Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 27, 2023
Michelangelo Sabatino and Ben Nicholson, eds. Avant-Garde in the Cornfields: Architecture, Landscape, and Preservation in New Harmony Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 408 pp.; 22 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9781517903145)

The typical monographic treatment of a building or a community begins with a discussion of the patron’s plan and then traces the construction and development of the site to completion. In some cases, the history of the building or community is traced through subsequent changes and adaptations, concluding with its present state—or its destruction. This book takes a somewhat different course, as it starts with the founding of a utopian community in 1814 by George Rapp and  a group of disaffected Lutherans from Württemberg in Germany who applied the name New Harmony (after their earlier Pennsylvania settlement) to their new community on the Wabash River in Indiana. When the project failed in 1824, Robert Owen, a Welsh Industrialist and social reformer, bought the land and the structures on it. Owen undertook his own social experiments and added many innovations designed to combine the advances of the British Industrial Revolution with a new society based on communal living and working together before giving up in 1827. The community wasn’t so much abandoned as that it succumbed to the majority culture around it, both in regard to business and industry, and to more conventional social practices, even as former New Harmony community members stayed active nearby and elsewhere in Indiana.

What is different and unusual about the story as told through this book is that it is about the rebirth of New Harmony as a utopian creation, but not immediately after Owen’s project failed, nor was it with the same aims. Kenneth Dale Owen (1903–2002), the great, great grandson of Robert, and his wife, Jane Blaffer Owen (1915–2010), both from affluent families, didn’t set out to recreate the town as a working community of full-time residents but as a spiritual center, open to all who chose to visit. The younger Owen introduced his bride to New Harmony soon after their marriage in 1941. Wealthy and with a strong social conscience, Jane Blaffer Owen had already been involved in several humanitarian and other public service experiences before starting the Robert Lee Blaffer Foundation in honor of her oil magnate father in 1958.

This volume is a complex presentation of the history of the site, the creation of its component parts, and perspectives from some of the most significant people who made it all happen. The book is comprised of an introduction, seven discrete chapters about different aspects of the plan, creation, and results, and three personal chapters by figures who were more intimately involved in New Harmony’s history. Sabatino lays the groundwork in the introduction for the exploration of the contrast between Owen and his wife, with the former more interested in the history and preservation of the early site and she committed to nurturing the site as an integration of the arts within nature. It was a collaboration, but it is her vision and how she realized it that is the substance of this book.

The first chapter explores the roots that fed the visions, with particular emphasis on Blaffer Owen’s intellectual and spiritual journey—and the influence of her friends, the Houston collectors and art patrons, Dominique and John de Menil. The second chapter, “Patronage and Modernism,” and the fourth, “The Rib Cage of the Human Heart,” link the de Menils to the architect Philip Johnson and unfolds the story of the way Blaffer Owen worked with both Johnson and the sculptor, Jacques Lipchitz to create one of the core components of the New Harmony enterprise, the Roofless Church. Chapter four also brings together the relationship between the sculptor and the two theologians who influenced both the artist and Blaffer Owen, Father Marie-Alain Couturier and Paul Tillich. This chapter, in large measure, ties the philosophy behind Blaffer Owen’s beliefs and goals to how it manifested as New Harmony.

The other significant element of the project that was accomplished was the opening of the New Harmony Atheneum—designed to bridge and combine the stories of the nineteenth-century utopian past with the new and future spiritual center—acts as a visitor welcome center, designed by the modernist architect Richard Meier. Chapter seven is devoted to telling the story of the selection of the architect and exploring the roles of both Blaffer Owen and Ralph G. Schwarz (the preservationist and planner so integral to developing the town) in seeing the building through to completion. Schwarz was a true partner to Blaffer Owen, and his autobiographical piece in this volume makes it clear why the editors dedicated the book to him and Blaffer Owen.

Two major projects were never realized at New Harmony, an Episcopal Church and the Cave of the New Being (or the Grotto for Meditation), the designs for which and the problems that behind their failures are discussed in chapter 5. The more fully realized New Harmony Gardens is the subject of Chapter 6. The gardens and the Jane Blaffer Owen Sanctuary Plan (discussed in one of the three essays that complete the volume) are inexorably intertwined with the other aspects of the entire project of the nineteenth-century New Harmony development but are so much the personal expression of the patron’s religious and spiritual beliefs that they are not only representative of the entire project but also exemplify her worldview.

The address by Paul Tillich at the dedication of the Cave of the New Being and the park named in his honor (titled “Estranged and Reunited: The New Being”) is reprinted as the penultimate brief essay in this complex and unusual volume, but perhaps it should have been given the last word. Tillich was Blaffer Owen’s mentor and spiritual inspiration, and his example and written words inspired much of what became this unique combination of a private-public project. Despite the reality that portions of the patron’s vision went unrealized doesn’t diminish the importance of what was accomplished. The book, despite the complexity of its subject and the voices of so many authors, sets a very high bar—yet one worth reaching for—for all communities, planners, and patrons of the arts, in integrating the fabric of the past with dreams for the future.

David M. Sokol
Professor Emeritus of Art History, University of Illinois Chicago