Proposal for a Museum: El Lissitzky

January 12, 2013  |  By
Filed under: Projects/Series

El Lissitzky, Abstract Cabinet, 1927–28

In 2013 SFMOMA will close for an expansion project planned to last nearly three years. Reflecting on the closure, grupa o.k. asked several friends and colleagues to imagine their own proposals for a museum in San Francisco. And now and then, the editors present “proposals” discovered elsewhere. Today: El Lissitzky’s Kabinett der Abstrakten.

El Lissitzky built this modular and changeable room for abstract art in 1927–28 at the invitation of Alexander Dorner for the Landesmuseum in Hannover. The Abstract Cabinet was destroyed in 1936 during the Third Reich. The installation came to mind immediately when Ahmet Öğüt called for an “intervention that is not permanent, but [that uses] the art already existing in a given museum as a tool that could create new readings, understandings, misunderstandings, and new life for the collection.” We think El Lissitzky was trying to do just that.

Here are some photographs of the Abstract Cabinet showing works by Piet Mondrian, Mies van der Rohe, and others.

Find grupa o.k. on Tumblr and read other proposals here.

1 Comment

  1. Michael O'Connell Says:

    The Abstract Cabinet was first proposed by Lisstizky in 1925, and was built in Dorner’s museum several years later. While Lissitzky’s early installation projects, such as Proun Room, Berlin (1923), as well as the Abstract Cabinet were art projects, the new science of relativity, with its emergent properties of space, mass and time, informed his design for these environments which display their own emergent properties within the visual engagement and mobility of the audience. Lissitzky’s conception of audience engagement was more fully developed in his own work in the typography trade exposition Pressa, Cologne (1928), where he placed the audience inside an enlarged replica of a modern letter press. This concept of the engaged exhibition was extended in the later museum work and writing of Alexander Dorner after he arrived in the US and in the exhibition designs of Herbert Bayer at MoMA in New York during the 1940s, which exposed American exhibit designers to Lissitzky’s ideas. An important aspect of Lissitzky’s legacy, understood within this larger context, is that his initial interest in interpreting aspects of modern science and industrial technology through his art did not diminish in the work of later exhibition designers. For example, the Eames IBM pavilion “Thinking Machine” at the 1964 New York World’s Fair has been compared to both Bayer’s and Lissitzky’s designs. Recalling this history of commingling art with science within these many exhibition environments, and given San Francisco’s role in promoting innovation in technology over the past several decades, a bolder proposal is in order. Dorner, himself, later wrote that the development of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics provided an even better model for the engaged exhibition experience than Relativity Theory had in the early 1920s. Quantum Mechanics reveals the paradoxical qualities of reality and forces the observer to choose between incompatibilities. One way for the SFMoMA to exploit Dorner’s insight during its closing would be not the display of conventional art –such as it’s own collection rearranged by the audience in homage to the Abstract Cabinet –but, in the absence of exhibition galleries, to use its resources during this time to engage with and connect discrete segments of its community, colluding with artists and technologists in the production of a series of collaborative social events that challenge expectations of what the museum can do. During the 1970s, artists on the west coast, in general, and in San Francisco, more particularly, began to become much more concerned with issues of community and social transformation than artists elsewhere, a living tradition that continues in the present day. The effort to develop programming to engage audience during the hiatus of the SFMoMA museum proper should certainly be designed to reflect this broader artistic ethos, rather than resorting to an attempt to retain interest in the museum’s collection, and, if successful, would benefit the museum as a continuing project after its reopening.

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