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Living History at MAD's 'Crafting Modernism'

"Crafting Modernism" is the first Centenary Project exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design's Columbus Circle location, where MAD moved in 2008. Photo: Helene Binet
"Crafting Modernism" is the first Centenary Project exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design's Columbus Circle location, where MAD moved in 2008. Photo: Helene Binet
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Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design

Museum of Arts and Design
New York, New York
October 12 - January 15

For those of us with a strong connection to the studio craft movement, there's a special excitement about "Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design." It marks the resumption by the Museum of Arts and Design of its Centenary Project, launched in 1990, with the goal of producing a definitive history of craft in the 20th century through a series of exhibitions, books and conferences, but suspended in the mid-90s after three shows were mounted.

This exhibition's period, 1945-1969, is especially significant, encompassing the founding of the museum (as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts) in 1956 by Aileen Osborn Webb, who had founded the American Craft Council more than a decade earlier. Undoubtedly perspective on this seminal period has been gained from the 15-year hiatus, and, at this moment when midcentury modern objects are incredibly popular, with designs to be found in stores like Design Within Reach, or highly sought-after at auction, the timing is inspired.

Curators Jeannine Falino and Jennifer Scanlan tell the story with nearly 200 objects by some 160 artists and designers, divided into two broad categories, each with a floor of its own. The first explores the interplay between art, craft, and design during the postwar period to the late 1950s with primarily functional works, while the second documents the emergence of the crafted object as a work of art capable of absorbing and reflecting art trends and cultural attitudes.

It was wise to present many of the works in the first section in cross-media groupings, alluring vignettes that emphasize a new role for craft in home furnishings - the handmade look applied to designed and manufactured objects. In one such grouping, a mosaic tile and walnut coffee table by Vladimir Kagan (who on opening day was to be found near his creation) is flanked by a Harry Bertoia Bird lounge chair and ottoman and Eero Saarinen's Grasshopper chair for Knoll, with an Eames African-style wood stool also in the mix, and set off by a batik wall hanging by Mary Adrienne Dumas and Irving Harper's China Shop textile. The commonalities among these works-sinuous forms, pictograph-like patterns, texture, bold use of color-make for harmonious interiors.

The collaboration between craftspeople and industry, a viable way to make living in that period, is represented by a section featuring hollowware and flatware by metalsmiths John Prip, Olaf Skoogfors, and Robert King, textiles by weavers Dorothy Liebes and Marianne Strengell, and ceramics by Fong Chow, whose turquoise-and-blue vase, vessel, and candelabra effectively combine the streamlined and the handmade.

For woodworking - both furniture making and turning - there tended to be a different career path-that of the independent maker, largely self-taught, with the aesthetic strategy of celebrating wood as a living material. One section includes stellar works by woodturning pioneers James Prestini, Bob Stocksdale, and Rude Osolnik, as well as a wine rack by Art Espenet Carpenter and a rocking chair by Sam Maloof, both early masters of the medium.

Jewelry as an avant-garde art form distinct from commercial production emerged in the 1940s and '50s, and the exhibition includes captivating examples of these unique or limited production pieces. The Greenwich Village pioneers are represented by an Ed Wiener brooch in the shape of a modern dancer (like a Jules Feiffer drawing executed in silver), a surreal Sam Kramer pendant sporting a taxidermy eye, and a bold Arthur Smith brass neckpiece. A delicate Harry Bertoia hair ornament, a graphic Byron Wilson necklace in sterling silver, ebony, and ivory, and an artlessly artful spiral brooch by Alexander Calder also embody this innovative spirit.

Expressiveness and multiplicity rather than stylistic cohesiveness characterize the second half of the exhibition, which focuses on the turn by many craft makers away from the functional object and the craft-design symbiosis toward art in craft materials, the result of expanding craft programs in university art departments, and the entrance of crafted objects into museum exhibitions.

Prominently displayed are Peter Voulkos' Vee, a tall stoneware sculpture with cobalt brush drawing, and John Mason's Sculptural Form, both exemplars of the California clay revolution in the 1950s. (Without labels it might have been hard to distinguish who had done which - rather like Picasso and Braque in their Cubist period.) Sheila Hicks' The Principal Wife, an off-loom hanging of twined silk, linen, wool, and synthetic yarns, and Trude Guermonprez's woven but three-dimensional Banner, signal the similar revolution taking place in the fiber field. Falling Blue, a sculptural piece by Harvey Littleton, a prime mover in the fledgling studio glass movement, is among several works here that appeared in "Objects USA," a mammoth exhibition organized in 1969 by Lee Nordness and Paul Smith, the culmination of the artist-craftsmen direction in all media developing through the decade.

What would a show covering craft in the turbulent 1960s be without works with narrative intent, particularly social protest? The overall impression in this final section is of a gathering of heads: Robert Arneson's Portrait of the Artist Losing His Marbles, Willis Bing Davis's Ghetto Voice in Orange and John Stephenson's The Man in ceramics, and a newspaper portrait of Richard Nixon in a tapestry by Helena Hernmarck.

Throughout "Crafting Modernism" the curators have shown a talent for finding unfamiliar but perfectly apt works to tell their tale. They end with two examples demonstrating how craft would become an emblem of the counterculture: a densely embroidered skirt and blouse handmade by Mary Ann Schildknecht bearing an image of Jimi Hendrix, and a beaded cloth and goatskin handbag designed by Linda Gravenites for Janis Joplin. Awesome!

In New York for "Crafting Modernism"? Check out our tour of midcentury art and design in Manhattan, compiled by design historian Caroline Hannah. Or read our Q&A with exhibition curators Jeannine Falino and Jennifer Scanlan.

"Crafting Modernism" travels to the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, Feb. 27 - May 21, 2012. Beverly Sanders is the former senior editor of American Craft.

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