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Buckminster Fuller: Starting With The Universe Opens at MCA Chicago
Bucky/Fly's Eye/Dymaxion Car, 1980. Photo © Roger White Stoller.

CHICAGO.- Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it. -- R. Buckminster Fuller, "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" (1969) This spring, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, presents Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, the first major American exhibition in decades devoted to the visionary mind and work of Buckminster Fuller, and the most inclusive show to date of Fuller’s work. On view from March 14 to June 21, 2009, the show is organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art with the cooperation of the Fuller family.

R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was one of the great American creative thinkers of the 20th century. Philosopher, forecaster, designer, poet, inventor, and advocate of alternative energy, Fuller is probably best known as the originator of the geodesic dome, but his theories and innovations engaged fields ranging from mathematics, engineering, and environmental science to literature, architecture, and visual art. Fuller was one of the great transdisciplinary thinkers and made no distinction between these spheres as discrete areas of investigation. He devoted much of his life to closing the gap between the sciences and the humanities, a schism he felt prevented a comprehensive view of the world. He believed in the significant interconnectedness of all things and concluded that certain basic structures and systems underlie everything in our world.

Today, his prophetic concepts are a touchstone for discussions of issues including environmental conservation, the manufacture and distribution of housing, and global organization of information. Fuller’s concepts are ripe for reexamination by artists, architects, designers, scientists, and poets among others.

As Whitney curators Michael Hays and Dana Miller write in their catalogue introduction, “Fuller sought to produce comprehensive anticipatory design solutions that would benefit the largest segment of humanity while consuming the fewest resources…Starting as he did from the universe and ending up with visual spatial models with which to ponder universal philosophical problems in the here and now, it is not surprising that Fuller has had a tremendous impact on the visual arts and architecture. His sensibilities and modes of working were deeply aesthetic and many of his closest friends and supporters were artists."

Fuller’s concepts are ripe for reexamination by artists, architects, designers, scientists, and poets among others.

This exhibition offers an opportunity to study the pioneering thinking of an intensely passionate, prolific, and idiosyncratic individual. It includes original examples of Fuller’s important works from both private and public collections, among them the models of the Wichita House; the Tetrascroll portfolio; several geodesic study models from the Special Collections Research Center of the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; as well as numerous sketches, notebooks, and other artifacts. Many of the artifacts and documents in the show are from the R. Buckminster Fuller Archive at the Stanford University Libraries.

Elizabeth Smith, the MCA's James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs, and Tricia Van Eck, Curatorial Coordinator and Curator of Artist's Books, organized the Chicago presentation of the exhibition which includes numerous additional photographs, documents, and archival materials that relate to Fuller's presence in Chicago and downstate Illinois where he lived and worked for many years. These materials are from the collections of the Chicago History Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), the Special Collections Research Center of the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the Graham Foundation, the Union Tank Car Company, the Missouri History Museum, and Allegra Fuller Snyder, Fuller's daughter.

About Buckminster Fuller Richard Buckminster Fuller Jr. was born on July 12, 1895, in Massachusetts, to an old New England family. His great-aunt was the transcendentalist feminist writer Margaret Fuller, co-founder, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, of the magazine The Dial. Spending summers on Bear Island, off the coast of Maine, Fuller experimented with designing a new apparatus for human propulsion of small boats. He entered Harvard in 1913, but was expelled, returned to the university the following year, and left again, without ever graduating. He married Anne Hewlett in 1917. Fuller served in the U.S. Naval Reserves and the U.S. Navy in World War I as a shipboard radio operator, an editor for a Navy publication, and a crash-boat commander. After discharge, he worked in meat-packing, where he acquired management experience. In the early 1920s he and his father-in-law developed the Stockade Building System for producing lightweight, weatherproof, and fireproof housing.

In 1922, Fuller lost his first child, Alexandra, shortly before her fourth birthday, to complications from polio and spinal meningitis. A few years later, he was ousted as president of the Chicago franchise of the Stockade Midwest Corporation by new owners and took a job as a flooring salesman. In 1927, jobless and destitute, Fuller considered taking his own life by drowning in Lake Michigan, but later said that he decided at the last moment to embark on his "Guinea Pig B" experiment -- "an experiment, to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity." In 1929 he displayed his 4D house at Marshall Fields, where the word “Dymaxion” was invented.

Dymaxion -- derived from the words dynamic, maximum, and ion -- was his new form of housing that was inexpensive, efficient, and portable which he used throughout his career. During the 1930s and 40s, Fuller designed his Dymaxion cars and houses using similar technology and materials. He collaborated with the copper company Phelps Dodge Corporation on prototypes of the Dymaxion Bathroom, an easily installed, lightweight, four-part unit Fuller envisioned incorporating into Dymaxion Houses. In 1933 and 1934 the Dymaxion car was displayed at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago.

Fuller developed friendships with a number of artists including Isamu Noguchi. After he took a teaching position at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he taught for two summers in 1948 and 1949, he encountered Josef and Anni Albers, Ruth Asawa, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Richard Lippold, and Kenneth Snelson. The first summer, Fuller played the lead in Erik Satie’s play The Ruse of Medusa, organized by Cage and directed by Arthur Penn. It featured Cunningham and Elaine de Kooning, and employed props and sets by Ruth Asawa and the de Koonings.

In 1948, he taught at Chicago’s Institute of Design where he worked with students to develop a sustainable home. At Black Mountain College, with the support of a group of professors and students, Fuller continued his work on the autonomous dwelling unit, which developed into the project at IIT that would make him famous -- the geodesic dome. In 1949, he erected the world’s first geodesic dome building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. The U.S. government recognized the importance of the discovery and employed him to make small domes for the army. Within a few years, there were thousands of domes around the world.

The growing recognition that Fuller enjoyed in the 1950s reached a crescendo in the mid-1960s. Throughout this period and for the rest of his life, he contributed a wide range of ideas, designs, and inventions to the world, particularly in the areas of practical, inexpensive shelter and transportation. Fuller wrote several books in short succession and was the subject of extensive press coverage, including a 1964 Time cover story and a profile by Calvin Tomkins in The New Yorker, in 1966.

Fuller taught and lectured at hundreds of universities, primarily at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where much of his research about the global allocation of resources used in The World Game took place. He contributed writings to numerous publications and had his work exhibited at museums and galleries throughout the world. In 1967, Fuller and Shoji Sadao created his most complicated and largest dome for the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. He was awarded 28 U.S. patents and many honorary doctorates and received the Medal of Freedom, as well as the Gold Medal award from the American Institute of Architects, among numerous other awards. Fuller died on July 1, 1983, at the age of 87.

Publication: Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe - A comprehensive, fully illustrated publication accompanies the exhibition. The curators, Michael Hays and Dana Miller, in addition to writing the introduction together, have each contributed an essay. Antoine Picon and Elizabeth Smith offer two essays on Fuller’s impact, the former placing him within the history of utopian thought and the emergence of a society of information and communication, and the latter illuminating several of the important ways in which Fuller’s impact is manifested in today’s contemporary art. Calvin Tomkins’s seminal 1966 New Yorker profile of Fuller is reprinted, which perhaps more than any other article from Fuller’s lifetime captures the international figure at the height of his creative powers, while also drawing an intimate portrait. The catalogue is rounded out by a contextual chronology by Jennie Goldstein, which reminds us that although Fuller was a singular individual, he was always part of the historical fabric of his time. The catalogue is co-published and distributed by Yale University Press.

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