Toni Greenbaum is an art historian specializing in 20th- and 21st-century jewelry and metalwork. She has written countless journal articles, book chapters, and exhibition catalogs, and is the author of Messengers of Modernism: American Studio Jewelry, 1940–1960. She lectures internationally and teaches Theory and Criticism of Contemporary Jewelry at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Portrait: Wesley Greenbaum.
In 2012, French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel was celebrated with a mid-career retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The 67-work exhibition was organized by the Centre Pompidou in Paris and is traveling to Seoul, Tokyo, and Macau. The show includes several early works in wax, sulfur, and obsidian. However, the bulk of the work ranges from the late 1980s to the present and emphasizes theatrical sculptures of large, strung glass beads blown to the artist’s specifications by artisans in Murano, Italy and Firozabad, India. These phantasmagorias occasionally incorporate other materials as well as repurposed objects. At first glance pretty, playful, and colorful fantasies, Othoniel’s oeuvre belies a far more sobering agenda.
Throughout his career, Othoniel has referenced the body, as a whole and in part, mostly with sexual overtones. Self-Portrait in Priest’s Vestments (1986) is a black and white photograph of the artist, depicting him on a frozen dam mourning his first love, who committed suicide. The artist wears a white linen garment (Priest’s Robe, 1986), which hung empty beside the photograph. These works illustrate Othoniel’s engagement with the human entity, apparent or implied, defined or distant, and presage the “necklace” sculptures to come in which he appropriates the configuration of strung beads to explore weighty issues of human trial and transformation.
Othoniel is openly gay and embraces erotic topics relevant to both genders. In 1997, he collaborated with Hawaiian craftsmen on the fabrication of Breast Necklace. Opalescent beads the size of tennis balls were created from milky white Bullseye glass. Each bead sports several pink “nipples” that cite fertility goddesses and allude to ancient Near and Middle Eastern eye beads. The message is more obvious here than in the other necklace sculptures. The most poignant works in the exhibition were initiated in 1996 when Othoniel’s mentor and friend, the artist Félix González-Torres, died from AIDS. To quell his anguish, Othoniel fashioned 1001 necklaces from tiny blood-red glass beads and created a performance piece by distributing them to participants at that year’s Euro Pride Festival. He also made a photomontage documenting the event. One of these, Scar-Necklace (1997), was on view in the exhibition along with a slideshow of individuals wearing the necklaces. Typical of Othoniel’s duality of purpose, these necklaces encompass both joy and suffering. They link people, like beads, in an intimate, shared experience of giving and receiving. Regarding necklaces as a human surrogate, Othoniel has stated, “The necklace is like the shadow of a missing person." (Smith, Rosenberg) These humble necklaces, their designation, and the consequential interactive event, place this project at the forefront of Othoniel’s oeuvre, engendering a more acute emotional response than many of the formidable sculptures that were to follow.
For the past decade, Othoniel has investigated the theme of absence through spatial voids created within monumental, curvilinear structures composed of voluminous spheres of blown glass strung on pre-shaped steel rods. Black is Beautiful (2003) is a 13-foot (3.96 m) “necklace” of plump black glass beads from Murano. It is meant to honor the sociocultural movement of the same name and was inspired by New Orleans’s century-old Zulu parade. It is doubtful, however, that the viewer will grasp the reference without reading title and copious wall text. The pieces reminiscent of Mardi Gras necklaces–traditionally thrown out at revelers and upwards into trees–are far more evocative. Othoniel created multicolored examples on a large scale and hung them from tree branches in the sculpture garden of the New Orleans Museum of Art (2002). This installation also speaks bitterly of the dangling corpses of lynched African Americans, a subject revisited with White Necklace in 2007.
Lacan’s Knot (2009), Large Self-Supporting Knot (2011), and Large Double Lacan’s Knot (2011) are examples from the most recent series on display. These works were informed by the “Borromean Knot” cipher of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In his theory of human subjectivity, Lacan used this knot to explain the relationship between the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary. Othoniel intends viewers to walk beneath the first and last pieces, which were suspended from the ceiling and challenged expectations of scale. He invites viewers to experience the void within the contorting elements and the space surrounding them. The whole encounter is further enriched by reflections off the mirrored surface of each “bead.” Again, one must rely upon accompanying verbiage to fully comprehend Othoniel’s meaning. In discussing these works, he says, “I took the idea of the necklace and twisted it, turning it into a new form. It’s more sculptural.” (Walsh) Othoniel never abandons the traditional necklace format, and while these pieces are visually stunning, one can’t avoid wondering whether or not he’s beginning to push a diluted point with stagy, manipulative works. Double Necklace (2010) was hung in the middle gallery. Its purple, amber, and transparent orbs cascaded resplendently from ceiling to floor. Admittedly more jewelry-like than the geometric models from the Lacan series, the oval of Double Necklace would require a colossus to complete it.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art succeeded admirably in offering a glimpse into the resolve of this much-loved French artist. Open and uncrowded, the lavish works sparkled. A 26-minute video in French with English subtitles was enlightening in its depiction of this determined man, his working methods, and his creations. Almost all of his major works salute the necklace: Kiosk of the Nightwalkers (2000), a permanent installation at the Palais Royal/Musée du Louvre metro station in Paris; My Bed (2002); Boat of Tears (2004); and The Secret Happy Ending (2008). 2012’s Precious Stonewall is a 13-foot-tall (3.96 m) glass brick cube wrapped in 150 strands of faceted glass beads. Wearable strands from the piece, incidentally, were offered for sale in the museum shop. Hopefully, this is not indicative of a nascent trivial bent. Othoniel is drawn to this mode of time-honored jewelry for all its connotations—physical, emotional, sacred, commemorative, signatory, ritualistic, and talismanic. Necklaces are sexy and enhance beauty. In French writer Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Necklace, his heroine Mathilde, “placed (the necklace) about her throat against her dress and remained in ecstasy before (it.)”(Applebaum) Necklaces confer power and provide protection. They’re used as barter. A string of beads was purportedly among the trinkets procured to buy the island of Manhattan. Unlike other forms of jewelry, the necklace involves the entire body: neck, head, shoulders, and chest. Big or small, on or off, the necklace presumes a human presence. Jean-Michel Othoniel’s passion for the necklace is notable. He should take care though, that his typically decorative sculptures don’t devolve into banality.
A comprehensive 264-page monograph Othoniel, with text by Catherine Grenier, Deputy Director of the Centre Pompidou, was published in English by SKIRA in 2012. It is available through the museum for $55.