Book Reviews

Douglas Macagy and the foundations of modern art


Douglas MacAgy; in pursuit of the unknown, devoted his life to raising the consciousness of the average North American to higher levels of cultural understanding. Douglas MacAgy was raised in Toronto, won a scholarship to the Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia, which gave him excellent fundamental training in aesthetics, and as a young curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1941, began innovative art exhibits which were to transform the way museums showed art. As director of the California School of Fine Arts after World War II, he encouraged American Abstract Expressionism and helped to establish Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and others. His fame became international when as Director of the new Museum for the Contemporary Arts in Dallas, Texas, in the early 1960s, he organized exhibits which related the art of the past to the art of the present and illustrated the intent of modern artists. Scholarship informed his exhibits and distinguished him from other innovative curators whose shows seemed superficial and merely crowd-pleasing by comparison. Later in New York City, he sought out the new artists in Europe and introduced optic art, ballets of light, cinecromatics and so on in shows to Americans. He brought Constructivism, from the Russian avant-garde at the time of World War I up to the latest modern work such as the New Tendency in Yugoslavia, France and Brazil, to Americans for the first time. This was at the internationally acclaimed "Festival of the Arts Today" Show in Buffalo in 1968. MacAgy called it "Plus by Minus," affirmation by means of denial, and quoted Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

MacAgy chose two major themes for this show: the effect of social environment on the development of art, and the contribution of art movements in the past to the creation of art in the present with emphasis on art in the present. For instance, he reconstructed Liubov Popova's famous set for "The Magnificent Cuckold," which had been shown in Berlin in 1922. He had actors perform an Ionesco play on the set. As the action heated up, the discs and windmill on the set whirled faster, and actors slid down the chute and ramps. Elsewhere on the grounds, artists were constructing their sets such as the Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visuel which built five full-sized staircases designed for the viewer to participate by following their gravity-defying course, thus trying to overcome the divorce in recent years between art and the public. MacAgy thought that the environment played a role in shaping ideas as well as prompting viewer response to the art object conveying them. Communication between artist and viewer had become dislocated. What the artist thought about his work was superseded by what others thought; hence, art was reevaluated at the expense of the artist's intentions. The result was one of elite cultural control, no longer exerted in the workshop as it once was, but at the point when it emerged at the outlet, or what merchandisers call "the point of contact." For this reason, MacAgy was determined to provide secondary cultural implications to the show which would not be didactic and which would not interfere with or divert attention from the art, but would provide a contextual understanding. He insinuated these secondary implications through symposia, music, dance, poetry and drama events which ran for two of the six weeks that the art was exhibited. The show represented a life-long dream to relate art works with other art forms. Symphonies, jazz concerts, an Edward Albee play, Yannis Xenakis' stochastic music, opera, Merce Cunningham dance programs, all reflected the austere, geometric, and utilitarian themes of the painting and sculpture. Recognition by the elite of MacAgy's organizing genius and superior aesthetic insight brought him to head the new Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D. C. where he continued his innovations. His last achievement, before dying of a heart attack in 1973, was to set up the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. His life, of course, had ups and downs. He had to side-step McCarthyite witch-hunters, corporate exploitation of art for international propaganda, petty jealousies and simple bull-headed conservatism throughout his career. But the general public learned from and appreciated his efforts, artists loved him, and we are richer culturally because of him. As a student in Toronto, he decided to pursue the unknown and recognized that quality is a gypsy that must be followed in order to understand the creative spirit. His success was to reveal the mystery in art to us.

Dunnville (ON) Recorder


I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your book "Douglas Macagy and the Foundations of Modern Art Curatorship" . As an Art Educator I found the references to John Dewey and Barnes of great interest!.... Thank you for such a thought-provoking publication!

Douglas MacAgy and the Foundations of Modern Art Curatorship

David Beasley, Author


In this concise biography of an often forgotten art crusader, Beasley remembers the progressive modern art curatorship of Douglas MacAgy (1913–1973), whose career extended through the Cold War era and helped transform museums “from mausoleums to happenings.” Born in Winnipeg, Canada, MacAgy conducted his life’s work across a number of different museums, galleries, and organizations, from the Cleveland Museum of Art to Unesco. At the San Francisco Museum of Art (now San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in 1941, MacAgy introduced programs “that related community interests to modern art,” curating smart and accessible circus- and jazz-themed exhibitions, which, Beasley writes, had “an outstanding influence on the exhibiting of art in American museums.” In 1945, MacAgy took over the California School of Fine Arts, where he hired a relatively little-known painter, Clyfford Still, who came to have a lasting influence on the school and who benefitted greatly from MacAgy’s support. Later, while serving as director of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts in the midst of the McCarthy era, MacAgy resisted narrow thinking by exhibiting avant-garde artwork and was accused of being a communist. The political narrative that Beasley wishes to spin often undermines his ability as a biographer, but his book is a workmanlike introduction to a figure whose example has enduring relevance for curatorship today. B&w illus. (BookLife, Publishers’ Weekly)