10/09/2011

This essay was first delivered as a talk at SOFA NY in May 2011.

The Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition, Crafting Modernism: Midcentury Art and Design (opening in October 2011) features over 20 jewelers. Some are well known, such as Alexander Calder, while others have been resurrected from obscurity and brought forward for re-evaluation. Those represented in the show reveal that jewelers, like many artists in the exhibition, came from a range of disciplines. Some were trained in an academic setting; some, such as Sam Kramer, were largely self-taught; others hailed from the world of painting, sculpture and design.

The title of this talk was taken from the irrepressible Sam Kramer. His early Greenwich Village gallery was the center of activities both surrealistic and fun and he advertised his work as suitable for people who are ‘slightly mad.’ Kramer briefly studied jewelry with Glen Lukens in California. After a few years of travel, when he learned about gemology and Navajo culture, Kramer opened his gallery on Eighth Street in New York. From the start he worked with such unconventional materials as geodes and taxidermy eyes, used silver in a drip fashion and favored oddly compelling anthropomorphic and erotic shapes. All were calculated to startle and attract customers.

Sam Kramer The jewelers whose work is included in the exhibition self-selected to live and work apart from the commercial jewelry business that dominated retail stores. Choosing to make objects of little or no monetary value, to work alone or in small workshops and for relatively modest profits, these jewelers created rich and compelling forms that were a response to the artistic and cultural world in which they lived. They were purchased by individuals, often members of the avant-garde, who felt a kinship with this work. One, New York art historian Blanche Brown, said derisively that ‘diamonds were the badge of the philistine.’ Some, such as Kramer and Ed Weiner, had little formal education in the field. Others were part of the academic world that sprang up as a result of the postwar GI Bill that guaranteed education to returning veterans. Many of them produced work of lasting fascination, the result of their interactions with the arts and the psychological theories of the day that included Freud and Jung. Kramer was embraced by members of the beat movement, but recognition by the art world of his work and status as a true innovator did not come until much later.

In the vanguard of studio jewelers, Kramer opened his gallery in 1939 and his work reflected the surrealistic developments then pursued by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. All employed elements of surprise and unexpected juxtapositions in their work. Kramer grasped the wider implications for jewelry from an early date, creating wall mounts so that his jewelry could be enjoyed, whether worn or not.

Other well-known pioneers included Ed Wiener and Art Smith. Wiener, a butcher’s son who discovered jewelry after taking a general crafts class at Columbia University, launched a highly successful business in New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Smith, another Greenwich Village artist, was involved with the world of dance. This gave him the profound insight that the body is an armature for ornament. His large, sensuous, form-fitting shapes were all about line and the human body. As a recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum has demonstrated, Smith’s work is more desirable today than ever before.

Harry BertoiaJewelry was also fashioned by a significant body of painters and sculptors – and their contributions are included in Crafting Modernism. Of course, the first and most influential of these was Alexander Calder, who, as a child, made jewelry for his sister’s dolls and in time created them for family and friends. His ornaments were inextricably linked with his larger mobiles and stabiles, as they employed the occasional movable element and found items. Rarely exhibiting works until mid-century, Calder had shown them in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and at a few New York galleries by the 1940s, where they had a marked influence on a nascent field. Along with Calder, sculptor Ibram Lassaw produced a quantity of jewelry that was closely related to the open-space constructions that he was well known for. Indeed, jewelry sales augmented his income when sculpture sales were infrequent. For the abstract expressionist painter Richard Pousette-Dart, wide-ranging interests in transcendentalism, primitivism and the psychological theories of Jung and Freud led to the assemblage of symbols both in his paintings and in small, powerful, totemic brass forms. Claire Falkenstein, whose fractal-based sculptures were writ both large and small and the painter Jay De Feo, whose early work included tiny, abstract, sculptural earrings, are also among this important group of artists whose work easily traversed the cross-disciplinary attractions of jewelry.

In the world of design, Harry Bertoia is best known for his Knoll designs such as the Bird ottoman and chair of 1952, included in Crafting Modernism. Bertoia explored aspects of the grid motif in furniture, sculpture, and jewelry, as seen in an early hair ornament.

Enamel became a significant method of ornamenting jewelry by the 1950s, thanks to technical advances in the field (chiefly owing to new, inexpensive kilns) and a renewed interest in historic works. The Museum of Contemporary Craft (later the American Craft Museum and today’s Museum of Arts and Design) mounted an important enamel exhibition in 1959. A select group of artists were invited to create works for this special occasion. John Paul Miller, master of granulation – where fine granules of gold are adhered to a surface without solder – emerged as an enamelist of great promise. Silversmith and jeweler Margret Craver participated in the exhibition, offering her first reinterpretation of an ancient technique called en résille. Craver had experimented for years to develop enamel that was free of the metal substrate typically required in the firing process and in which colored and metallic elements could freely float. The jewel-like centerpiece of Craver’s hair ornament was the first proof of her hard-won success.

Margret Craver With the arrival of the 1960s and the freewheeling exploration of all craft media that it entailed, artists tried out a host of technical, material, and conceptual ideas. The intrinsic beauty of the humble found object was investigated by many jewelers, including Ramona Solberg, Donald Paul Tomkins and J Fred Woehl. They incorporated everything from comic-strip characters to synthetic gems, old cameos, staples and coins in their work. For others, technique offered a pathway to new aesthetics. Stanley Lechtzin led the field in electroforming, a method that allowed the artist to build up unique shapes using a special bath. Ruth Radokavich found inspiration in nature and cast such items as sea urchins to create startling works. Lynda Watson cast small interrelated forms to create larger shapes that echoed California landscapes. Pure geometry found many adherents, among them Ron PKen Coryearson, Betty Cooke and, to a limited extent, Margaret de Patta. They developed businesses based on the reproduction of signature shapes for which they became known. Long Beach jeweler Ernest Ziegfeld developed a series of jewelry that found favor in some of the early Walker Art Museum exhibitions on jewelry. Merry Renk’s career is notable for the brilliant repetition of shapes, as is beautifully illustrated in her White Cloud tiara, the result of interlocking organic shapes that seem born in nature. More playful abstraction is seen in the work of Orville Chatt, whose silver, jade and pearl necklace reveal contrasts of light and dark that feature prominent wirework. Of course, aspects of funk and surrealism added to the rich mélange of jewelry produced during this period. The field was led by the inimitable Ken Cory. His irreverent, carefully crafted works, such as Tongue, opened the field to more personal and idiosyncratic statements that emerged in the 1970s.

From the postwar years through the 1960s, the most avant-garde jewelry was notable for its freedom of expression, relation to international artistic developments and experimental nature.  Today, we recognize this marvelous efflorescence as the first flowering of the studio-craft movement.

Jeannine Falino

Jeannine Falino, Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) adjunct curator, was formerly the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She has also lectured and written widely on American decorative arts from the colonial period to the present, with a focus on metalwork, jewelry and twentieth century craft. She has edited and written for several major publications, including Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design (MAD 2011) American Luxury: Jewels from the House of Tiffany (co-editor, 2008) Silver of the Americas, Museum of Fine, Arts, Boston, vol. 3 (2008). She has also contributed essays to numerous publications on twentieth-century design and decorative arts. They include Women Designs in the USA, 1900-2000 (Bard, 2000); Art Deco 1910-1939 (Victoria & Albert Museum, 2003); and Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects (Clarkson Potter, 2007).

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