Modernism and organization go together in more than just the corporate world (see Rearranging the Deck Chairs below, on Mad Men). As postwar architects and designers worked to elevate ordinary, well-designed products to the status of museum-quality objects, their best friend was the category. A whole wall of industrial components looks much better than a single example. A table full of simple, solid-color china is sculpture, not dinner. The Good Design shows at the Museum of Modern Art, currently remembered in an exhibit on the museum’s third floor, were exemplars of this approach, and the museum asked the best industrial designers in America to design the shows as well as show their designs.
On a recent trip to MoMA, it was two other exhibits that made me think harder about the power of categories, and to wonder where the museum is going now that capital-M Modern is old hat. The first was the wonderful Waste Not (2005) by Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong, an installation of the wooden frame and contents of his mother’s modest house, a 50-year accumulation of stuff by a woman accustomed to rationing. A pile of this stuff (much of it what we might consider recyclables, if not trash) would be horrifying, but the artist and his mother have sorted it by material, color, function, so that each section tells a story about color or design or accumulation over time. There are glossy paper shopping bags that take up half the floor of the small house, and an icy display of styrofoam packing pieces. There are bowls of all materials and colors, and an islet of shoes. It is art because it is organized, though few objects would individually make it into the design collection.
Meanwhile, up on the 6th floor, the work of British industrial designer Ron Arad has been given a completely disorganized showcase called No Discipline. One of the high-ceilinged special exhibition galleries is now a sort of mirrored discotheque for chairs. I wrote a story about Arad for the New York Times years ago, and found him articulate and thoughful, but I hated his work then and even more so now. His approach to material experimentation is well within the modern tradition, appropriating car seats, carving Corian in new ways, making the club chair tough enough, but he doesn’t care about beauty or simplicity. Part of the MoMA’s original concept of modernism was selection, paring away the awkward and the ungainly, seeing the purest iteration in whatever art form. Arad’s discipline seems to be the opposite of that, but he’s the one selling chairs at sculpture-level prices, while Song Dong’s art is all in the arrangement.