the Cathedral Mass. The artist of the sixties, who had to depend on his name and legend to keep himself alive, was being spiritually undernourished and reduced to the roles of decorator, stuntsman or futile introvert.

MacAgy, on the other hand, regarded the increasing need of public displays of art as symptomatic of a change of the relationship of labor and leisure when people would devote more time to appreciating art and less to the accumulation of wealth. His career reflected his ideal that art become a part of everyday living rather than exclusive to the pompous realm of private and corporate patronage. In company with others, he hoped that the cybernetic revolution would elevate man above "Economic Man" to higher levels of values and, as Maynard Keynes, the economist, put it, "rid us of pseudo-moral values by which we've exalted the most distasteful of human qualities." A new philosophy involving interdisciplinary thinking was needed to guide our new machines to create human oriented societies. MacAgy instinctively looked to the artists to take the lead.

His last great show which demonstrated a lifelong concern with art as an influence upon the community was "Plus by Minus: Today's Half Century" at the Second Buffalo Festival of the Arts in 1968. He introduced to America the work of artists from Europe, Latin America ,and Japan in the Russian Constructivist tradition. Whereas Western artists tended to follow the intuitional, romantic emotional style of art springing from Gauguin and his circle and passing through the Fauvism of Matisse and the surrealists, a little known but persistent tradition of art flowed from Cezanne and Seurat through Cubism and formed a delta in the geometrical and Constructivist movements in Russia and Holland. This intellectual and austere tradition inspired group-movements in Yugoslavia and elsewhere such as the New Tendency and kinetic and optic art with their scientific connotations. Following the Suprematist credo of Malevich, "Plus by Minus" jettisoned traditional images and entered the desert where nothing was real but feeling. MacAgy's selection and organization of the huge show revealed the cultural history and secondary environment in which the art was created and by which the public understood the art it saw. By providing this atmosphere, enhanced by artists actually constructing their works in the garden of the museum, he hoped to reopen communication between artist and viewer which had been lost with the gradual dislocation of art in past decades. Owing to public acceptance of dislocated art objects, the elite cultural control of art had passed from the workshop to the emergence of art at the outlet, or what merchandizers call "the point of contact." Art of the Constructivist tradition, on the other hand, was dedicated to the social community, not the individual, and in many cases to utilitarian purposes such as designing housing from abstract constructions.

MacAgy's painstaking planning for the exhibition's environmental message was rewarded by the clarity with which the spectators understood its implications. "From themoment the viewer steps into the first gallery," reported one critic, "he confronts five fullsized staircases designed by the Groupe de Recherche d' Art Visuel and must choose to merely view them as sculptural object or to participate by following their gravitydefying course." How was it possible, wondered another critic, that bio-mechanics as an ideology promoted by artists and revolutionaries was being accepted in a nation founded on eighteenth century ideas and officially opposed to that ideology in particular and to revolutionaries in general? Has the bio-mechanical revolution over? Was the new figurative art with new content the really revolutionary art? MacAgy's exhibition, he concluded, clarified these questions. Moreover, praise even came from the financial backers of the show. John Hightower of the New York State Council on the Arts wrote to MacAgy: "I think you are the best investment that the New York State Council on the Arts has ever made. The exhibition was an enormous undertaking in range and dimension. It could not have been more flawlessly assembled, selected and installed." (7)

One can see from our discussion in this paper, MacAgy's relentless inquiry into the effects of man's changing environment on the creation of his art, and MacAgy?s concept of art as the image changing through time. His brilliant first wife, the curator Jerry MacAgy, called it "The Flight of the Image" and argued for their view of the museum asa participant in the working out of ideas and expressions in contemporary life.

Although MacAgy helped to engage corporation support for the arts, he did not agree with the corporate standard of success which museums adopted, that is, for instance, measuring the success of a show by the number of viewers it attracted and promoting the artist rather than the art. He preferred to live just a step ahead of the wolf at the door rather than take a secure job in the self-satisfied atmosphere of museums. His colleagues in the art world referred to him as "the curator without a museum." If the reviewer with whom we began this essay is right about self-aggrandizing museums, it appears that innovative curators can exist only outside of them. Nevertheless, MacAgy demonstrated what could be done in the wasteland and what can be done in art curatorship in the future.

1. Gary Indiana, "So Big," Village Voice (New York), March 22, 1988.
2. A. H. Barr, Jr., Picasso, forty years of his art. New York; MOMA, 1929.
3. Douglas MacAgy to Jap Gude, July 15, 1967, p.3. MacAgy papers AAA
4. "'Art' Called 'Fine' and 'Commercial' ," San Francisco Art Association.
      Bulletin, v.16, no. 1, Jan. 1950.
5. "Series A:Draft I, The Art That Broke the Looking Glass," p. 12. MacAgy Papers AAA.
6. Ibid., p. 3.
7. John B. Hightower to Douglas MacAgy, March 5, 1968. Abright-Knox Museum Library