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Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012

‘When Modern Was Degenerate’ Shows Artist Ahead of Her Time

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Grete Marks is a name sharp and to the point, as sleek and no-nonsense as the huge photograph of her at the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition “Grete Marks: When Modern Was Degenerate” (through Jan. 1, 2013). See her cropped hair, black slacks and man-tailored shirt and tie, her waist defined by a belt buckled with a silvery rectangle.

Indeed, the image suggests that Marks herself is overseeing curator Mel Buchanan’s efforts. The exhibition itself is sharp and to the point, a tribute to the artist who used earth to make utilitarian objects formed in molds and saturated with colors reflecting days drenched in lemony sun and cobalt sky. Her Bauhaus studies with other artists melding art and craft proved to be the first step in her later development of a thriving factory-made tableware business that sent her fresh designs into homes across Europe and the United States.

She accomplished this in the shadow of Nazi Germany and, indeed, her Hael Factory near Berlin fell prey to Nazi charges of artistic “degeneracy.” Her back story (avant-garde, left-leaning, Jewish) is but one of many during that era. That said, she was young, modern and determined, a precursor to Martha Stewart and QVC, and perhaps she was simply trying to escape the syndrome of Black Forest gnomes.

Buchanan introduces Marks with an electric selection of drawings and paintings from MAM’s permanent collection, including a knockout 1932 Marcel Breuer aluminum reclining chair. Nearby, hanging high, a film details the artistic touch of Kandinsky working design magic with brush and paint. Here a line, there a curve, the moving image propels us into a future now past. The museum located and purchased several of Marks’ outstanding works on eBay, our world’s shopping mall. It’s fair to say that Grete Marks, a woman well ahead of her time, would fit right in with today’s scheme of things.