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Machine Art, 1934

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.

240 pages | 61 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2012

Art: American Art


History: American History


“The Machine Art exhibition is well known as definitive of the Museum of Modern Art’s strenuous efforts, during its founding years, to promote ‘pure modernism’ as both an absolute aesthetic value and as central to American society in a time of turmoil. No other study takes us so deeply into the thinking of the two major progenitors: Philip Johnson and Alfred H. Barr Jr. Their unique mixture of plain pragmatism and dream-like imagining is subtly shown. An engaging host of minor characters emerge as this fascinating story is told. Just as interesting is the way in which the objects themselves, each of them a carefully designed embodiment of practical purposiveness, are presented as adding up to a new, modern and American standard of beauty––one that was, at the time, yet to be achieved in art itself. Marshall brilliantly brings out the ambition, the strengths, and the overreach, of this still resonant vision.”

Terry Smith, University of Pittsburgh

“A lively, intelligent, and altogether magnificent book that sets a new standard for the integration of art history and thing theory in the American context. Marshall provides an indispensable reading of American modernism’s entanglement with machinery and matter, opening new perspectives on the economic and philosophical crises of the Depression era.”

Jennifer L. Roberts, Harvard University

“This book is a stunning contribution to our deepening understanding of the multiple conceptual and cultural forces shaping American modernism. Marshall shows how these are grounded not simply in aesthetic and formal developments but in philosophical convictions whose impacts are played out across a wide spectrum of national life. In her masterfully concise account of the 1934 Machine Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, we are guided through the anxious worlds of value and meaning as they were negotiated in the decades between the wars. Ranging from debates over currency, labor, and consumerism, to divisions among idealists and pragmatists, elites and populists, Machine Art, 1934 is a richly satisfying case study whose lessons reach very far indeed.”

Angela Miller, Washington University in St. Louis

 “Marhsall offers a deeply scholarly work that is as engaging to read as a good novel, yet poised to have a positive impact on the historical study of art, design, and their modern interactions. . . . This beautifully written and handsomely designed book offers exemplary methods—including the study of exhibitions and their reception—that others should follow to bridge the histories of modern art and design. Essential.”


 “Machine Art, 1934 is an incredibly welcome book, and it gives this hugely influential exhibition the deep focus it deserves. The book keeps circling back to the rooms of gleaming bowls, springs, and beakers, and readers are asked to consider the variety of intersecting meaning systems as they inflected the exhibition. Binding it all together is the concept of objecthood. The various methods and fields of interest explored define the outlines of a kind of epistemology of objects wherein the relationships of material, form, and value, along with the nature of how things carry meanings, can be itself historically determined.”

CAA reviews

“[P]resents a compelling argument for Machine Art as an ideologically conservative response to the crises of the Depression economy—an attempt to represent technological society as not perpetually in chaotic flux but as approaching a perfect stasis. . . . Marshall’s study is a masterful multidisciplinary example of the substantial rewards that often follow from an in-depth examination of a single, relatively limited event.”

Jeffrey L. Meikle | Winterthur Portfolio

Table of Contents


Preface: A Particular Brand of Modernism
Introduction: Material Formalism

1. Objectification
Machine Art’s Photographic Operations

2. In Form We Trust
Machine Art’s Neoplatonism at the End of the American Gold Standard

3. The Art of Parts
Machine Art’s Alienated Objects and Their Rationalized Reassembly

4. Empiricism
The Object of Machine Art’s Experience

Epilogue: Opening the Circle



Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Dedalus Foundation: Robert Motherwell Book Award

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