More about Martyl Langsdorf, the Chicago artist who designed Doomsday Clock | Bleader

Monday, April 8, 2013

More about Martyl Langsdorf, the Chicago artist who designed Doomsday Clock

Posted By on 04.08.13 at 04:31 PM

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Martyl Langsdorfs original Doomsday Clock design.
  • Martyl Langsdorf's original Doomsday Clock design.
The Doomsday Clock, I might as well admit, scared the shit out of me when I first heard about it. That was in 1988 when I was twelve and it had just been announced that the clock had been pushed back to six minutes to midnight, midnight being humanity's ultimate annihilation. Ironically, six minutes to midnight was an improvement—in 1984, the clock had been set at a perilous three minutes to midnight—but still, the idea that the amount of time left till the destruction of the world was something that could be calculated was absolutely terrifying. The Cold War was still going on. There were still Soviets, and they were nuclear-armed and untrustworthy, despite glasnost.

This made the Doomsday Clock seem like one of the great forces of History. It didn't occur to me that it, like Communism, had been invented by humans.

But it turns out that it was the work of Martyl Langsdorf, an artist who lived in Chicago. Langsdorf died two weeks ago, on March 26, at the age of 96 at the Lexington Health Care Center in Schaumburg.

Martyl Langsdorf
  • Martyl Langsdorf
Langsdorf was primarily a painter of abstract landscapes who had nearly 100 solo exhibitions during her eight decade-long career. She also happened to be married to Alexander Langsdorf Jr., a nuclear scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and was one of 60 scientists who, realizing how much damage the atomic bomb could do, signed a petition begging President Truman not to drop it on Japan. Truman apparently never received the petition.

This made Alex Langsdorf and his colleagues in Hyde Park realize that the government couldn't be trusted to keep the public informed about the dangers of nuclear technology. So in 1947 they put together a monthly magazine called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and enlisted Martyl Langsdorf to design the cover.

As Langsdorf recalled in 2007 in an oral history for the Art Institute, "Well, I chose the clock face because of the urgency and that time of the essence. That was the idea. Then I fooled around trying to do something literal, and then take away. That's the way I work. Now that’s what abstraction is. An abstract is something from reality."

Sunset 2002 by Martyl Langsdorf
  • Sunset 2002 by Martyl Langsdorf

Originally, the clock wasn't a measure of anything. But gradually it occurred to Langsdorf that they should "put the clock on the world." The clock's first setting, in 1947, was seven minutes to midnight. It's moved 20 times since then, most recently last year when it was set at five minutes to midnight. (Nuclear weapons are still a threat, but so is climate change.)

"I tell you this story," Langsdorf told her interviewer in the Art Institute oral history, "because you can see where an artist can have an impact, or input, if asked. They’re not used enough."

Martyl Langsdorf was born and raised in Saint Louis. Her father, Martin Schweig, owned the oldest photo studio in the city and her mother, Aimee Schweig, was an artist and teacher. As a girl, Langsdorf took drawing lessons at the Saint Louis Art Museum, where she was considered a prodigy; she had her first show in New York while she was only 23. She also worked as an artist for the WPA and painted a mural in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, DC, that showed highlights of African-American history.

Martyl and Alex Langsdorf married in Saint Louis in 1942, where he was working on building a cyclotron at Washington University to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project. They moved to Hyde Park the following year.

Through her husband's work, Langsdorf began to learn more about science; images of synapses and electrical circuits found their way into her paintings.

But perhaps the strangest effect of Langsdorf's connection to the Manhattan Project and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was the constant surveillance by the FBI from the end of World War II through the early 50s. Alex Langsdorf had Q clearance, the highest level, but his FBI dossier was, Langsdorf estimated, three or four inches high. Langsdorf was suspect, too, because she was an artists. Agents began hanging around the A.C.A. Gallery, her gallery in New York, and on one occasion, curator Frederick Sweet had them thrown out of the Art Institute.

"The ineptness of the FBI and the CIA is legion to this day," Langsdorf remembered. "Everybody knows now what they do and how inept they are. They were then too. So you know, so what’s new? They spent all this money and time following me around. Can you imagine?"

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