Douglas Macagy and the foundations of modern art
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 What the artist thought about his work was superseded by what others thought; hence, art was reevaluated at the expense of the artist's intentions.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
NOTE TO DAVID BEASLEY FROM ARLENE KENNEDY, DIRECTOR, MCINTOSH GALLERY, THE UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN ONTARIO, LONDON, ONTARIO
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 tough-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)