In 1934, New York’s Museum of Modern Art staged a major exhibition of ball bearings, airplane propellers, pots and pans, cocktail tumblers, petri dishes, protractors, and other machine parts and products. The exhibition, titled Machine Art, explored these ordinary objects as works of modern art, teaching museumgoers about the nature of beauty and value in the era of mass production. Telling the story of this extraordinarily popular but controversial show, Jennifer Jane Marshall examines its history and the relationship between the museum’s director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., and its curator, Philip Johnson, who oversaw it. She situates the show within the tumultuous climate of the interwar period and the Great Depression, considering how these unadorned objects served as a response to timely debates over photography, abstract art, the end of the American gold standard, and John Dewey’s insight that how a person experiences things depends on the context in which they are encountered. An engaging investigation of interwar American modernism, Machine Art, 1934 reveals how even simple things can serve as a defense against uncertainty.
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