Cult of the Machine Explores the Magnetic Pull of Industrial Design

"Watch" by Gerald Murphy depicts the gorgeous insides of two watches, but also reflects something of the aesthetic worship of industrial design popular in the early 20th century.  (Photo: Courtesy of Randy Dodson)

You’re going to want to block out a few hours to see Cult of the Machine at the de Young Museum.

The exhibit is a comprehensive exploration of the Precisionists, a group of U.S. artists enthralled by technology during the period between the two World Wars. For the show, the de Young’s ground floor has been packed with more than 100 paintings and photographs from the 1910s through the '30s.

There are also examples of commercial design and film clips, like the factory scene from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. Though truth be told, that film is all about ambivalence towards technology.

Associate Curator of American Art Emma Acker expects you to compare past and present while you walk through museum. "In the Precisionist era, everyone’s looking up. They’re looking skyward, whereas now we’re looking down at our phones and our devices," she says, laughing.

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But most of this exhibition really is about a time when sunnier expectations about technology prevailed, reflecting the widespread embrace of the machine-age aesthetic by artists, designers, and the public. " The views of industry and technology displayed here are neutral and formalist, perhaps celebratory. If there is an element of critique, it’s a little bit concealed or buried under the surface," Acker says.

Decades later, many photographers in the 1970s and 80s would choose vast, industrial landscapes similarly devoid of human beings. Were they meditations on utopia? Or dystopia? Both.

Clarence Holbrook Carter's "War Bride" (1940) sits in striking contrast opposite a positive word cloud featuring adjectives describing technology. There's another, negative word cloud. Both are generated by the choices of people visiting the exhibition Cult of the Machine.
Clarence Holbrook Carter's "War Bride" (1940) sits in striking contrast opposite a positive word cloud featuring adjectives describing technology. There's another, negative word cloud. Both are generated by the choices of people visiting the exhibition Cult of the Machine. (Photo: Courtesy of the de Young Museum)

That said, the Precisionists were on to something. The designs of the Machine Age really were magnetically captivating, with their sleek, streamlined smooth and flowing lines. The old adage, "Form follows function," took on a quasi-religious hue.

Acker has put provocative quotes up on the walls of the gallery space, including one from industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague: "We are coming to appreciate beauty as a revelation of problems rightly solved, of visible rightness."

"I think it resonates nicely with Steve Jobs' famous quote," Acker says, gesturing to the opposite wall in the same room. "Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Cult of the Machine runs March 24 through Aug. 12 at the de Young Museum. Details here.

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