Masterworks of industry

Two young artists sipping beer in a Cass Corridor bar are telling me about their favorite abandoned auto factory. "Hey, man, don’t say where it is! We don’t want a bunch of sightseers over there messin’ with our materials and space."

They’re quite serious about preserving the anonymity of their research site. Yet little do they know that artists since the early ’60s in Detroit have been haunting these antiquated factory spaces, rummaging around old presses, cranes and other remnants of vagrant industries, not looking for anything in particular, rather waiting to be chosen by something, a piece of casting, an abstracted industrial shard of unknown origin or purpose, even a forlorn rubber doll, that might become a part of a work of art.

And while the artists rummage through these melancholic spaces, they absorb the genius of it all, the grid order of the buildings and the cavernous rooms, the logical sequence of the production of cars or steel, and the mystery and soul of their city. Just recently, Leonardo Drew, the internationally renowned installation artist from New York, was covertly led through some of the headier abandoned industrial sanctuaries only to return to his high perch in New York with some tasty bits.

Gaze on any of Detroit’s seedy, hallucinatory industrial landscapes — for example, down Manchester Avenue at the Model T plant in Highland Park or the Packard plant over on Grand Boulevard — and squint to erase the scars of time on these neglected antiquities. When you do you’ll see a congregation of buildings that — grown out of a practical man’s architectural toolbox or, in modernist terms, out of a functionalist architect’s vision — represent the dream of a modern life of efficiency, economy and balance. It’s an architecture whose moment was short, 50 years maybe, but which has altered the world forever.

The inspiration, if not the architect, for virtually all of these structures was a German-born Jew by the name of Albert Kahn, who, along with an unlikely collaborator named Henry Ford, was responsible for not only Detroit’s industrial landscape and power but, according to the current exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, a good deal more of the practices of modernist architecture and art than is usually recognized.

"Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern" is an exhibition with two parts that merit serious examination. On the level of material culture, it’s a modest but interesting presentation of photographs, drawings, paintings, architectural plans, related publications and a short movie, all of which are supported by the second part of the exhibition, the four essays of the catalog. Each of the essays, integral to a full appreciation of the exhibit, has a hook that comes from the academic world and makes a case for Kahn’s primary significance in the history of modernist architecture and art. It’s a classic who-influenced-who-and-who-gets-the-credit story and a good one if you’re interested in the role of Detroit in the history of world culture.

Grant Hildebrand’s essay, "Beautiful Factories," lays the groundwork with an appreciation of Kahn’s immigration to Detroit, his self-made-man education and the evolution of his enormous and complex architectural practice that largely hinged upon and mirrored the organization of the auto industry. Hildebrand isolates two phases of modernist architecture for which Kahn was a starting point, as well as citing well-known artists for whom Kahn was a significant inspiration — namely Charles Sheeler and Diego Rivera.

There are eight pieces of Sheeler’s art — both photographs and paintings — including the short film, Manahatta, on which he collaborated with cubist photographer Paul Strand. They’re seldom seen together and are reason enough to visit the exhibition. Sheeler’s painting, "General Motors Research," is a remarkable moment of the merging of cubism and photo realism. While there is included only one small study by Rivera for the "Industry" murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the exhibition provides a unique perspective for visiting and examining perhaps this most salient visual interpretation of industrial life that has ever been created.

Australian art historian Terry Smith’s essay treats the question of the roots of European high modernism of such celebrated architects as Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. Smith, author of Making the Modern, a landmark text on visual culture, details the evolution and cultural significance of Kahn’s functional modernity in the Highland Park Ford plant vs. the cosmetic modernity of the Europeans.

While Kahn’s contribution to modern architecture is fixed in the very structure of society itself — through his designs of the spaces of mass production — it has always been contradicted by his own domestic and civic architecture. Kahn’s nonindustrial buildings, which virtually dominate Detroit’s landscape, reflect the classically inspired Beaux Art education he received in his youthful travels in Europe. The Fisher Building is the Detroit icon most associated with Kahn’s name, but there are a host of buildings, such as the Belle Isle casino, conservatory and aquarium, that express the civic production of Kahn and Associates.

One of the most significant features of the Kahn exhibition is the relationship — articulated in curator Brain Carter’s catalog essay, "Kahn, Machines, and the Collapse of Boundaries" — between the popular use of the camera to document and advertise the modernist industrial message (and Kahn’s architecture) throughout the world; and as an integral tool in the hands of artists creating a new imagery of American life. Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph of New York City, "City of Ambition," and Charles Sheeler’s commissioned photo, "Criss-crossed Conveyors," taken at the Ford Rouge Plant, celebrate different aspects of a new world order.

Also included in the exhibition are contemporary photographer Michael Kenna’s apocalyptic Rouge Plant images which use the factories as a closed "stage set" to document the ennui of the waning of industrial culture. Kenna and our two young Cass Corridor artists still haunting the ruins testify to the ongoing influence of Albert Kahn and Associates.

(Note: Among the artists who have entered the industrial landscape of Albert Kahn and have been directly inspired are Detroit visionaries John Egner, Gordy Newton, Bob Sestok, Marilyn Zimmerman, Clint Snider, Scott Hocking, Tyree Guyton, Steve Magsig, Cay Bahnmiller, Matthew Hanna and Lowell Boileau — with, of course, more to come.)

"Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern"
Through Oct. 21
The University of Michigan Museum of Art
525 S. State St., Ann Arbor
Call 734-764-0395.

Poet and art journalist Glen Mannisto is a regular contributor to the New Art Examiner. E-mail him at [email protected]
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