Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

44 – Portraits of a President @ Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

An installation view of 44 – Portraits of a President at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

In a moment that feels fraught with political peril, the Charles H. Wright has resurrected its show of creatively painted busts of President Barack Obama, first mounted in 2012 and at the time titled Visions of Our 44thPresident.

The current show is called 44 – Portraits of a President and includes a few new Detroit artists not in the original. The exhibition, staged in two galleries on the museum’s lower floor, will be up through Dec. 31, 2022.

All of which raises the question: why resurrect an exhibition after 10 years?

The reason, said Patrina Chatman, the Wright’s director of collections and exhibitions, has everything to do with efforts by some in this country to rewrite the nation’s racial history, downplaying aspects like slavery they find uncomfortable or distasteful.

This deeply offends the historian in Chatman. “You don’t just change the historical record because you don’t want to tell the stories” she said, arguing that those engaging in this sort of revisionism don’t want people to know how dreadful things really were at one time.

“We’re a history museum,” Chatman added. “We have to make sure these stories are told, and told in different ways.”

The premise for “44,” both 2012 and 2022, is simple: Take replicas of the same bust of President Obama, created for the original exhibition by Santa Fe artist Matthew Gonzales, and encourage artists to have at them. The result is a kaleidoscopic parade of Obama likenesses, dressed up in all the colors of the rainbow, and ranging from literal representations to the very abstract.

All Parties by Detroit artist Tyree Guyton.

One of the most interesting is Detroit artist Tyree Guyton’s high-concept contribution, “All Parties.” The Heidelberg Project founder has given us a blandly painted president with light-coffee skin, gray hair, and a pink suit jacket with an orange, striped tie. In front of him is a table stacked with old-fashioned teacups and spoons, an allusion to the Tea Party that rose up in 2009 to bedevil President Obama and his Affordable Care Act as it made its tortuous way through Congress.

In his artist’s statement, Guyton defined Americans — in particular, apparently, Tea Party conservatives — as a “people in a flummoxed situation of refusing to change with the times.”

Appropriating Obama’s image for artistic purposes, of course, was well established even before the 2012 Wright exhibition. The most-famous example is surely Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster, based on an Associated Press photo and one of the most-totemic images from 2008. On the other side of the aisle, artist Jon McNaughton produced a series of highly critical paintings of the president that variously portray him fiddling while Washington burns, or stepping all over the U.S. Constitution. (Fox News’ Sean Hannity reportedly owns one of McNaughton’s canvases.)

Perhaps “44’s” most-daring treatment comes from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, a Brooklyn artist with an African-American mother and an Iranian father (hence the unusual last name). With “Is He Black Enough?” she tackles the question by painting the top half of the president’s face a deep, rich ebony, while the bottom half looks a lot like a white guy with a good tan.

In so doing, Fazlalizadeh touches on the twin complaints that pursued our first African-American president: For many white people, he was unquestionably “too Black,” at the same time that some members of the African-American community charged he wasn’t Black enough. In her artist’s statement, Fazlalizadeh suggested the question highlights “the potency of the color black.”

My Time to Shine by Nina Chanel Abney.

Also going out on a limb symbolically is New Yorker Nina Chanel Abney with her bust. Somewhat shockingly, “My Time to Shine” represents the 44th president as a clown with yellow hair, circular red cheeks, and a garish outfit. Her aim, Abney said on the accompanying label, was to underline how “the ruler of any country must put on many faces to appeal to the masses,” very much as a clown does in a circus.

It’s a plight that seems to stir some sympathy in the artist. Acknowledging the intense, often hostile, scrutiny any president faces – and Obama was certainly no exception (nor Trump) — Abney said she wanted to explore “the idea of concealment for self-preservation,” an intriguing insight into the psychological drawbacks of presidential power.

Tarred and Feathered by Angelbert Metoyer.

Another bust sure to raise eyebrows is New Orleans artist Angelbert Metoyer’s “Tarred and Feathered,” in which we find the former president, his black face streaked with bright gold, wearing a crown of feathers like a Native American tribal leader. Metoyer suggests opponents, with their fierce disdain, in effect tarred and feathered Obama. But the symbolism is two-sided. “In the Afro-Caribbean cultures of the South,” the artist noted, a crown of feathers signals power and prestige. “With this bust,” she said, wrapping things up nicely, “the punishment became instead an adornment – he is beautified by it.”

Preston Sampson’s Tales Retold.

Finally, the somewhat downbeat “Tales Retold” by Baltimore artist Preston Sampson acknowledges Obama’s huge accomplishment as the first Black president, but steps back to ask whether his administration really changed the trajectory Sampson argues the country’s been on for at least a century.

In “Tales,” Obama is decked out in a Roman centurion’s helmet, complete with red plume. While many Americans are proud that we elected Obama, the artist suggests we still resemble the Roman Empire more than we might like to think, and that the president, for all his virtues, did little to alter that.

Which leads to a heavy question: “Will we follow the same course of ruin?” as Sampson asked in his artist’s statement. “That tale is yet to be told.”

Mr. President Hear Our Cry by Kevin Cole.

44 – Portraits of a President will be up at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History through Dec. 31,2022.

History Told Slant @ MSU Broad

History Told Slant: Seventy-seven Years of Collecting Art at MSU installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

The exhibition History Told Slant is occasioned by the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Broad Art Museum, a space designed by architectural megastar Zaha Hadid, and which in 2012 became the new home to the robust collection of art formerly displayed at Michigan State University’s Kresge Art Museum. The collection itself marks its 77th year, and on view is a sprawling cross-section of highlights. While serving as an upbeat celebration of the museum’s collection, this exhibition also engages in dialogue about the ethics and practice of collecting and displaying art, particularly regarding representing voices traditionally underrepresented in museum spaces.

The exhibition opens with a strong salvo of gestural character studies, representing a wide variety of time periods and cultures. A small self-portrait by Rembrandt, a bronze study by Rodin, and a portrait bust by Reuben Kadish, though vastly different in style, pair well in their scribbled rendering of the human figure. These, along with an ensemble of 19th century Benin bronze figures hint at the varied ways different artists from different cultures abstract the human form, and gently flaunt the cultural and geographic reach of the Broad’s holdings.

Comprising a vast ensemble of photography, painting, drawing, and other two-dimensional media, the “Portrait Salon” is the focal point of the room and a highlight of the exhibition. The works are mounted salon-style, filling every bit of wall space from floor to ceiling. The salon-style display conscientiously references the Parisian salons of the 19th century but sheds any adherence to the academic uniformity they so ardently championed. Variety is the only theme here, and there’s certainly plenty of it, ranging from 17th-century Dutch portraiture to the photography of Dawoud Bey and Diane Arbus.

History Told Slant: Seventy-seven Years of Collecting Art at MSU installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

An adjacent gallery space addresses the theme of “Embodying the Divine,” and features both religious art and art inspired by religious art. Unlike the wall of portraits, these works are given more breathing room. Western and Non-Western traditions are represented, ranging from Christian devotional paintings (including Francisco de Zurbarán’s painting of St. Anthony), an ensemble of illustrated pages from an 18th-century copy of the Bhagavata Purana, and a few surprises. One of these is a characteristically large painting by Kehinde Wiley; taking his inspiration from a Baroque-era sculpture of a martyred St. Cecelia, here Kehinde replaces Cecelia with a lifeless black male, the circumstances of whose presumed death/martyrdom is not revealed to the viewer. Kehinde Wiley has produced an impressive and immense body of work based on re-imagining canonical works of Western art, and there likely isn’t a better artist to include in a show that reconsiders art history through a more inclusive and equitable lens.

History Told Slant: Seventy-seven Years of Collecting Art at MSU installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

History Told Slant: Seventy-seven Years of Collecting Art at MSU installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Mimicking the exhibit’s portrait wall is an equally impressive salon-style display featuring paintings, photographs, and prints loosely based on the theme of landscape art (some still-lives, several cityscapes, and even some completely abstract paintings are included here, but they all seem to support the theme). As with the portrait gallery, here the Broad flaunts the stylistic, geographic, and chronological scope of its collection. Perhaps the most well-known of these works is actually a seascape: viewers will surely recognize The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai’s famed Edo-period woodblock print.   There’s photography by Ansel Adams, Chinese vertically-oriented scroll painting, Inuit lithography, and even two paintings by Michigan’s own Mathias Alten, who spent much of his life painting Michigan’s landscapes and lakeshores.  In the center of the gallery space, a sculpture by Alexander Calder, Sunrise over the Pyramid, playfully broadens the boundaries of what we might ordinarily consider a landscape.

History Told Slant: Seventy-seven Years of Collecting Art at MSU installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

In several instances, works by contemporary artists engage in direct dialogue with art from the ancient past.  In her works To the Unknown Migrant and Eternal Pilgrimage, contemporary Mexican artist Betsabeé Romero engraves tires with traditional Mexican figurative imagery, juxtaposing an emphatically modern substance with historic cultural symbols. Just a few feet away is an ensemble of small Mayan sculptures, some of which come from as early as the 8th century.  If we’re giving an award to the oldest work in the show, however, perhaps it should technically go to Daniel Baird’s Moment II, a wall-mounted sculpture made from a 30-million-year-old fossilized tortoise shell.

History Told Slant: Seventy-seven Years of Collecting Art at MSU installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2022. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Aside from introductory remarks explaining each section of the exhibit, there’s little expository text accompanying the art, and most of these works are allowed to simply speak for themselves. It’s difficult to recommend highlights from the show, since the entire exhibit comprises highlights from the Broad’s collection, which contains nearly 5,000 years’ worth of artwork. There’s a smattering of everything, and artists with significant name recognition are paired alongside new and emerging contemporary talent. Since its construction a decade ago, the Broad has largely functioned as an emphatically contemporary art museum and an excellent one at that. But it’s nice to be able to once again, and all in one place, see new artwork join forces with so many of the old staples that graced the walls of the old Kresge Art Museum; it feels very much like being reunited with old friends.

History Told Slant: Seventy-Seven Years of Collecting Art at MSU is on view at the Broad Art Museum through August 7, 2022.

Quiet As It’s Kept @ Whitney Biennial 2022

Whitney Museum of Art Biennial 2022, Installation image

The Whitney Biennial is the longest-running survey of American art and has been a hallmark of the Museum since 1932. Initiated by the Museum’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as an invitational exhibition featuring artwork created in the preceding two years, the biennials were originally organized by medium, with painting alternating with sculpture and works on paper. Much has evolved over the years and this year the Biennial comes after being postponed because of the pandemic. The spaces here contrast significantly, acknowledging the acute polarities in American society. One floor is a labyrinth, a dark space of containment and another is a clearing, open and light field. The subtitle of this year’s Biennial is Quiet as it’s Kept, is a colloquialism.  The quote comes from the writer Toni Morrison and is said prior to something, often obvious that should be kept a secret. The curators, David Beslin, and Adrenne Edwards have been entrusted with making the exhibition that resides within the Museum’s history, collection and reputation. This is the 18th iteration and continues to function as an ongoing experiment.

Denyse Thomasos, Displaced Burial/Burial at Gorée, 1993.

The sixth-floor section of the Biennial opens with two large-scale abstract works by the late artist Denyse Thomasos, who died in 2012 at 47. For these striking works, Thomasos was interested in creating the sense of claustrophobia felt by enslaved people crossing the Atlantic crossing and inmates being held in prisons. Her goal was “to capture the feeling of confinement,” she once said, per the wall text, as a way to explore how structures like ships and prisons have “left catastrophic effects on the Black psyche. Her black and white overlapping grids create a feeling of claustrophobia and captivity. There are two twin paintings presented here as the viewer enters a space that is entirely black. Most of this floor is divided up into rooms (all black) that serve as viewing rooms for art videos.

Rebecca Belmore’s sculpture, “ishkode (fire),” 2021

At the Whitney Biennial, center, the Indigenous artist Rebecca Belmore’s sculpture, “ishkode (fire),” 2021, made from clay and bullet casings.  The Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore—who was the first Indigenous artist to present Canada at the Venice Biennale, in 2005—made this commanding ceramic sculpture from a sleeping bag cast in clay and surrounded it with an arrangement of empty bullet casings. The work, a critique of the historic genocide and ongoing disproportionate violence against Indigenous people, is a centerpiece of the sixth floor of the exhibition, illuminated from above in the otherwise darkened space. “The work carries an emptiness,” the artist writes. “But at the same time, because it’s a standing figure, I’m hoping that the work contains some positive aspects of this idea that we need to try to deal with violence.”  In the background, Guadalupe Rosales’s photographs of East Los Angeles, 2022.

Daniel Matinez, Post Manifesto for the Future, 2022

There are five photographs that document what Daniel Joseph Marinez has described as “radical performative experiment of becoming post-human and the evolution of a new species.” Martinez used his own body to interrogate and bear witness to the extraordinary moment in human history, our own self-destruction.”  The recent abstract paintings on view here involve a process of accumulation in which the surface of the canvas is constructed of sweeping gestures, letters, drips, splatters, and moments of erasure is a reflection of how we evolve in life.  The black and white silkscreened work of marks and impressions tries to articulate who we are or who we might be at any given moment: a kind of visual poem or disruption.

Adam Pendelton, Untitled 2021

Ralph Lemon is an interdisciplinary artist who works primarily in performance and has made drawings throughout his life.  For the Biennial he has created a choreography of work that is presented in a group and moves throughout the exhibition in a circle.  Every so often the work moves to a new position in the collection. Themes range from elaborate visual mediations and the nature of the artistic process itself to experiments refracting Black American culture, icons, music, and joy.  It is fair to say this is an installation of images that changes its position during the exhibition.

Ralph Lemon, One of several from an untitled series, that changes. 2022

There are five paintings by Jane Dickson who shares the hopes and aspirations that commercial signs convey both in contemporary suburban spaces she photographed in New York City during the 1980s.  The Motel is one of the five.   Dickson’s careful depictions suggest that certain violence comes with making generalizations in the writing off of those who lead their lives in the areas that are frequently overlooked or dismissed. In her statement she says, “I chose to be a witness to my time, not to document its grand moments, but to capture the small telling ones, the overlooked everyday things that define a time and place.

Jane Dickson, Motel 5, Acrylic on Felt, 2019

Coco Fusco, Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word, 2021.

In this new video, Coco Fusco directly reflects on the death toll caused by the pandemic. We see her in a boat just off Hart Island, near the Bronx. The island has long been the site of New York City’s potter’s field, where unclaimed bodies are buried. At the height of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s, many bodies of people whose families had disowned them were sent here; over the past two years, it has again become active at an alarming rate. Fusco tapped poet and writer Pamela Sneed, an AIDS activist who penned a 2020 memoir Funeral Diva about that era, to provide the narration—written by Fusco—for this poignant mediation on death, loss, and grief. Over the course of 12 minutes, Sneed tells us that there could be as many as a million bodies buried here, but no one accurately knows. With the staggering total death totals from Covid, she notes, bodies become numbers in ways that make us forget the stories of those who are lost. Throughout the film, like a chorus, Sneed repeats, “‘When death comes it will have your eyes,’ he said.”

If you are visiting New York City before September 6, 2022, it is always a good experience to see what is going on around the country.  Something worth note is there are four indigenous artists represented from various parts of Noth America.  The exhibitions are on floors, 1, 3, 5, and 6.

In Summary, I would agree with the art critic Peter Schjeldahl who says “ long on installations and videos and short on painting, conventional sculpture, and straight photography.” When he writes for The New Yorker. Whitney Biennial 2022

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

Installation image, Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft @ BBAC

If there ever was a bright line of distinction between what we call contemporary fine art and what is now considered to be craft, that line has long ago been crossed and obliterated.  The mixed bag of artifacts on display in the exhibition at Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center from May 6 to June 2 illustrates this, with a range of objects and images that contrast the useful with the expressive, the carefully crafted with the emotionally contingent.  “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” takes us on a tour of the increasingly porous borders between objects that can claim to be fine art, but qualify as craft only because they refer tangentially to traditional crafts and finely handmade objects that are intended for utilitarian purposes.

Wall Vessel V, Constance Compton Pappas, unfired clay, cedar

 

Balanced, Constance Compton Pappas, cedar, plaster, clay

The objects in the exhibition fall roughly into two categories. Works by artists such as Constance Compton Pappas, Dylan Strzynski, Sandra Cardew and Sharon Harper privilege the expressive properties of the materials and push them to the limits of their identity. Often there is a toy-like mood to this work.  Any pretense to utility is deeply submerged beneath the artists’ emotionally poignant themes. Pappas’s wall-mounted, naturally irregular wooden shelves support clay objects that only refer to vessels, and certainly were never intended to function.  They are signs for cups and the considerable pleasure to be derived from them rests upon their rough, stony texture contrasted with the irregularities of the wooden support. Elsewhere in the gallery, Pappas uses the abstract shapes of 3 cast plaster houses, again placed on a raw wood pedestal in a stack, entitled Balanced, that implies a state of wonky precarity.  Dylan Strzynski’s playful, barn-red house model, Attic, made of wood, sticks and wire, suggests a kind of Baba Yaga cottage on legs, poised to jump off its pedestal in pursuit of the viewer. Sandra Cardew’s Boy with Broom continues the preoccupation with play. The subdued color and rough fabric of the golem-child is both a little funny and a little ominous. Sharon Harper’s Pink Trailer makes an interesting kind of mini-installation by hanging a 2-dimensional photo landscape on the wall behind a diminutive clay trailer, suggesting the possibility of travel through wide open spaces.

Attic, Dylan Strzynski, wood, paint, sticks, wire, string

 

Sandra Cardew, Boy with Broom, mixed media assemblage

Danielle Bodine’s wall installation, Celestial Dance, offers a floating population of tiny woven wire and paper elements that might claim to be plankton or might be satellites.  Whatever they are, their yellow starlike shapes weightlessly orbit a larger, spiky planetary body, and cast lively shadows on the wall. The basketry techniques that Bodine has employed for nearly 20 years allow her complete freedom to invent these minute entities in three dimensions.

Sharon Harper, Pink Trailer, low fire clay, photograph

The fiber artist Carole Harris, who has several works in the show, continues to be in a class by herself. From her beginnings as a more conventional quilter, Harris has traveled far and wide, taking inspiration from Asia, Africa and beyond. Her carefully composed, expressively dyed and stitched formal abstractions are emotionally resonant and reliably satisfying. The artist employs a mix of fabrics and papers, along with hand-stitching and applique, with the easy virtuosity of long practice.

Danielle Bodine, Celestial Dance, mulberry and recycled papers cast on Malaysian baskets, removed, stitched, painted, stamped, waxed linen coiled objects, plastic tubes, beads,

Carol Harris, Yesterdays, quilted collage

Russ Orlando’s pebbly pastel ceramic urn-on-a-table, Finding #171, is covered by contrasting buttons and frogs wired to the substrate. The vessel evokes a friendly presence: it wants to know and be known.

Two artists in “Many Voices,” Lynn Avadenka and Karen Baldner, are masters in the craft bookmaking/printing, whose work perfectly balances function and form, though to different ends. Baldner’s snaky, wiggly rice paper centipede of a book, Letting Go, shows how exquisite technique can pair with creative expressiveness to yield an original effect. The restrained elegance of Lynne Avadenka’s handmade screen Comes and Goes III demonstrates that utility and esthetic pleasure need not be mutually exclusive.

Karen Baldner, Letting Go, piano hinge binding with horsehair, mixed media print transfers

 

Lynne Avadenka, Comes and Goes III, unique folding screen, relief printing, letter press, typewriting, book board, Tyvek

Among the objects in this collection, Colin Tury’s handsome, minimalist metal LT Chair hews closest to traditional ideas of craft, as does Cory Robinson’s smoothly crafted side table, which looks as if it belongs in a hip, mid-century bachelor’s lair.

Colin Tury, LT Chair, aluminum, steel

 

Cory Robinson, Canberra Table, American black walnut

In this time and place, and as illustrated by the artists in “Many Voices,” the categorization of an object as “art” or “craft” has become less and less useful. Historically, crafts based on highly technical knowledge—ceramics, fiber glass and the like –have been assigned a lesser status because of their identity as objects of utility.  It is undeniable too that many of these crafts were practiced by women, which devalued them in the estimation of collectors and galleries. Fortunately, those preconceptions are receding into the past, as artists progress toward a future that is more open to new forms and voices, new materials and subjects.

The artists in “Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft” are: Kathrine Allen Coleman, Lynne Avadenka, Karen Baldner, Danielle Bodine, Sandra Cardew, Candace Compton Pappas, Nathan Grubich, Christine Hagedorn, Sharon Harper, Carole Harris, Amanda St. Hillaire, Sherry Moore, Russ Orlando, Cory Robinson, Dylan Strzynski, Colin Tury.

Many Voices: The Fine Art of Craft at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center runs until June 2, 2022.

 

 

Karinna Sanchez Klocko : “Memories” @ Image Works

The exhibition space at Image Works is small but highly visible – the display windows on Michigan Avenue, which stay lit all night long.

It may be one of the smallest gallery spaces in the Detroit area. It’s virtually a pop-up. But the art by Karinna Sanchez Klocko hanging in the display windows at Image Works, a fine-art photo-printing shop in Dearborn, is both punchy and well worth a look. With “Memories,” the artist – a young graphic designer living in Commerce – takes a nostalgic look back at her childhood in Monterrey, Mexico, creating digital vignettes that, in the words of the artist’s statement, “capture the memories and dreams of the moment.”  “Memories” will be up through May 27.

Karinna Sanches Klocko creates her vividly colored, untitled canvases on the computer.

What you find at Image Works is a handful of sunny, color-drenched interiors, all accented with sprays of tropical flowers. The mood is cheerfully nostalgic, not syrupy. The domestic subjects – among others, a hallway leading to a front door, a bureau partly covered by a floral tablecloth, and a kitchen corner with fruit hanging in baskets next to an old “Trimline” wall phone – are unremarkable in themselves, but radiate light and comfort and “home.” The point of view is highly personal, as if the artist were, indeed, trying to reassemble scenes once commonplace, but now far in the past and scattered.

The artist’s digital creations take an affectionate look back at her Mexican childhood.

 There’s a specificity to the images that’s engaging. The kitchen counter is guarded by a tiny, metal turtle. Flower pots on the bureau have highly particular designs that feel rooted in reality. So too with the blue, patterned-tile floor leading to the front door. These are digitally created designs, of course, not photographs. But there’s a distinct Kodachrome quality to Klocko’s color palette – a radiant spectrum that if not unique to Latin America, certainly typifies much of the art that’s blossomed in warmer and sunnier lands south of the Rio Grande.

Image Works owner Chris Bennett, who moved to Detroit from Portland, Oregon, five years ago, says he first got to know Klocko when she came in as a customer. A lot of artists, he says, bring work to him for digital reproduction. In Klocko’s case, Bennett liked what he saw, and invited the Michigan State graduate to do a show.

It may seem counterintuitive, but maintaining a gallery in a photo shop has long been Bennett’s habit and ambition. “I love exhibiting artists’ work,” he said, “and it’s a great way to build community as well. It adds another element.”

Bennett moved to the present Michigan Avenue location last July from his old shop in Dearborn. While he doesn’t have as much gallery space here as before, he’s got dynamite display windows fronting a major thoroughfare that seem design-made for his intentions: “I wanted to do large-scale pieces that could easily be seen from the road,” he said, “that would attract people’s attention without causing accidents.”

In another civic-minded gesture, Bennett leaves the window lights on all night long – offering a bright dash of color that’s bound to surprise west-bound drivers in the wee hours.

 Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence @ Detroit Historical Museum

An installation shot of the Albert Kahn exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum. (Michael G. Smith)

An outstanding new exhibition on Detroit’s most-famous architect, “Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence on 20thCentury Architecture,” is up at the Detroit Historical Museum through July 3. Organized by the new nonprofit Albert Kahn Legacy Foundation, with a mission to “honor, educate and preserve,” the show aims to broaden knowledge and capitalize on the recent uptick in the industrial architect’s reputation nationwide.

This is a handsome exhibition with a number of salient virtues — not too big, not too small, enlivened by smart, concise text, cool graphic design, and striking Lego replicas of some of the architect’s most famous buildings.

What’s not to like?

Start with the Lego structures. The eight-foot-tall model of the Fisher Building at the center of the gallery is a total scene-stealer. Made up of 120,000 pieces, the 300-pound behemoth is the work of local Lego-master James Garrett, who specializes in models of Detroit’s pre-war architecture. Other replicas on display include the Russell Industrial Center (originally the Murray Body Corporation) and Capitol Park’s Griswold Building, long empty but now renovated into luxury apartments and rechristened “The Albert” in honor of its designer.

The show does a superb job laying out Kahn’s early life, and his arrival in Detroit as an impoverished Jewish immigrant when he was about 12. From there on, of course – once he lands his apprenticeship with Mason & Rice, a highly significant downtown firm – the youngster scaled the professional ladder quickly and with astonishing ease. Among other things, Kahn from an early age was a remarkably gifted freehand sketch artist (credit his teacher – Detroit artist Julius Melchers), and the show contains several of his drawings from European travels.

Albert Kahn, seated at left, in the offices of Mason & Rice when he was about 19. (Albert Kahn Associates)

 For those who don’t know Kahn’s work well, there are also some marvelous surprises here — not least the fact that the Fisher Building, as we know it, is only one-third of a massive complex with a central tower that got scotched once the stock market crashed in 1929.

 The exhibition also lays out the Kahn firm’s astonishing work in the late 1920s and early 30s building over 500 plants and factories across the Soviet Union, an effort that industrialized what had been a backward, agrarian economy. Want to know why the USSR didn’t collapse when the Nazis invaded in 1941-42? The answer has a lot to do with the armaments that rolled off the production lines of Kahn-built factories like the vast Stalingrad Tractor Plant.

 The exhibition also explores the architect’s relationship with Henry Ford, Kahn’s most-important client from 1908 on, when he began to design the Highland Park Model-T plant. It also discusses his relationship with the automaker once the latter’s Dearborn Independent newspaper launched a weekly series of anti-Semitic screeds in 1920, “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” (Despite this, Ford clearly liked and admired Kahn, calling him “one of the best men I ever knew” on the architect’s death in 1942.)

Kahn’s revolutionary, reinforced concrete factories for Ford, with their lack of ornamentation, huge windows, and geometric-grid facades, established the standard for modern industry worldwide in the early 20th century. They also, as the section titled “Kahn’s Influence on Modernism” details, had a seismic impact on young architectural rebels in Europe desperate for a new, “pure” architecture, which they found in Kahn’s stripped-down Ford plants. Both Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier cited the Highland Park complex in writings that laid out the tenets of early architectural modernism.

All in all, this is a show anyone proud of Detroit’s architectural heritage will not want to miss. Indeed, Albert himself would be proud.

One of Kahn’s crowning achievements – the Fisher Building arcade and lobby. (Michael G. Smith)

 Karinna Sanchez Klocko: “Memories” at Image Works in Dearborn will be up through May 27.

Albert Kahn: Innovation & Influence on 20th Century Architecture will be at the Detroit Historical Museum until July 3.

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