Blinking Brains, Corporate Spectacle, and the Atom Man Visual Aspects of Science at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (1962)

Blinking Brains, Corporate Spectacle, and the Atom Man

Visual Aspects of Science at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (1962)

Flora Lysen

“How much more pleasant are conversations [about science] when they are about beauty in science…” [1]

In 2011, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in the Netherlands presented the Beauty in Science (Schoonheid in de Wetenschap) exhibition, a show that aimed to foster interest in the natural sciences among the general public. It did so not by focusing on the economic or social effects of scientific research, but by emphasizing the “pleasing” aesthetic experience of looking at scientific images. Impressive pictures of cells, fungi, fetuses, and stars were framed as wonderful (by-)products of scientific missions, and as attractive signboards for an important quest to “make the invisible visible.”[2] Staged within the walls of the white cube, over seven hundred scientific images thus became purged from their individual histories of production and argumentation, and arranged to foreground the formal qualities of the visualizations, some of which could be viewed from lounge chairs, supplemented with ambient sound. The framework of the art museum was understood as the perfect context for the intended discursive emphasis on formal aesthetics. As such, Beauty in Science reminds us that, still today, art museums have not ceased to play a role in the presentation of a particular “image of science” to large audiences, and that the discursive space of the art museum offers opportunities for constructing, subverting, advertising, and obscuring narratives of science. While the exhibiting of images of science within the walls of art museums has a long history, this article turns to one particular historical exhibit in the Stedelijk Museum to offer insights in the way such presentations are embedded within historically situated ideas about the public understanding of science, exhibition strategies, and the role of art vis-à-vis science.

 Will Burtin’s exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum

Half a century before Beauty in Science, in September 1962, the modern wing of the Stedelijk Museum opened its doors to an exhibition of microscopic and macroscopic perspectives entitled Visuele Aspekten van de Wetenschap (Visual Aspects of Science, September 21–October 15,1962). Gigantic prints of colorful cell membranes, swirling chromosomes, and hovering uranium atoms were plastered on exhibition walls; pedestals showed minute plastic copies of large scientific models and, at the center of the show, a colossal, illuminated sculpture of a human brain towered over the visitors (fig 1).

Fig. 1. Visual Aspects of Science, 1962, Jaap d’Oliveira. Published in Remington, R. Roger, and Robert S.P. Fripp. Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin. Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2007, 95. Photographer unknown.

This was science in its most spectacular form: bright, translucent, plastic, three-dimensional, shiny, and blinking. Entirely sponsored by Upjohn, a pharmaceutical company, this expensive traveling exhibition (which continued from Amsterdam to the Royal Academy of Arts in London) showcased the work of German-born American designer Will Burtin, who had been invited by Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg on account of his fame in designing commercial trade shows, world fair exhibitions, and product packaging for American companies such as Kodak, IBM, Upjohn, and Union Carbide.[3] Enclosed by the transparent glass walls of the modern wing of the museum, Visual Aspects of Science focused specifically on the scientific aspects underlying the products of various companies, such as switchboard mechanisms in machines, metabolic processes in the body, and atomic reactions of chemical compounds. As such, the exhibition did not directly promote particular products—corporate logos were scarce—but presented several American companies as experts of a new and important practice of “visual communication of science,” making complex scientific knowledge comprehensible to lay audiences. Alternating between the miniature and the gigantic, the exhibition aimed to reveal new vistas opened up by the latest visual technologies. Blow-ups of electron micrographs, installation shots of large models, photographs of scale models, time-lapse images of moving installations, and photo negatives of plastic molecular models invited the eye of the visitor to mimic the work of a telescope, microscope, or camera (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Visual Aspects of Science, 1962, Stedelijk Museum Beeldarchief, Jaap d’Oliveira. Photographer unknown.

What was once minute (cells, molecules) now became stretched to gigantic proportions; what once was scaled up (the scientific models) became miniaturized under a glass cover. The exhibition catalog, embossed with an atomic nucleus on the cover, repeated these alternating dimensions of scale. “The microcosm and the macrocosm, the atom and the universe” now constituted a new adventure for “the true artists of this century.”[4] (fig. 3)

As an exhibition that showcased promotional strategies—a displayed display—it is difficult to fully reconstruct Visual Aspects of Science today. Only a handful of photographs and a few snapshots of cardboard exhibition models survive in archives in Amsterdam and Rochester, New York.[5] This article, by examining and contextualizing Burtin’s exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum for the first time, aims to understand the development of a visual language of science that had come to prominence in the 1950s; a development that was praised in design journals and exhibition catalogs, and advanced as the unique contribution of art to an age of rapid scientific development. Artists, on this account, were viewed as important “intermediaries” between science and society, and design itself was presented as a powerful visual technology, as a tool that could help to elucidate new technological views. Within the context of the Cold War’s space and arms races, this bright new design language formed a true “mythology” of science and technology in the Barthesian sense: it presented technological advances as natural developments and communicated a spirit of scientific progress, affluence, and the promise of an ever-brighter future.[6] A closer look at Visual Aspects of Science demonstrates the importance of extending exhibition histories beyond disciplinary boundaries, a turn that exhibition historian Bruce Altshuler has advocated, connecting the mythologies of art exhibitions with those developed in other fields, “from trade fairs… to ethnographic, historical, and scientific exhibitions.”[7]

Fig. 3. Visual Aspects of Science, 1962, Stedelijk Museum Beeldarchief, Jaap d’Oliveira. Photographer unknown.

The second aim of this article, by examining a forgotten exhibition of the Stedelijk Museum’s past, is to take up Altshuler’s challenge “to use the existing canon of exhibition history as a ‘dynamic construct,’ as a ‘springboard for further conversation and inquiry.’”[8] Therefore, I intend to turn the forgotten exhibition, Visual Aspects of Science, into a prism, to shed new light on more canonical exhibitions at the Stedelijk and argue that a more careful look at the presence and status of science and technology can alter the interpretation of famous Stedelijk exhibitions in the same period, such as Dylaby (1960) and Bewogen Beweging (1961). The article begins by outlining Sandberg’s discursive approach to questions of science and technology, to understand his invitation to Burtin and the particular embedding of this mythology of science in the Stedelijk Museum. Sandberg’s curatorial preferences effected the reception of Burtin’s work, similar to the way that other Stedelijk exhibitions, such as Bewogen Beweging and Dylaby, were understood within a discursive frame that emphasized “renewal,” play, and the mediating power of art in society. In turn, I discuss several moments at which Burtin’s design language of science communication found resistance in artists’ circles and amongst design critics. Such critical voices against the optimistic mythology of science and technology embodied by Burtin’s designs had already been part of exhibitions such as Bewogen Beweging and Dylaby, I argue, but were obscured by Sandberg’s curatorial emphasis on playfulness and experiment. Thus, a closer look at Burtin’s 1962 exhibition, Visual Aspects of Science, offers new insights into the way discourses on technological progress, anxieties of modernization, and visions of prosperity could be negotiated and transformed through institutional discourse and exhibition practices.

Art as technology in the ever-growing scientific universe

In 1959, Willem Sandberg designed and published a colorful pamphlet in which he positioned contemporary art within the forward-looking, science- and technology-driven spirit of the Space Age. NU, midden in de XXe eeuw (NOW, in the center of the 20th century) called for an art that would fit the “century of the car, aeroplane, Sputnik, TV”; an art that opened our eyes, stimulated new thinking. We had become spoiled with “the soothing light of Vermeer,” Sandberg said, “while at this very moment, the atom is splitting.”[9] Yet, at the same time, this was also an era marked with “tension and worry,” as Sandberg pronounced. “Will the latest scientific discoveries bring terror or well-being?”[10] Sandberg’s ambivalence resonated with a more general, conflicted attitude towards technological developments in the Netherlands in the late 1950s and early 1960s. On the one hand, newspapers, magazines, films, and television programs offered visions of playfulness, experiment, infinite leisure time, and increasing wealth, yet on the other, they also echoed and shaped a fear of the mechanization and automation of society, boundless consumerism, and nuclear annihilation.[11] American culture, in particular, broadcasted visions of the future based on technological developments; visions that were both embraced and critiqued in the Dutch cultural landscape.[12] Sandberg, in his pamphlet, ultimately confided in the capacity of art and design to contribute to a positive thrust forward; they could provide alternative visions that would “join the future,” not “work against the current course of events.”[13] On this account, art and design had to live up to the speedy progression of an inevitably technological society, a narrative that was part of what historian James Kennedy has characterized as a broader “ideology of renewal” (vernieuwingsideologie) and a rhetoric of “being of its time” (bij de tijd zijn) in the Netherlands of the 1950s.[14] Moreover, Sandberg’s ideas show a positioning of art and design as a mediating force between society and science. His exhibition policies of the early 1960s must thus be understood within this rhetorical framework of an art that was necessary for a new, uncertain technological age: art and design that was positioned as a bridging, translational, reconciling power.

Two years after NU, the Visual Aspects of Science exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum reverberated the promissory tone of Sandberg’s pamphlet. Burtin, a German émigré based in New York, had been influenced by the New Bauhaus in Chicago, which brought together the ideas of European design émigrés such as Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Matter, and György Kepes. [15] In textbooks, catalogs, exhibitions, and conferences, these designers shared a wish to develop an art invested in the newest science and technology, to “integrate” art and technology with intellectual and emotional life, and to elevate art to the level of scientific analysis.[16] Burtin followed the New Bauhaus discourse of design as a “tool” that could—with its strategies of juxtaposition, overlays, charts, coloring, and highlights—translate and visualize common patterns of the micro- and macrocosm. “Graphic presentation now provides the visual tools for making coherent a world of steadily enlarging and refining dimensions,” Burtin claimed. It plays an “important role in extending human vision by demonstrating a new reality to which the uninitiated as yet have no key.”[17] In the catalog of Visual Aspects of Science, several of Burtin’s corporate clients underlined this bridging aspect. According to the Director of Science communication at IBM, Burtin’s objects and graphs called “for an increased sensitivity towards the nature and grandeur of new knowledge produced by a an ever-growing scientific universe.”[18] The reception of the exhibition followed this discourse on “integrating” disparate fields: Sandberg was quoted in the Dutch press describing the show “as a demonstration of the possibilities of cooperation between artists and scientists,” and Burtin was labeled an “interpreter” (tolk) of science, who explained difficult concepts to laymen by adding a dimension of imagination that scientists themselves were lacking. [19]

A new image of science: walking inside cells, brains, and insects

Will Burtin’s fame as an exhibition designer and Willem Sandberg’s decision to invite him to Amsterdam had been particularly sparked by Burtin’s remarkable advertising installation designed for a fair of the American Medical Association (AMA) in 1958. Before television commercials became widespread in the 1960s, American companies spent massive budgets on promotional exhibitions and displays. At the AMA fair, the installations of Salvador Dali and Burtin had spurred international headlines. Time magazine reported on the 100,000-dollar “attention-getter” designed by Dali to advertise the new psychotropic drug Miltown: an eighteen-meter-long, walk-in sculpture in the shape of a caterpillar that was promoted as a “journey into the soul.”[20] (fig. 4)

Fig. 4. Crisalida, Salvador Dali’s caterpillar installation for Miltown at the AMA meeting, 1959. Copyright 2008 Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/Aritst Rights Society (ARS), New York. Published in Tone, Andrea. The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers. Basic Books, 2008, 77.

Fig. 5. Will Burtin’s The Cell installation for Upjohn, AMA, 1959, Ezra Stoller. © Ezra Stoller/Esto.

Dali’s gigantic larval insect yielded international press coverage for the drug manufacturer, and was therefore “worth its weight in gold,” according to Time.[21] At the AMA convention, similar attention was drawn by the 75,000-dollar display of Burtin’s three-dimensional representation of a cell, another walk-in experience, designed for the pharmaceutical company Upjohn (fig. 5). An opening in the cell’s wall allowed visitors to enter the spectacular, illuminated half dome and inspect the filigree of translucent plastic elements, speckled with blue and red mitochondria and fat globules. By adding moving lights placed under a mirrored floor, Burtin intended to give the structure an “astral and abstract quality.”[22] The Cell aimed to affect, according to Burtin, “not just a way of looking, but a way of experiencing. To know what it would feel like to be a cell… an emotional kind of contact.”[23] Besides persuading drug-prescribing doctors at the convention, successful commercial exhibitions such as these aimed for an advertorial snowball effect: photographs of Burtin’s cell circulated widely in the international press, and the model was used as a television set for the BBC. In 1960, a one-minute clip of a second Burtin model—a giant human brain—aired on Dutch television, and NRC newspaper published an extensive article on the scientific sculpture.[24]

Burtin’s monstrous model of the brain.

image 12 penfield and jasper diagram

Diagram from Wilder Penfield & Herbert Jasper. Epilepsy and the Functional Anatomy of the Human Brain. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1954, 145.

Burtin’s monstrous model of the brain

“A terrifying monster straight out of a horror fantasy about life on alien planets.” This is how one member of the Dutch press described Will Burtin’s five-meter-wide model of the human brain, installed at the center of the Visual aspects of Science exhibition in 1962.[61] Footage of the illuminated brain phenomenon—originally designed as an advertisement for the Upjohn company—had been previously broadcasted on Dutch television, which showed the model towering over American viewers, a gigantic steel structure adorned with electrical lights and screens with flashing images.[62] At the Stedelijk Museum, twenty pairs of headphones allowed viewers of the model to listen to a twelve-minute sequence that explained how the human brain processes visual and auditory signals. After red and green lights had traveled over the model’s metal nerves, various audiovisual “memories” appeared as flashing photographs on small circular screens, culminating in the appearance of a single image on the most central “screen of consciousness.” Burtin’s design of the brain was chiefly based on a diagrammatic sketch published by two contemporary neuroscientists, an image that represented a “hypothetical outline” of the supposed cinematic process of human memory.[63] Thus, Burtin had not only transformed a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional model, he had also turned a speculative, scientific hypothesis into a widely exhibited installation.

Burtin’s monstrous model of the brain

image 13 burtin brian exhibit colour copy

Will Burtin’s The Brain installation for Upjohn, American Medical Association, 1959. Photo: Ezra Stoller. © Ezra Stoller/Esto.

Mammoth insects and giant brains did more than merely promote new commercial products. In the United States after World War II, “the public understanding of science” was framed as top priority to nurture the ideal of a well-informed public in a democratic, science-driven society. [25] Lay perceptions of science, in the view of many scholars and government officials, were seen as predominantly flawed and wrongfully distrustful of science. “The public understanding of science” was thus conceived as a topical “problem” that could be tackled with the proper science communication.[26] As historian Bruce Lewenstein points out, in the United States during the 1950s, the term “public understanding of science” de facto meant the “public appreciation for the benefits that science provides to society”: advocates of popular science were advocates of a society lead by scientific discoveries and technological inventions. [27] Moving away from merely promoting new commercial gadgets and technological marvel, this new public communication of science in the 1950s aimed to focus on “basic science”—a topic that was conceived as a deeper, more genuine level of engagement with science and technology.[28] Burtin’s advertising installations helped corporations to associate themselves with this important program of educating basic science by emphasizing the scientific foundation of commercial product development, not its gadgetry. Writing in the international design journal Graphic Design in 1960, Burtin explained, “such a method was estimated to have a higher value than direct product promotion since it would relate a more lasting impression of quality with the company’s research and production program as a whole.”[29]

Corporations, as advocates of the public understanding of basic science, were thus part and parcel of developing a new, impressive “image of science” in the public sphere. As such, Burtin’s practice of scientific-commercial displays should be understood as part of a wider development in the communication of science in the 1950s, which moved from the modest, colored ball-and-spoke models produced in laboratories, towards massive mediagenic sculptures placed in public squares and broadcasted on television, epitomized by the giant Atomium at the Brussels World Fair in 1958. Attractive science models constituted what historian Edward Yoxen has called a “televisual language” for scientific research, which aided the mobilization of public support for research funding.[30] In the Netherlands, before Visual Aspects of Science opened at the Stedelijk Museum, spectacular science models had already been on view at the large E’55 fair (Nationale Energie Manifestatie 1955) in Rotterdam, for which artist Constant Nieuwenhuijs had designed a giant logo, an installation of colossal abstract orbs, circles, and triangles of metal that symbolized “the universe, science and productivity.”[31] (fig. 6)

Fig. 6. Fair logo for E’55 Rotterdam, 1955, Constant Nieuwenhuijs. Published in Winter, Peter de. Ahoy’, E55, Floriade, C70: Evenementen in Rotterdam. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010, 1988. Photographer unknown.

Similarly, at the exhibition Het Atoom (1957), which promoted nuclear energy in the Netherlands, visitors could enter the show by walking through a mammoth atom model, created by designer Wim Crouwel (fig. 7).[32] As science in its plastic, colorful, three-dimensional form was becoming increasingly omnipresent, there was a shift in the way this visual language of science was understood: not just as elucidating or embodying specific scientific discoveries, but as a general iconic language, a mythology for the important endeavors of science and technology.[33] As such, visual mythologies of science could also work as powerful instruments of Cold War cultural diplomacy. Burtin was one of the principal American designers for the traveling and corporate-sponsored shows of the United States Information Agency (USIA) that offered an image of America as a democratic nation, brimming with economic and technological progress.[34] Both the form of the displays—abundant aluminum and plastic, for a “scientific feeling,” according to Burtin—and the content of these promotional exhibits sought to radiate an atmosphere of novelty, ingenuity, and wealth.[35] Visual Aspects of Science was part and parcel of this newly developed Cold War image of science, a visual discourse that transformed publications and design exhibitions into tools for promoting commercial companies, political positions, and the importance of science and technology for society.

Fig. 7. Walk-through entrance at Het Atoom, 1959, Wim Crouwel. Published in “Hij betreedt het Atoom,” De Waarheid, June 29, 1957, 5. Photographer unknown.

Joking about machines

How was this new “image of science” received at the Stedelijk museum, and how did Will Burtin’s mythology of science relate to Willem Sandberg’s wider program of exhibitions? In his 1959 pamphlet, NU, Sandberg had argued that art could particularly take up its intermediating role between society and contemporary technological, social, and economic developments when the art museum functioned as a space of playful experiment and encounter. In this sense, particularly the now-famous Stedelijk exhibitions Bewogen beweging (Art in Motion, 1961) and Dylaby (Dynamic Labyrinth, 1962), with their emphasis on immersive and interactive elements, have come to represent the epitome of Sandberg’s directorship.[36] Both exhibitions have become established as milestones in the history of experimental exhibition-making; they have been canonized as the first shows that turned a museum into a participatory, playful environment for new engagements with a more diverse group of visitors. Dylaby had opened just one month prior to Visual Aspects of Science, and invited the visitor into a pitch-dark room, a shooting gallery, a room turned upside down, and a space filled with air blowers and balloons. One commentator described Dylaby as “one large dynamic thing, a chain reaction of poetic images materialized in three dimensions; not something to look at, but something to go into, to be a part of.”[37]

Fig. 8. Dylaby (Dynamisch Labyrint), Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, 1962. Photo: Ed van der Elsken.

In the catalog, Sandberg himself portrayed the exhibition as one in which “the visitor does not regard the objects from the outside/but is continually situated in the middle of things/becomes part of the whole.”[38] It was this similarly immersive and three-dimensional aspect of Burtin’s designs that appealed to Sandberg, who had particularly hoped that Burtin’s big blue walk-in cell could be shipped to the Netherlands.[39] Burtin himself had always underlined aspects of emotional engagement and immersion in his writings on design, highlighting the “flow” of a graphic print or an exhibition layout and the “intense and flexible learning process” that three-dimensionality affected.[40] Sandberg valued Burtin’s focus on design as a mediating force for science but, more importantly, Visual Aspects of Science fitted with Sandberg’s curatorial vision of immersive and engaging exhibition strategies, and as such, aligned with Dylaby and Bewogen Beweging. Both envisioned the ideal visitor of their exhibitions as a curious, playful person, who wandered around following a personal course, but would finally arrive at an experience of being part of a purposeful whole.[41] By acknowledging this shared curatorial frame through the prism of Visual Aspects of Science, we can start to see how an emphasis on play and experiment by Sandberg could downplay, obscure, or take for granted particular mythologies of technology and science as they were materialized in exhibitions. The way that Visual Aspects of Science perpetuated a naturalized view of technological progress and a corporate image of science remained invisible, but also unseen was the way that Bewogen Beweging and Dylaby presented critical views of an increasingly techno-scientific culture.

Sandberg’s emphasis on playfulness and engagement dominated and shaped the reception of Dylaby and Bewogen Beweging. Even when various critics dismissed the exhibitions as Luna Parks or funfairs, they reinforced Sandberg’s narrative of the museum as a space of experimentation and play.[42] Few discussed the overt and covert critique of technological mechanization and automation that was visible in several of the works in both shows. Unmentioned in the reception of Dylaby was, for example, the implicit commentary on society’s wastefulness through the junk aesthetics of Jean Tinguely, and overlooked were the mysterious, caged machines of Robert Rauschenberg—sinister assemblages that seemed to stage the inaccessibility of contemporary technology.[43] Possible critical views of the capitalist mythology of scientific progress were pacified in the catalog of the earlier exhibition, Bewogen Beweging, in which John R. Peirce, research director at the American company Bell Labs and advisor to the exhibition, pleaded for the complete inclusion of technology and machines in man’s world. In his short text, entitled “artist and machines,” he dismissed artists that represented machines as “strange” or “monstrous” symbols, as figures with disjointed fragments. [44] Instead, he asked artists to “joke about machines, incorporate machines in still life, or bend machines to your purposes, but do not fear, worship, hate or even mutilate machines. These are beneath man’s high estate.”[45] Although the catalog of Bewogen Beweging also presented a different voice—curator Pontus Hulten described Tinguely’s work as “antimachines” that were an “attack on the established order,” and that questioned our relationship with technology—in light of Sandberg’s pamphlet and his statements about the status of art, the overall reception of the exhibit was, one of “cheerful protest and modest fervor,” as one Dutch reviewer expressed.[46] The irony of the exhibit was turned into a mild joke; a joyful, harmless, nonsensical “Rube Goldberg machine,” just as Peirce had asked for. Hence, the reception of both shows was part and parcel of Sandberg’s forward-looking “renewal” rhetoric and his emphasis on art’s playful mediation between scientific developments and society. As such, Sandberg’s discursive frame downplayed the subverted mythologies of techno-scientific progress that were also an important dimension of Dylaby and Bewogen Beweging. Missing, from Sandberg’s perspective, is the recognition of a critical approach to the all-pervasive popular and commercial iconography of science and technology, the subversion of the fun fair-look of blinking lights and moving machines, and the appropriation of interactive walk-in experiences.

Had the curators, visitors and journalists at the Stedelijk Museum overlooked and pacified the artists’ ambiguous position towards technological progress? Reflecting on the engagement of Dutch artists and intellectuals with technological developments and consumer culture in the 1950s, historians Kees Schuyt and Ed Taverne suggest that artists, writers, and officials fell short in capturing the complex process of modernization in the Netherlands, and that it was a number of filmmakers, television producers and Provos who instead confronted “the Dutch public with the changed reality of Dutch society.”[47] Exception to the rule was artist Constant Nieuwenhuijs, who noted that the conspicuous craze for “direct action”—such as the exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum—had obscured the second industrial revolution based on automation that was taking place at the very same time.”[48] In Constant’s view, few artists had aptly responded to this development. Former revolutionaries, such as Salvador Dali and the surrealists, had retreated to the United States and surrendered to the “kitsch aesthetics” of a consumer society, “applied in shopping malls and advertisements.” “The avant-garde had turned into an arrière-garde of unworldly artists, fluttering like frightened birds in a ever-growing “technoid” world.”[49] Constant’s remarks help us to see the germinate critique of a newly developed commercial image of affluence and technological progress—epitomized by Burtin’s plastic, magnified image of science—that might have been overlooked at the Stedelijk Museum, but not in various other art and design circles. Critique of the Plexiglas worlds offered by trade exhibitions such as those of Burtin came, for example, from American experimental artists, who wished to distance themselves from the mythologies of a consumer culture.

Against the slickness of corporate spectacle

Commenting on the layout of Expo ’58 in Brussels—where science and technology was omnipresent in its colorful, expanded form—a reviewer in the prominent design journal Neue Grafik noted that the whole looked more like a commercial international trade fair, with a “basic conception of the display as a spectacle, a piece of showmanship… the outstanding impression was of irrelevance.”[50] For various critics and artists, commercially sponsored exhibitions of spectacular, colorful plastic science models and photographs were quintessentially representations of the corporate language of “irrelevant” advanced forms of capital, powerfully embodying mythologies of bourgeois consumer society. This critique of the plastic scientific universe offered by trade exhibitions was most powerfully voiced by American experimental artists, who wished to dissociate themselves from commercial display culture. Art historian Branden Joseph notes, for example, how artist Jonas Mekas wished to separate the ideas of expanded cinema from the “slickness” of world fair shows, such as those at the 1964 world fair (for which Burtin, too, had designed several displays).[51] Yet it was often hard to ward off the “proximity to corporate spectacle” in experimental works, because similar to fair trade exhibitions, as Joseph notes, various artists employed multiscreen projections and created interactive, immersive experiences.[52] In a text for art journal Artforum, artist Robert Smithson outlined the difference between genuine artistic engagements with technological developments and shallow commercialism; to do so, he pitted the art of his own generation against an exhibition of Will Burtin.

Smithson’s dismay was directed towards Burtin’s 1961 promotional exhibit The Atom in Action at the Union Carbide headquarters in New York. The exhibit, similar in its setup to Visual Aspects of Science, was comprised of a sixty-foot animated mural, a scale model of an atomic research reactor, and a huge, illuminated blue model of a uranium atom.

Fig. 9. The Atom in Action, exhibition for Union Carbide, 1961. Photo: Ezra Stoller. © Ezra Stoller/Esto.

Although, as Smithson noted, artists like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, and Paul Thek worked on an equally monumental scale and with similar industrial materials and techniques (plastic, aluminum, steel, illumination), he emphasized that these artists were not at all “interested in idealizing technology,” but aimed instead to create “visible analogs” for a bleak vision of the future; they shared an “awareness of the ultimate collapse of both mechanical and electrical technology.”[53] Instead, Burtin’s exhibition, Atomic Energy in Action, was a preeminent example of what Smithson defined as “entropy,” the all-encompassing sameness that the energy-consuming technological age was moving towards. Burtin’s exhibit offered, according to Smithson, “purposeless ‘educational’ displays”; this was entropic inertness “frozen into an array of plastic and neon, and enhanced by the sound of Muzak faintly playing in the background.”[54] To Smithson, Burtin’s work was exemplary of the endless production of pointless things, a world Judd had characterized as “pleasant, bland, and empty.”[55] Things like plastic with leather texture, sheet aluminum, the “cute and modern patterns inside jets and drugstores… the stuff just exists, not objectionably to many people, slightly agreeable to many.”[56] For Smithson, Burtin’s Union Carbide exhibition was the epitome of a worrisome visual language that idealized technological society. Similarly, and from the same experimental circles, came the critical comments of experimental filmmaker Ron Rice. In his 1963 film, The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (a feature-length critique of the industrial world), Rice mockingly appropriated Burtin’s Atom in Action exhibition as a symbol of the nuclear, corporate age he aimed to criticize. The film’s protagonist, a loony, Chaplin-like figure, the “Atom Man,” wanders around New York’s shopping streets adorned with sci-fi looking public sculptures and Coca-Cola signs, and waddles into Burtin’s Atom in Action exhibit.

Fig. 10. Film still, Ron Rice, The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, 1963.

Curiously, he licks the plastic white balls of one of the exhibit’s atomic models. By approaching Burtin’s objects through touching and tasting, the Atom Man highlights the alien quality of the models, carnivalizing their covert consumer symbolism. He is as astounded by Burtin’s models as the laughing and bedazzled visitors we see on photographs of Visual Aspects of Science, Bewogen Beweging, and Dylaby, yet the Atom Man’s mad bewilderment is hyperbolic—a mocking gesture of denunciation. Burtin’s exhibitions, from the viewpoint of the American avant-garde in New York, documented the slickness, inertia, and commercialism of a proclaimed era of technological and scientific progress. The antipathy against Burtin’s work exhibited by Smithson and Rice is exemplary of antagonistic forces around 1960—a growing rift, which Sandberg could barely accommodate at the Stedelijk Museum, between a generation of experimental artists that decisively turned away from corporate and Cold War mythologies, and others who continued to work with the technological aspirations of the (New) Bauhaus.

Conclusion: remembering exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum

Situating the 1962 exhibition, Visual Aspects of Science, within the development of a new visual language of communication and a corporate-sponsored “image of science” in the 1950s gives a new perspective on the presence of mythologies of science and technologies in the Stedelijk Museum. Will Burtin’s science exhibitions presented a visual language of scientific progress that had already become familiar and omnipresent through trade shows, world fairs, and other public manifestations of science. When artists in the contemporaneous Stedelijk exhibitions, Dylaby and Bewogen Beweging, subverted these mythologies of science, such alternative views were not well recognized by reviewers. Instead, Willem Sandberg’s emphasis on experiment and play foregrounded the lighthearted, entertaining dimension of the exhibitions, and partly obscured an ambiguous attitude towards corporate spectacle and science mythologies. At the same time, however, a more antagonistic position was increasingly carved out by American experimental artists, who looked at Burtin’s exhibition designs as the epitome of corporate-sponsored advertisements of techno-scientific society. In the mid-1960s, Burtin himself would become astutely aware of the critique launched at corporate and commercial design, and attempted to formulate a response. Finding himself confronted by the “devastating and demoralizing effects of… commercial communication on all walks of life and at all times,” he argued that the work of “commercial artists” should not be confused with the “intellectual approach of the graphic designer,” who was a “specialist of art” equal in status to a “specialist of science.”[57] Hence, with an intricate rebound movement, a carefully constructed image of science was called upon to the save the status of art in the age of mass production.

Turning back to the present day, the case of Visual Aspects of Science helps us to better understand how art museums provide a space for the coalescence of exhibition strategies and science mythologies to produce or efface politically charged views of the position of science—exemplified by the beautiful, “pleasant” images in the recent Beauty of Science exhibition. Yet, here I must add that, for decades already, scholars and curators of science popularization have moved away from merely showing the polished products of science and technology, and have tried to engage the public with unfinished “science-in-the-making” and scientific controversies, allowing visitors a position of probing the scientific developments on display.[58] Within this turn, artists and art projects are often attributed a special capacity for introducing considerations of authority, contingency, ethics, ambiguity, and fantasy into narratives and displays of science and technology (i.e., one year after Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen staged Beauty in Science, the museum asked artists and designers to reflect on recent controversies in biotechnology, spurred by a heated debate on the possible use by bioterrorists of bird flu research by Dutch scientists). [59] Especially important in the conclusion of this article is to ask what role exhibition histories could play in reconsidering and recontextualizing the position of science and technology in the museum. Here, I would like to follow museum historian Sharon MacDonald, who has argued that exhibitions engaging with science should take a new turn, by not just showing controversial and unfinished science, but by drawing attention to the way exhibitions themselves are vehicles for narratives of science. Hence, she invites exhibition experiments—“reflexive exhibitions” or “meta-exhibitions”—that allow visitors “to interpret aspects of the content and display strategies of exhibitions themselves,” and to become aware of how mythologies of science are produced within the walls of the (art) museum.[60] Remembering the forgotten Visual Aspects of Science exhibition by using it as a starting point for an exhibition on past and present mediations of science and technology would turn exhibition history itself into a powerful force to demonstrate both the work of science and the work of exhibitions.

Research for this essay was supported by a travel grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art. I would like to thank Dr. Kari Horowicz and Professor Roger Remington for their help in exploring the Will Burtin Papers at the RIT Graphic Design Archive in Rochester.