It’s an odd feeling to visit Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World, a retrospective at the Whitney Museum through October 16, rather than, say, at MoMA, where it might feel more organic. Feininger’s oeuvre—with its tangents to the early Modernists, German Expressionism, even Italian Futurism—seems to situate him firmly in Europe, where in fact after the age of 16 he spent 50 years prior to returning to his native New York. The survey, curated by Barbara Haskell, is a rewarding and substantial overview of this underexposed artist’s work, produced between the extremes of industrial progress and devastating war in his lifetime (1871—1956).
In his early work, Feininger depicted people in urban or village settings—boldly colorful, usually in motion, being pulled along a firm diagonal path. He worked as a graphic artist, doing commercial illustrations and political cartoons for a variety of publications, including The Chicago Sunday Tribune. In 1919, he was chosen by Walter Gropius to teach at the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar, where industrial design sat alongside fine art, and he eventually oversaw all printed materials. In the 1930s, the rise of Naziism drove Feininger (whose work was condemned and exhibited in the Degenerate Art show) to return to the US.
Architecture had become a main focus of his work once he figured out that buildings and structures could be brilliant metaphors for any psychological state he could imagine. He skewed perspectives so that edifices bullied the people below them, or gazed skyward from the gravity-bound, constructed world to illuminate man’s humble place in the universe, albeit through a mist of optimism. Some of his most sublime paintings are from a series painted in Gelmeroda, Germany—visually harmonic panes of light and prismatic shadows constructing pristine compositions, evoking an infinite spirituality. His ability to succinctly capture an elusive state of mind through familiar objects was a consistent gift throughout his career.