The political unrest that roiled Western Europe during the first half of the twentieth century profoundly marked the life and career of Alexander Victor Schawinsky. The son of a Polish émigré family of Jewish merchants, “Xanti” was born and spent his childhood in Basel, Switzerland; at the outset of World War I, the Schawinskys relocated to Zurich. Xanti’s subsequent educational and professional paths took him to Germany, Italy, and, finally, to the United States in 1936. In his later years, Schawinsky reversed course, dividing his time between New York, Switzerland, and Italy.

As a boy, Schawinsky reveled in the pageantry of traditional Swiss festivals—a predictor, perhaps, of his future pursuits as an avant-garde fine and performing artist. He deemed his earliest painting efforts a disaster but developed an aptitude for the sharp spatial qualities of geometry. The aspiring architect began training in that field in Cologne, all the while continuing to paint for pleasure. Around this time, he became aware of the progressive philosophy and pedagogy of the Bauhaus. Located in Weimar, Germany, the Bauhaus was known for its integrative approach to the arts and an emphasis on industrial materials. Schawinsky enrolled in 1924 and studied with Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer, a painter and designer who headed the theater department. He became immersed in the department’s activities and soon produced his own pantomime sketches.

Schawinsky was employed as a set designer for the municipal theater in Zwickau, Germany, in 1926, before his return to the Bauhaus as an instructor the following year. Always a dynamic, popular figure, Schawinsky played the saxophone in the Bauhaus jazz ensemble and was celebrated for his innovative dance. He took employment in the building department of the city of Magdeburg and, from 1932 through 1933, worked as a graphic designer in Berlin. The rise of the Nazi regime (and a brief arrest by the Gestapo) prompted Schawinsky to flee to Milan. For the next three years, he worked as a commercial artist for Olivetti and other corporations; many of his branding posters are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. As continental tensions increased, Schawinsky decided it was time to “escape the hospitality of Italy” and immigrated to the United States in 1936, taking up residence and a teaching role at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College where Josef Albers was shaping the arts curriculum.          

As an interdisciplinary instructor, Schawinsky introduced the concept of non-narrative performance pieces, an offshoot of his work with Schlemmer. He noted that “while the work at the Bauhaus theater aimed at the modernization of theatrical means and concepts . . . an educational crack at the whole man seemed to be in order” at Black Mountain. He named his comprehensive approach to theater spectodrama. His classes were devised as synthesized “stage studies”—experiential sessions of active participation, investigation, and improvisation that constituted a “general study of fundamental phenomena,” encompassing space, form, color, light, sound, music, movement, time, and illusion.

In 1938, Schawinsky moved to New York City where he assisted with an expansive exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art focused on the Bauhaus. He also collaborated with former instructors Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer on two pavilions for the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the same year he attained American citizenship. During World War II, Schawinsky served as a camouflage artist for the Visual Problems Unit of the US Army Air Corps and produced a noted multimedia series titled Faces of War. In addition to his work as a graphic artist and stage designer, he taught at the City College of New York from 1943 until 1946, and in various departments at New York University from 1950 to 1954.

Much of Schawinsky’s two-dimensional output—characterized by a surrealist quality achieved through the use of strong colors and thin lines—relates directly to his involvement with theater. At the mid-point of his career, he turned to abstraction and explored sensational, unorthodox ways to create art. In a piece called Dance-Painting, he danced across the surface in a random pattern, while in Track Paintings (1958–1960), he drove his sports car over huge paint-covered canvases. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Schawinsky split his time between New York, Switzerland, and Northern Italy, where he died in Locarno in 1979.