Richard Filipowski: Artist and Design Thinker
ACME Fine Arts Gallery in Boston is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Richard Filipowski: Paintings & Sculpture,” which opened September 17. Running throughOctober 24, the show features works created between 1948 and 1988, mostly sourced from the artist’s estate. It is billed as the first solo show of Filipowski’s works in the two mediums together, and it functions as a sort of retrospective. It also begs the question: Who was Richard Filipowski?
In Boston, perhaps, Filipowski might be a renowned artist and public figure. He taught visual design in the architecture department at MIT for 36 years, and in 2005, he was the subject of an exhibition at the MIT Museum titled “Finding Form: The Art of Richard Filipowski.” Outside of Boston, though, he is less well known. A brief survey of my colleagues in New York yielded no one who had heard of him. And this is a shame. Not only was he on the playing field in the art and design worlds of the second half of the twentieth century, but as sculptor, painter, designer, and educator, he could have been a starting player.
Filipowski was born in Poland in 1923, grew up in Ontario, and moved to Chicago in 1942 to study under Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus. There, he absorbed art and life lessons from masters such as Moholy-Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes, Marli Ehrlman, and George Fred Keck, as well as from fellow students such as Nathan Lerner, Charles Niedringhaus, James Prestini, Angelo Testa, and Margaret Da Patta.
In addition to the foundation courses, Filipowski studied painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture. Like many other early School of Design students, Filipowski’s school projects found their way into Moholy-Nagy’s seminal book, "Vision in Motion," as illustrations of the creative and dialectical process of education practiced at the New Bauhaus. Three examples are shown here: a “space modulator” from a 1946 architecture course; a lucite chess set from 1942, that led to a break for Filipowski when it was included in a 1947 show at New York’s Julian Levy Gallery titled “Imagery of Chess;” and an aluminum sculpture from 1945 that could serve as a study for a cut plywood chair submitted by Filipowski to MOMA’s Prize Designs for Modern Furniture competition in 1949.
At the School of Design, Filipowski had this to say about Moholy-Nagy: “At the bottom of the infinite faith we had in Moholy was the fact that he never criticized a student in terms of good or bad…This could have been termed simply as a teaching technique. But it really was much more. It was an expression of Moholy’s deep-rooted optimism, based on his faith in the validity of the human mind, and on his inexhaustible joy of constant discovery.”
Filipowski might equally have been speaking of himself here. Shortly after graduating from the New Bauhaus, he was invited to teach there, beginning a long career as an educator. He was also actively painting, leading to a one-man show at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1947. He would later describe his art as a “sustained search for spatial-structural-emotional concepts.”
In 1950, Filipowski was lured to Boston by Walter Gropius, and given the opportunity to direct and develop the Fundamentals of Design program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, an extension of his Bauhaus training. He subsequently left Harvard for MIT in 1952, where he remained for 36 years, becoming Professor Emeritus in 1988. He is credited with bringing Bauhaus ideas and teaching methods to MIT, and for creating an influential and pioneering course on design theory.
Filipowski’s interest in design was deep and versatile. In 1952, he designed the exhibition “Design in Industry” (shown here) for Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and in the mid-50’s he designed a long credenza with hairpin legs that was shown in Arredimento Moderno and other leading design journals (also shown here).
Richard Filipowski’s art career is now being re-assessed; perhaps someday the rest of his work will be also.