Robert Preusser



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ROBERT PREUSSER (Am. 1919-1992)




ROBERT PREUSSER CATALOGUE

ROBERT PREUSSER: THE NEW BAUHAUS AND BEYOND
By: Larry Boettigheimer

Robert Preusser started art lessons in 1930 at the age of eleven. His teacher was Ola McNeill Davidson. McNeill Davidson was known to be a representational painter, but she was broadminded teacher with an affinity for modernism. She had been to Paris and was well acquainted with European modernism. While in Paris she received instruction from the noted French modernist André Lhote. McNeill Davidson taught art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, but in 1938 opened her own art school and gallery in a converted two-story garage. Davidson introduced her students to the work of the great European Modernists. Among her students was a circle of young Houston avant-garde painters including Robert Preusser, Forrest Bess, Frank Dolejska, Gene Charlton and Carden Bailey. Preusser recalled the group would discuss art and modernism late into the night as well as attend symphonies and ballet. This core group of artists marks the beginning of the modern movement in Houston, Texas.

By 1935, at the age of 16, Robert Preusser began to make a name for himself with the entry of a painting in the annual juried show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The next year brought additional recognition with Preusser receiving honorable mention for his entry. This feat is even more remarkable when you take into account the museum jury and patrons were firmly in the camp of representational art and Texas Regionalism was the style of the day. Robert Preusser had taken a radical direction for a Texas artist, but his work was so innovative and inspired he could not be ignored by the jury, the press, or the Houston museum patrons.

The two watercolors in this exhibition are from 1937-1938. Preusser described his early watercolors in his oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution. Many of them were titled “Improvisation” and were exhibited in 1990 in simultaneous exhibitions at the Transco Towers and the Parkerson Gallery (both exhibitions organized and curated by Sandy Parkerson). Preusser related that he had stashed about 100 watercolors from 1937-1938 in a trunk and when he saw those watercolors he realized “I had something here that should not stay in the trunk.” Preusser recalled that the watercolors were true improvisations and were completely abstract and spontaneously painted without any elements of representation.

In looking at this early period of Preusser’s work (1935-1939) it is tempting to say that the artist was highly influenced by Kandinsky, Klee, or Miro, but Preusser revealed that his true source of inspiration was a book given to him by Ola McNeill Davidson. The book was written by Albert Barnes, an important collector rather than an artist, called The Art in Painting.” Preusser stated that this book was “a bit of my bible at the time.” Barnes’ book rejected the notion of understanding fine art in terms of narrative and representation, but extolled “formal values” such as color, light, line, mass, composition, symmetry, angularity. So if for example, an artist wanted to convey a feeling of tragedy, he would not rely on depicting a tragic scene, the artist would instead use somber or harsh colors, constricted spaces, jagged lines, depending on the artist’s own feelings and experiences with those artistic devices.

By 1939 at the age of twenty, Preusser started looking outside of the Houston area to further his art education. He had seen an article in Time magazine about the “New Bauhaus” Institute of Design in Chicago and revealed, “the reason I went to there was what I saw in Time magazine, a little article on the opening which was the year before of the New Bauhaus, it was called. And that’s when I said I want to go there just from the review of the opening and what it was all about.”

Preusser further related:

“As a matter of fact, it’s an interesting thing that happened. McNeill Davidson and my mother drove me to Chicago to interview Moholy. And Moholy told McNeill, he says, “I can’t teach your former student to paint. I can’t do anything to change his” – not to change. He says, “I cannot teach him to be an artist, but I can teach him things about structure and about Bauhaus, old Bauhaus philosophy and all that sort of thing.”….

“But he admitted right away when he saw my work that I was on roll in terms of what I was doing in that he couldn’t contribute to that aspect of it.”….

“It was so different from than anything that existed in the country. I studied. I know I wanted to study it, but I’d never seen anything that was of the approach. And, of course, I was proven to be right because eventually, history has proven that Bauhaus and the Institute of Design I followed is the greatest influence in teaching in art and design in this country. So I made a wise decision, I think.”….

“It was a very structured program, and it included professors from the University of Chicago teaching biology and mathematics and chemistry and all of that, but it also primarily was focused on drawing. It was minor, but there was a drawing class. And there was light and color class, and there was photography, the first time I ever tried a camera. And architecture, George Fred Keck, who was a well-known Chicago architect was an architectural instructor.”……

“I had all of them, yes. I had the complete program. Yes, it was a full day’s program, and I went there for only one year, ’39 to ’40. And then ‘40, ‘41, I was in New Orleans, and you’ll see some things that I did there. And then ’41, ’42, I went back to Chicago, the Institute of Design.”

The philosophy of the Bauhaus originated in Weimer Germany. The word literally means “construction house” or “School of Building.” The Bauhaus was first founded by Walter Gropius and combined crafts, fine art, and architecture. Gropius formulated the manifesto for the Bauhaus which stated “The final goal of all artistic activity is architecture.”

The Bauhaus Principals:

“The Bauhaus principles are best summarized by Alfred Barr, the Director of the Museum of Modern Art 1938, in his preface to the book Bauhaus (edited by Gropius and Bayer):

• most students should face the fact that their future should be involved primarily with industry and mass production rather than with individual craftsmanship

• teachers in schools of design should be men who are in advance of their profession rather than safely and academically in the rearguard

• the schools of design should, as the Bauhaus did, bring together the various arts of painting, architecture, theatre, photography, weaving, typography, etc., into a modern synthesis which disregards conventional distinctions between the “fine” and “applied” arts

• it is harder to design a first rate chair than to paint a second rate painting-and much more useful

• a school of design should have on its faculty the purely creative and disinterested artist such as the easel painter as a spiritual counterpoint to the practical technician in order that they may work and teach side by side for the benefit of the student

• manual experience of materials is essential to the student of design-experience at first confirmed to free experiment and then extended to the practical workshop

• because we live in the 20th century, the student architect or designer should be offered no refuge in the past but should be equipped for the modern world in its various aspects, artistic, technical, social, economic, spiritual, so that he may function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.”

It is fascinating that a brilliant young artist would choose a school that rejected “art for art’s sake,” but instead emphasized practical industrial design, interdisciplinary study, and man’s physical as well as aesthetic needs, but Preusser was a modernist and also clearly saw the need for an interdisciplinary approach for art in the accelerating machine age of the 1930s and 1940s. The New Bauhaus program was not focused exclusively on art. Preusser recalled that during his studies, except for his drawing class, his professors never saw or criticized his art. The only thing they ever saw was his completed class exercises! Preusser received rigorous instruction in design and composition, but his technique, and visual vocabulary were his own. His teachers never set foot in his studio or critiqued his painting.

The drawings in this exhibition are all from 1941-1942 during Preusser’s time at the New Bauhaus. In his oral history interview Preusser reveals the origins of these drawings: “On Sundays, I would sit down and make little 8 x 10 on typing paper as the surface and made ink drawings, thermals of weird figures and others completely abstract and then birds…”

These drawings are notable because they exemplify the beauty and artistic potential of the simplest artistic element, the line. A number of these drawings consist of one, two, or a few continuous unbroken line segments. In some of these drawings the artist would complete the entire complex drawing only lifting the pen from the paper a few times. Other drawings have networks of finely spaced lines spontaneously drawn with such precision and so close together they almost defy human capability. The extreme precision of Preusser’s line drawings is apparent, and what is more remarkable is that he accomplished these without erasure or changes to composition. In effect, they are like jazz improvisations. No do-over’s – no safety net.

It was at the New Bauhaus in 1941-1942 (the dates of the above mentioned drawings) that Preusser began realizing the deeper goals of the Bauhaus tradition. Barely at the age of twenty years old Preusser also became an instructor at the New Bauhaus. He also was involved in research studies concerning camouflage techniques for the military in case of war with Germany or Japan. Preusser worked on a camouflage design incorporating a series of lights in Lake Michigan that could fool a potential night bomber into dropping his bombs over Lake Michigan instead of the downtown Chicago. Ultimately when the war came Preusser was drafted and worked in the camouflage unit of the U.S. Army.

After the end of World War II, Preusser spent one year at the Art Center School in Los Angeles. He stated the reason he attended that school was that he wanted to try something that was different from the Bauhaus to get another kind of experience. He said that the war did not change or affect his art and that he simply picked up where he left off. After a year studying art in Los Angeles, Preusser returned to Houston. He quickly took teaching positions at the Museum of Fine Arts school, the University of Houston, the Port Arthur Art Association (summer), and the Houston Jewish Community Center (summer), besides competing and winning in local, regional, and national juried competitions.

In 1948, Robert Preusser, Walter Furmer, Alvin Romansky, Karl Kamrath, Buck Schwietz, and Robert Strauss founded the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Preusser served as the co-director of the museum. It is in both Preusser’s education, as well as museum activities, that his dedication to New Bauhaus principals became the most evident. Preusser’s own art was not identifiably New Bauhaus since much of Preusser’s style was self directed rather than imitated from his teachers or mentors. Preusser became an evangelist of sorts for modern art in Houston, bringing the modern aesthetic to the general population via the newly formed Contemporary Arts Museum, as well as extolling the modern aesthetic via his teaching activities with university students, aspiring painters and even hobbyists.

Preusser was very involved in the exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum. He made sure that the programming and exhibitions not only showcased “pure art,” but also industrial design, architecture, machine design, photography, as well as other “applied arts.” In fact, in this manner Preusser realized one of Walter Gropius primary objectives of bringing together the various arts of painting, architecture, theatre, photography, etc., into a modern synthesis that disregards conventional distinctions between fine art and applied arts.

In 1949, upon the death of the New Bauhaus’ founder, Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Robert Preusser formally introduced the New Bauhaus and his mentor Moholy-Nagy to Houston, Texas with a retrospective memorial exhibition. In the true Bauhaus tradition paintings, photographs (Moholy –Nagy was also an accomplished photographer) industrial design, furniture, and architecture; fine as well as applied arts were part of the exhibition.

In 1954, at the urging of György Kepes, one his former teachers at the New Bauhaus, Preusser accepted a temporary teaching assignment at the MIT School of Architecture. This “temporary” one-year position evolved into a 31-year career as a tenured professor of architecture in the field of visual design, color theory, and lighting. As the art department grew, Preusser generally pushed for adding instructors with Bauhaus training. When there were attempts to move the MIT art department to the School of Humanities from the School of Architecture, Preusser along with his friend Kepes vigorously opposed the move. Preusser’s view of art education at MIT was aligned exactly with Walter Gropius that “the final goal of all artistic activity is architecture.”

It is now easier to spot the seeming contradiction in Robert Preusser’s art. As a painter, Preusser was producing “art for art’s sake”; pure art not applied art; but in his teaching career at MIT Preusser was dedicated to teaching applied art and architecture. Listed below are some representative of some of the research titles and seminars Robert Preusser gave during his tenure as a professor of Architecture at MIT:

They include topics such as:

“Color in Architecture”, 1960 Producers Council, Boston Chapter “Lighting in Church Architecture,” 1962; New England Conference on Church Architecture “New Approaches in Art Education,” Witte Museum San Antonio, 1964; “Science, Technology and Art,” Houston Art League, 1967; “Creative Arts in Education,” University of Texas, 1964; “Science, Engineering and Creativity in Art,” University of Surry England, 1969; “Technology Invades the Arts,” IBM Corporation, 1968.” Preusser’s role as a professor of Architecture was dedicated to the applied arts. Preusser’s classes at MIT used a novel technique to teach art to technical students. The students were generally science, engineering, or architecture students. Preusser realized that the traditional approach of teaching art (composition, life drawing, etc.) would not work well. The student would spend their entire semester learning the basics of drawing, and would never advance far enough to be beneficial to their technical studies. So Robert Preusser did something radical. He put the technical students directly into a lab and tasked them with experiments using their own discipline to produce art. So a chemical engineer might create something involving crystal growth, a mechanical engineer might use motors to develop kinetic forms, a computer engineer might write a program that produced a geometric design, and an architectural student might complete a lighting design for a building.

Preusser’s classroom was more of a lab. His students were encouraged to experiment and discover for themselves. Preusser used this same approach in his own studio. He became an experimentalist. He rarely used only oil paint or watercolor. Preusser was now starting to include space-age and engineered materials in his art. Plastic paint, aluminum paint, industrial adhesives, polyurethane foams, glass beads, sand, and industrial abrasives were all incorporated in his own art. The paintings in this exhibition include many of these materials and media.

Unfortunately, like Madam Curie the famous chemist, Preusser was poisoned by his own experimentation. In 1983 he went to reorder his polyurethane resin for his polyurethane reliefs (there are two polyurethane reliefs in this show), and his supplier said they could no longer sell the material to him. When he asked for a reason, the supplier told him that they could not give him a reason, but that he could no longer purchase it from them. It was at that point that Preusser realized the polyurethane was likely a real health hazard. A few years later, Robert Preusser’s pulmonary condition and health had deteriorated to the point that his artistic production had virtually ceased. There were a few late paintings that had already been started that the artist was able to complete after 1985, and a few more produced by 1990 two years before his death.

MIT held a Robert Preusser retrospective in 1990. In preparing for his retrospective Preusser reckoned from archival photographs he took of his paintings, sales records, and from his personal inventory he produced about 800 quality paintings and drawings over a 60 year career. Preusser lamented a bit that 800 was a fairly small number for lifetime production compared to many other artists, but that number did not reflect his teaching activities. As a teacher there were many years where his artistic production was only during the summer. Preusser reflected on his retrospective, and when asked if he was pleased with his lifetime career in art as both a painter and teacher, he said that he was very pleased with his work. He found it an amazing experience to see them all displayed in retrospect. Preusser noted that even he was a somewhat surprised with the diversity of his work over the whole of his career.

  In reflecting over great diversity of his artistic output Preusser remarked:

“That’s right, that’s right, yes. And I think less of a consistency as many artists have had. I have never striven to be identified with one form of abstraction, for example. During my Chicago years and after, for a while, I had been very much influenced by Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus approach, and I had very geometric forms. And I’m proud of that period because it was something I did on my own. I was not influenced there.” ….”But by and large, I think what the “Art News Review” says, I concur, and that is that I was a painter that did not adhere -- adhered to my own call and not to trends.”

It is clear that the Bauhaus philosophies guided Robert Preusser’s entire career from 1939 onwards, and he adhered to those principals from the age of twenty until his death. Robert Preusser was fully committed to Bauhaus design principals, but his painting style was an invention all his own and completely original. He espoused the highest ideals of Modernism and was truly an innovator in both his fine art and his approach to art education.

“The Bauhaus does not aim at the education of geniuses or even 'free artists' in the old sense. There are too many 'free artists' in the world: they are often minor talents with minor problems and without the possibility of ever making a living. The Bauhaus does not want to add to their number. As members of human society the Bauhaus students must learn to face practical as well as spiritual problems. If, however, by taking in all the practical and spiritual material offered to them during their training, some of the Bauhaus students develop into 'free' artists, the school certainly will be glad. This will be their own personal achievement. But as long as they are in the Bauhaus, they must see themselves as designers and craftsmen who will make a living by furnishing the community with new ideas and useful products.”

László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, 1947 posthumous publication.

Sources askART biography of Robert Preusser The Tech Online Edition (MIT newspaper) Obituary for Robert Preusser MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections – Robert Ormerod Preusser Papers “The Bauhaus People, Places, Products & Philosophy,” Chris Snider “Contemporary Arts Museum” Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) “Curriculum/Philosophy of the New Bauhaus,” Caeley Harihara “Meet a Leading Evangelist in the Movement to Introduce Modern Art to America,” Jed Perl “Robert Preusser Oral History Interview,” Smithsonian Institution

Essay by: Larry Boettigheimer

ROBERT PREUSSER CATALOGUE

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