Essay by Valerie Fletcher

Frederick Kiesler trained as an architect before turning to sculpture and design. Like many other European modernists in the 1920s, he was a utopian idealist. Kiesler first gained recognition in 1925 at the International Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris, where he exhibited a large gridlike structure titled City in Space. Its straight lines and flat planes joined at right angles embodied the utopian belief that simple geometric forms in art would help facilitate a more rational and egalitarian society.

Within a few years, however, Kiesler abandoned that approach in favor of curving biomorphic forms. The new surrealist movement rejected rationality and regularity in art. Arguing that human beings are organic, the surrealists favored forms inspired by sources in nature—plants, animals, microscopic organisms, water, clouds, and rocks, for example. Kiesler began to conceive buildings based on open, ovoid forms, which he called “endless” because they could be infinitely adaptable. His drawings and models were hopeful conceptual prototypes rather than pragmatic plans.

Kiesler fled Europe during World War II and settled in New York, where he earned income primarily by designing store windows, exhibition spaces, and theater sets. In 1959 he designed the Endless House, in which egglike rooms could enclose the inhabitants like a womb and thereby “foster peace within.”

Winged Victory, c. 1951

This sculpture’s title alludes to the famous Greek statue The Winged Victory of Samothrace from the second century BCE. Created to commemorate a military conquest, the white marble female figure strides forward with widespread wings. Her body, wings, and clothing are wonderfully animated as if in an invigorating breeze. Since the early nineteenth century, the statue has stood prominently on the main landing of the grand staircase of the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it has been seen by millions of visitors.

Kiesler reinterpreted that iconic monument to victory: here the figure has vanished, leaving only its blackened wings falling to the ground. To viewers familiar with the Greek statue, Kiesler’s sculpture offers a poignant visual metaphor for the collapse of the ideas and ideals of Western civilization and the destruction often inherent in victory.

The motif of wings falling to earth evokes other sources as well, such as the biblical downfall of angels immortalized in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. In the years after World War II, the ancient Greek tale of Icarus appealed to some artists and writers. On manmade wings of feathers and wax, Icarus became the first mythic human to fly. But he flew too close to the sun (symbol of divinity to the Greeks), the wax melted, and Icarus crashed to his death on earth—much as the utopian aspirations of Kiesler’s generation had been crushed by war.

Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.