Present at The Creation

Present at The Creation

Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman

Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller; Lounge Chair and Ottoman, 1956; rosewood, leather, alumninum. Photo: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design

Capturing a complex historical narrative through objects is no easy task. But with “Crafting Modernism,” the Museum of Arts and Design meets this challenge with subtlety and brio, exploring the fertile period of 1945-69, in which the American studio craft movement had its beginnings and took on its future shape.

The show represents the resumption of MAD’s Centenary Project, an ambitious series of exhibitions launched in the 1990s to chronicle a century of making. In this chapter, curators Jeannine Falino and Jennifer Scanlan present the story in two parts, each with distinct character, through nearly 200 objects by 160 artists and designers. The museum itself is also part of the story, we learn from the indispensable catalog; MAD was founded in 1956 by Aileen Osborn Webb as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, a program of the American Craft Council, which she initiated to promote craft during the war years. (MAD became independent in 1996.)

The first half of the show addresses the immediate post-World War II period, 1945 through the 1950s, when the lines dividing craft, design, and fine arts intersected; it is installed in period settings that mingle works in all media, manufactured and unique. One dream-team grouping features an Alexander Calder mobile suspended above the iconic Charles and Ray Eames lounge chair and ottoman, a mixed-media mosaic table by the abstract expressionist Lee Krasner, a tabletop sculpture and lamp by Isamu Noguchi, a Lenore Tawney impressionistic weaving, and ravishing ceramics – a Henry Takemoto vessel with calligraphic decoration and a crater-glazed bowl by Gertrud and Otto Natzler.

It hardly matters what discipline these objects belong to, and that is the point. They are now midcentury classics – you can still buy the Eames chair or the Noguchi lamp – and they coexist harmoniously, offering originality, color, texture, pared-­down forms, and above all, the touch of the hand – crafted modernism, indeed.

Even more cohesive is a grouping labeled “biomorphism” – the use of undulating lines and curved forms typical of surrealist painting. An animated Richard Pousette-Dart painting and an Anni Albers pictorial weaving, for example, complement two jaunty asymmetrical forms by Leza McVey, a double vase by Karen Karnes, and an amoeba-like bowl by Russel Wright. Extending the theme are a sinuous music rack by Wendell Castle and a shapely chest-table by Wharton Esherick, whose furniture, we learn in the catalog, Castle regarded as a form of sculpture. The tableau demonstrates how works in different media, functional or decorative, could tap into the same artistic vein with equal success.

In these and other “rooms,” as well as in material-specific displays of functional work, the appeal is to visitors as consumers, capable of imagining a life en­hanced by well-designed, well-made, and beautiful furnishings. 

The mood changes in the second half of the exhibition, mostly work from the 1960s, as harmonious clusters give way to works on platforms proclaiming their individuality. It was during this time that the paradigm of the designer-craftsman or craftsman partnering with industry shifted to the artist in academia, partly owing to the expansion of university craft programs after the war, a result of the G.I. Bill, and the entrance of crafted objects into museum exhibitions, culminating in 1969 in the legendary “Objects: USA.”

Here the viewer is invited to identify with the artist-craftsperson creating unique objects – works that demonstrate the potential of craft materials to express both formal and narrative content, including social commentary on that turbulent decade, such as Willis “Bing” Davis’ Ghetto Voice. Among the many works by ceramists who were also educators are sculptural forms by Daniel Rhodes and William Parry, teachers at Alfred University, and by Peter Voulkos and John Mason, dominant figures in the clay revolution in California.

Indeed, California, with its abundant college craft programs and affinity for innovation, was a magnet; around a third of the works in the show are by Californians. Ed Rossbach, contemporary fiber pioneer and UC-
­Berkeley professor, is represented by a weaving honoring astronaut John Glenn. The funk sensibility is apparent in Robert Arneson’s visually punning Self-Portrait of the Artist Losing His Marbles and Richard Shaw’s diminutive Couch and Chair with Landscape and Cows. Among the furniture pieces that seem emblematic of an informal California spirit are J.B. Blunk’s funky cypress scrap chair and Jan de Swart’s captivating Blanket Chest, its blond façade punctuated by oval nesting drawers.

Examining the many delights of “Crafting Modernism,” it’s hard to disagree with scholar Glenn Adamson, who, in his catalog essay, pronounces 1945-69 a “golden age.” The quality of work supports his point that many of the country’s best craft artists were in their prime; the difference in character between the two halves enacts the change from an idea of craftsmanship rooted in good design, functionality, and skill to one encompassing a multitude of expressive paths.

It was a complex, revolution­ary time, and the catalog – with a dozen scholarly essays – is needed to fully understand the institutional underpinnings of the objects on display. Adamson, for his part, paints a vital portrait of Webb, or Mrs. Webb, as she was known to all. Though her initial interest in craft was in the context of economic development, her view that the movement was intended to foster American individualism guaranteed it would grow in many different directions, some of them contradictory. And so it has.

Mrs. Webb’s adventurous spirit presides over every aspect of this stimulating show. It is altogether fitting that she is its dedicatee.

Beverly Sanders served as an editor at American Craft for 30 years.
 

Museum of Arts and Design
New York, New York
October 12, 2011 – January 15, 2012

Memorial Art Gallery
Rochester, New York
February 26 – May 20, 2012
 

Image credits: Castle: John Ferrari / Krasner: © Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Artists Rights Society, New York / Wright: John Bigelow Taylor / McVey: Courtesy of the Everson Museum of Art/ Esherick: Ed Watkins / Noguchi: © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York, Artist Rights Society, New York / Eames: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art / Arneson: © Estate of Robert Arneson, licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; photo: Ed Watkins / Rossbach: Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Shaw: Eva Heyd / Davis: David Barker, courtesy of Ohio State Historical Society / de Swart: John Bigelow Taylor