by Melissa S. Ragain. University of California Press, January 2021. 264 p. ill. ISBN 9780520342825 (h/c), $65.00.

Reviewed September 2021
Michele Jennings, Art Librarian, Ohio University Libraries, mljennin@ohio.edu

book coverMelissa Ragain’s monograph, Domesticating the Invisible: Form and Environmental Anxiety in Postwar America, uses the work of scholars and artists within the context of Cambridge, Massachusetts to explore form’s response to nascent environmental concerns in postwar America. The author begins by grounding the reader in modernist interventions to infuse the visual field with understandings of nature and providing the theoretical foundation upon which the following chapters seek to resolve the relationship between composition and environment.

The subsequent four chapters loosely follow four actors: architectural historian Eduard Sekler, art theorist Gyorgy Kepes, art theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, and art writer Jack Burnham. The discussions of Sekler and Kepes also track the development of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) at Harvard and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) at MIT. While both departments sought to deploy form in the service of environmental concerns and to bridge diverse media in response to the environment, in pursuit of the aesthetic and the ecological, they also engaged with non-art actors in ways that reflected their respective pedagogical and institutional contexts. The final two chapters explore in more detail theoretical and aesthetic responses to and divergences from the largely Bauhaus-inflected imperative of these programs, either through Arnheim’s metaphor of the anabolic process in ecological art, or in Jack Burnham’s rejection of environmental and technological fetishization, leading ultimately to his writings centering on systems aesthetics.

Although the author discusses the development of theoretical foundations for postwar design such as Gestalt psychology, systems theory, information design, and the origins of the environmental movement, readers with an intermediate or advanced understanding of these concepts will benefit most from Ragain’s arguments, and as such, the recommended audience for this text is upper division undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Ragain’s coverage of art and design’s intersections with the social sciences and technology will benefit readers across art and design disciplines, including architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, industrial design, sculpture and light-based media, and art history. While not immediately apparent, the discussion of the institutional and intellectual histories of VES and CAVS provides insight into the development of art and design pedagogy and curricular design during the postwar era and would complement collections serving art education scholars and practitioners.

Illustrations are sparse but well-utilized, and the notes and bibliography provide the reader with an excellent syllabus or reading list for exploring postwar eco-art and environmental design, and its theoretical antecedents. The index is somewhat minimal and is entirely focused on tracking specific artists and authors in the text—readers looking for more topical references such as cybernetics or ARPANET and the early internet will not be successful using the index.

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