Objects: USA

Objects: USA

The 50th anniversary of a monumental show sparks two new exhibitions that celebrate the past and look toward the future.
Objects: USA exhibition

Exhibition view of "Objects: USA."

Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

It was the year of Woodstock, Easy Rider, and the first moon landing, and the end of a decade of dynamic, often tumultuous, cultural change in America. For the craft field, 1969 was a turning point, marked by an exhibition that both captured a movement and invigorated it for generations to come.

“Objects: USA,” a stunning collection of works in a variety of mediums, premiered 50 years ago this fall at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The first ambitious survey show of contemporary American craft, it was sponsored by the SC Johnson Company, maker of household products, in what still stands as an all-time extraordinary gesture of corporate support for the arts. Over a four-year period, the exhibition traveled to 22 art museums in the US and 11 in Europe, introducing audiences to the dazzling range and vitality of expression in American craft that had blossomed around the country after World War II.

Now, in celebration of the show’s golden anniversary, two institutions are partnering to mount concurrent exhibitions reflecting on “Objects: USA” – its importance then, impact over time, and relevance now.

“‘Watershed’ is the word I use to describe it. It’s like BC and AD, in the sense of what the field was like before and after the show,” says Bruce W. Pepich, who was just starting out as a curator and arts administrator when he first heard of “Objects: USA” in the early ’70s. Today he’s executive director and curator of collections at the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin, which until January 5 is hosting “Objects Redux,” an exhibition that includes works from the show and its era. As the hometown of SC Johnson Company (headquartered in buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), Racine is a fitting venue for a look back, especially given the museum’s longtime focus on 20th-century and contemporary craft.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft is presenting its own “Objects: Redux,” featuring pieces from the past alongside newer ones by makers of today – in concept, a complement to the RAM show, from a different generational perspective. By the time Perry Price, director of the HCCC, began his career in 2007, “Objects: USA” had long held iconic, almost mythical status. “Every institution I worked for, every curator I talked to – everybody had that catalog sitting on their bookshelf,” Price says. “It was a striking exhibition design, it had a great title, and it became one of those reference points for almost any type of study of the studio craft field.”

Objects USA curators and Sam Johnson

Curators Lee Nordness (right) and Paul J. Smith (far left) with Sam Johnson of SC Johnson Company, which funded “Objects: USA.” 

Courtesy of Paul Smith

What was so special about “Objects: USA”? Why are people still talking about it, five decades later? What insights are there for today’s young makers to discover? To find answers, we went to a primary source: the distinguished craft connoisseur Paul J. Smith, now in his 80s, who worked closely with the late Lee Nordness to assemble the show. Smith is enthusiastically engaged in the field, has remarkable recall of his projects, and maintains extensive archives. Paging through the exhibition’s accompanying book, authored by Nordness in 1970, Smith is struck anew by the vibrant immediacy of the works and their makers.

“It looks so fresh!” Smith says with a laugh, speaking by phone from his home in New York City. Nevertheless, he feels it’s important to understand the exhibition in the context of the late ’60s. “It was a fantastic time,” he recalls. “There couldn’t have been a better time to illustrate some of the exciting work in craft media being created in America.” The straitlaced 1950s had given way to a do-your-own-thing, question-authority ethos. There was the chaos of war in Vietnam and unrest at home, but also an exhilarating sense of freedom, along with a hunger for meaning and authenticity.

“What I always speak about in terms of that era is the energy,” says Smith. “It was motivated very much by young people who were rebelling against the current and looking into the past. They were interested in rediscovering grassroots kinds of activities in food, culture, lifestyle. Communal living, decorated jeans, tie-dyed T-shirts – all were symbolic of a message about who they were. In the arts, it was music, performance, happenings, abstract expressionism, pop art – all areas of personal expression. But simultaneously, in a quieter, underground way, there was this so-called studio craft movement of people making things by hand.”

At that time, Smith was the director of New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts (today the Museum of Arts and Design), then a program of the American Craftsmen’s Council (now the American Craft Council). Nordness was an art dealer who had opened his gallery on Madison Avenue in 1958. “Lee was enterprising,” says Smith. “He knew lots of people in the arts, in theater. He could talk to anyone and become friends – including the chairman of the board of SC Johnson.” A few years earlier Nordness had, in fact, met Herbert Fisk Johnson Jr. and suggested that his family’s company form a collection of American paintings. The result was “Art: USA,” an exhibition of works by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Andrew Wyeth that toured the US, Europe, and Japan. Nordness was eager to do the same for craft (wanting it to be appreciated as art, he preferred the neutral term “objects”), and invited Smith to lunch to get him on board. SC Johnson Company, he explained, would purchase all the objects and support an extensive tour. In return for Smith’s expertise and access to the resources of the Council, the company would ultimately donate a third of the pieces of Smith’s choosing – he was given prime selection – to the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, and the rest to museums around the country that hosted the show. It was an offer Smith couldn’t refuse. “I saw not only the big attraction of acquiring the pieces for the museum’s collection, which was then very small, but also an opportunity to become acquainted with what was going on in America.”

Objects: Redux at HCCC

“Objects: Redux” at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft looks at how American craft has evolved since the original “Objects: USA” exhibition. Pieces by studio craft legends are on view along with work by contemporary makers such as Roberto Lugo (right), Holland Houdek (below), and Matthew Szösz (left).

Lugo photo: Wexler Gallery / Houdek and Szösz photos: Courtesy of the artists

To fill out the picture beyond artists who were already well known, Nordness and Smith hit the road. They traveled the country to meet makers and see work at fairs, schools, and other “centers of energy” such as private studios and craft organizations.

“We were always conscious of looking at the spectrum of activity,” Smith says. “It was very open. Lee and I were on the same wavelength of thinking this should be a broad survey.” With no prescribed quotas to fulfill, they nonetheless sought and found diversity: established masters and young talent, functional items and large sculpture, in all mediums – clay, fiber, glass, metal, enamel, fiber, jewelry, mosaic, plastic – in every aesthetic approach from Shaker-inspired to Hopi to California Funk. The goal, says Smith, was “a panorama of creativity.”

“Objects: USA” opened with fanfare in early October 1969, in what Smith remembers as a “superb, sensitive” installation at the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts. Samuel C. Johnson, who by then had succeeded his father as company chairman, expressed hope that the show would “stimulate widespread interest in individual creativity, an important commodity today, when our disposable, throw-away society could stand a healthy challenge.”

An instant hit, the exhibition showed a new side of handcraft, one that the public at large hadn’t yet experienced. Critical reviews heralded a new age of craft as art. “Better than any critique, the 308 objects in this show argue the case for the craftsman as artist,” observed the Washington Daily News. Interviewed in the New York Times, the urbane Nordness declared, “This whole line between crafts and fine arts doesn’t exist.… The word still has so many connotations, from the therapeutic right to hobby and folksy. But these are university-trained people. It’s a sophisticated, intelligent movement.”

Within the craft field, the show provoked introspection, a recognition of changing times. “Financial success and critical acclaim are no longer confined to the lions of the fine arts. Craftsmen have made it,” Robert Hilton Simmons wrote in the November/December 1969 issue of Craft Horizons, the predecessor of this magazine. “Status symbols can be woven in unusual fabrics and blown into weird, glassy bubbles. They can be hammered into silver, carved in laminated wood, fired in slabs of clay. And such up-to-the-minute examples will not only be displayed enthusiastically but will actually be purchased by museums, big-name collectors, and with-it banks.”

The biggest publicity came in the form of a documentary film based on the show, presented by SC Johnson in 1970 as a primetime broadcast on ABC (remember, these were the days of three networks and no internet). Called With These Hands: The Rebirth of the American Craftsman, it’s an atmospheric depiction of “human beings, who in this age of computers and mechanization, take joy and pride in the simple act of creation,” as the narrator intones. We see clay sculptor Clayton Bailey blaring “Scotland the Brave” on bagpipes as he marches through a train yard; James Tanner in matching tie-dyed jeans and jacket, the picture of cool as he twirls hot glass; sculptor J.B. Blunk examining driftwood on a California beach; weaver Dorian Zachai cavorting like a dancer through field and forest near her 150-year-old house; Peter Voulkos, cigarette dangling, commanding the floor of his foundry; the serene, zen voice of Toshiko Takaezu, likening pottery to music as her fingers shape a vessel on the wheel. “The lifestyle, the attitude of why it’s so rewarding to make something – that comes across 100 percent, and it’s brilliant,” Smith says of the film, which will be shown at RAM as part of its “Objects: USA” tribute this fall.

After touring America, the exhibition made its way around Europe during 1973 (drawing 53,000 visitors in Birmingham, England, and 35,000 in Warsaw, Poland), where the response was ecstatic. Reviews trumpeted “Objects: USA” as the “sensation of the summer season in Warsaw, absolutely necessary to see it!” and “The most exciting exhibition I have visited at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.” Viewer responses ranged from “The shock is excellent” to “Maybe there’s something to America after all.”

Now when people talk about the legacy of “Objects: USA,” they speak of not just the unprecedented exposure it brought to American craft, but also of the ripple effects: the careers boosted, makers inspired, markets expanded, museum collections seeded. Today the Museum of Arts and Design has 123 pieces from the show. Other works are at various museums around the country, and some are still with the Johnson company.

Some 30 pieces from the original exhibition are currently on view in RAM’s main gallery (including a Wendell Castle desk from its own holdings), as well as more than 40 limited-edition items by “Objects” artists for a retail sales catalog Nordness developed in tandem with the original show. Other exhibit areas showcase studio craft from the 1960s through 1985. “We wanted to talk about what the field looked like before and after ‘Objects: USA,’ ” director Pepich explains, citing, for example, the rapid growth of studio glass from small, experimental works to sophisticated sculptures.

“After all these years, the craft media are finally being recognized as a legitimate form of artistic expression, and ‘Objects: USA’ was an important catalyst to bring this paradigm shift about.” Patti Warashina, ceramist with work on view in “Objects: USA”

At HCCC, viewers can see pieces from the 1960s and ’70s, as well as from artists working now. “We wanted to show work we thought was representative of that moment 50 years ago and pair that with new and emerging artists who have something to say about the trends and tensions in the contemporary craft field today,” says Price. For instance, there are fiber pieces by early innovators Kay Sekimachi and Trude Guermonprez. “We were thinking, OK, what excites us about this work? Who’s working in a similar material today that excites us in a similar way, and prompts similar questions about fiber’s place in contemporary art? That led us to people like Christy Matson, Sonya Clark, Rowland and Chinami Ricketts, and Tanya Aguiñiga – artists who are employing traditional practices and processes in fiber in new and evocative ways, as we imagine Sekimachi and Guermonprez were doing 50 years ago.”

Looking at “Objects: USA” compared to craft practice today, the most obvious changes involve technology, such as the advent of additive manufacturing and computer-aided design. Makers certainly engaged in biting social commentary in 1969, yet political and cultural content is now much more prevalent. And while “Objects: USA” was inclusive, with strong representation by female artists (particularly in fiber), today there is even greater diversity of vision and voices.

In spirit, American craft artists of 2019 have much in common with their forebears from 1969 – nonconformity, playfulness, experimentation, a disinclination to be labeled. “Innovation isn’t pigeonholed to one time or space or place,” observes Lena Vigna, a curator at RAM. “Artists were challenging boundaries then, and are now. It may not look exactly the same, but this idea of wanting to connect and communicate through objects and material isn’t really any different.”

Objects Redux at RAM

“Objects Redux” at the Racine Art Museum showcases work from the original “Objects: USA,” along with pieces by makers who had work in that show, such as Wendell Castle (left) and Peter Voulkos (below).

Jon Bolton

Pepich hopes that as aspiring makers contemplate “Objects: USA,” they’ll remember that “the elder statesmen and women in the field were emerging artists at one time. Dale Chihuly, Sheila Hicks, John Mason, Art Smith – these were young artists who had to find their own way. In some ways it was a harder path then than now. Our beginnings start on top of their accomplishments. They plowed a road for us, and we’re now driving it. And maybe we’re going to take a different turn at the next fork.”

Lee Nordness, who died in 1995, would no doubt have relished the 50th-anniversary celebrations. Smith, his curatorial partner in the project, finds himself amazed by the increasing number of queries he gets about “Objects: USA” from young scholars. (The show, and Smith’s influential work in the field, are even taught as part of a seminar on postwar craft and design at the Bard Graduate Center.)

“Back in the ’60s, I didn’t think of anything being history. I was on to the excitement of tomorrow morning – what I was going to see and do and organize. It’s so interesting for me now to look back, and see it in perspective,” Smith says of his involvement in what became a landmark show. “History,” he adds, “takes time to come into focus.”

To learn more about “Objects: USA,” visit the American Craft Council’s archives in Minneapolis or online.