Futurism is the ultimate art movement for boys who love their technology toys. I made my way up the curving ramp of the Guggenheim Museum to consider the legacy of art and architecture obsessed with speeding cars and gliding biplanes.
Manifesto-loving Futurists spewed overheated sexualized paeans to locomotives, weaponry, and brawny workers stoking fires roaring within vast smoke-belching factories. Women were at best inconvenient necessities in the society imagined by what I read as overprotected, self-absorbed kids who wanted to do dirty things.
Still, I went because I have always been entranced by the exquisite visionary drawings of Antonio Sant’Elia, who was obsessed with industrial infrastructure, soaring towers, and fortresslike forms. My history books (including Reynar Banhams’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, from which the image above comes) told me that’s what Futurism was. It began just six years before World War I shattered both Edwardian gentility and adolescent fantasies of speed and power. I thought the war had pretty much killed off Futurism, along with many of its early proponents, who enthusiastically signed on for the chance to play with tanks and machine guns. According to the new show on the movement at the Guggenheim, subtitled with appropriate Futurismic grandiosity, “Reconstructing the Universe,” it stumbled into the 1940s.
The Sant’Elias did not disappoint. You see soaring buildings rising out of interpenetrating levels of roads and rails — architecture as a multi-dimensional pageant of movement. These drawings were contemporary with New York’s Grand Central and Pennsylvania stations, both of which brilliantly choreographed a three-dimensional ballet of people, trains, and vehicles, but mostly veiled it in limestone-and-bronze Beaux Arts grandeur. I can’t tell you whether Sant’Elia studied them or not, but his visions are so thrilling because they strip those buildings naked, thrillingly revealing the muscles and sinews of pure movement. Modern architects of every ideological and stylistic stripe have been trying to capture that power ever since. Sant’Elia also drew visions of power plants and airplane hangers that essentially set the mold for such gloriously monumntal industrial infrastructure as Hoover Dam.
After its first burst of energy, Futurist artists strike this philistine as having made some intriguing esthetic forays that mainly ended up as dead ends. As I walked up the ramp, Futurism got harder to tell apart from better work associated with the stew of other inter-war isms including Expressionism and Kandinksy-inflected abstraction. Russian Constructivists did Futurism better than the Futurists.
An alignment with Italian Fascism nailed the movement’s coffin closed. Architects inspired by Futurism failed to win Mussolini’s favor once he concluded that bombastic Classicism more clearly expressed his delusional ambition to return Italy to its ancient glory.
If you want to see how art can alter consciousness, detour from the ramp to the Carrie Mae Weems exhibition, a restless, brilliant photo and video exploration over decades of African-American identity. She makes most of the Futurist work look like art-school maundering. I had only seen a few of her photographs; here the retrospective form lends epic dimension to work that is gorgeous and uncomfortable in equal measure.