MoMA Connects Music and Modernism

A decade apart – 1957 Stratocaster and Avendon’s 1967 posters of the Beatles

A decade apart – 1957 Stratocaster and Avendon’s 1967 posters of the Beatles

The MoMA Design Department had a brilliant idea – to tell the history of 20th century music culture by pulling out objects and two-dimensional art from the museum’s rich collection. How did modernism and music influence one another? See Making Music Modern: Design for Eye and Ear, on view through January 18.

There’s still time to catch some demos of the Scopitone, the Stratocaster, and the Mechanical Flux Orchestra inside the gallery this weekend.

Although a lot of the buzz in the gallery is over visitors’ recollections of the turntables, radios, and album covers on display, the curators do everyone a favor by putting the mod, mod world into historical context at the start of the show.

Early Edison sound experiments, films of Loie Fuller and Josephine Baker, and a poster of Yvette Guilbert from the can-can era remind everyone that shocking live performances, revolutionary music trends (go, ragtime!), and print designs that pushed the limits don’t belong exclusively to the mod, punk, or techno eras.

Early pop music innovations: sheet music and Edison wax cylinders

Early pop music innovations: sheet music and Edison wax cylinders

Tucked into side panels and corners are photos of costumed interplanetary performers of the Triadic Ballet at the Bauhaus in 1922 and early Russian avant-garde takes on the advent of radio, the broadcast and communications technology that changed entertainment forever.

These were worlds where artists and designers did it all – fine art, typography, industrial design, textiles, and performance. There are even some snippets of early acoustic-enhancing textiles on display, courtesy of Anni Albers. Design and music mixed, right from the start of the last century.

The sleek, streamlined radios, microphones, and Rural Electrification poster from the 1930s are presented as icons of the earliest era of broadcasting, with reminders from the curators that the designs were made to rescue the radio from its early haywire, spaghetti-city look that first appeared on 1920s garage workbenches across the country. Make it look nice, and you can bring it inside, where we can all enjoy it.

Stylish: 1932 Bakelite radio by Wells Coates and a 1939 Unidyne mic by Benjamin Baker.

Stylish: 1932 Bakelite radio by Wells Coates and a 1939 Unidyne mic by Benjamin Baker.

Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, music and design seemed to go hand in hand. Consider the Sixties revolution in turntable and speaker design – everything fit for a super-modern lifestyle of easy listening with jazz and high-concept percussion album covers nearby.

The invention of the Fender Stratocaster guitar revolutionized the sound and look of early rock and roll with its iconic whammy bar and performances that represented out and out rebellion. Although the Stratocaster was invented in the 1950s, it’s appropriately displayed in front of posters of Bob Dylan, The Yardbirds, and Avedon’s Beatles – an innovation adopted by Buddy Holly that inspired the next generation.

Where pop music and art come together – Sixties album covers, including those by Richard Hamilton and Warhol

Where pop music and art come together – Sixties album covers, including those by Richard Hamilton and Warhol

If you really want to dig into the details, there are dozens of famous album covers and posters on display with tribute paid to their designers. Among the luminaries are pop-god Richard Hamilton’s “White Album” for the Beatles, Warhol’s “Sticky Fingers” cover for the Stones, and Rauchenberg’s design for the vinyl disk inside the Talking Heads’ “Speaking in Tongues” album. The chronicle of the Fillmore East posters is a book unto itself.

And Mr. Jobs’ imprint is never forgotten at MoMA. An early version of his iPod is displayed right next to the Seventies invention from Japan that rocked the music world – the Sony Walkman.

If you can’t make it, take a look at the show through our Flickr views. We’ve grouped the items in chronological order.

And check out the excellent MoMA blog posts about the show on MoMA’s “Inside/Out” platform, where curators go to share enthusiasm about the hunt for the Stratocaster, famous rock posters, and other gems from the Fifties and Sixties. Leave your own comments, reflection on music and design, and memories right there on the MoMA website.

Before Walkmans and iPods

Before Walkmans and iPods

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