On the second day of the 1984 Society of North American Goldsmith’s conference held in June in New York City, the pragmatic theme of “Art and Industry” was briefly abandoned and esthetic concerns came to the forefront.
For one-and-a-half hours three international jewelers, Wendy Ramshaw of England, Onno Boekhoudt of Holland and Yasuki Hiramatsu of Japan, mesmerized the audience with slides of metalwork from their native countries Unlike American jewelry, which in recent years has followed a path toward technical perfection and predictable design, the international work seemed to be breaking all the rules with startlingly original results. To describe this new work the word conceptual was used over and over by each speaker. Although fascinated by what I was seeing, I was not clear on exactly what these concepts were or where they originated.
Later in the day I mentioned my confusion to Onno Boekhoudt and asked him to explain. Ironically, he finds American jewelry equally perplexing, but for very different reasons. He confessed he did not understand much of what he had seen on display at the “Jewelry USA” exhibition (see review in this issue) and at the Society of North American Goldsmith’s Distinguished Member show “The technique is fantastic,” he noted, “but there are no concepts. I studied each piece but I often couldn’t feel why the maker did what he or she did; why the piece was made. It seems that in America metalsmiths learn something and then feel they have to do something with it They use the technique they have learned merely for the sake of using it. Americans want to do too much on a small surface.”
From the slides Boekhoudt showed earlier in the day and from the work on display at the “Jewelry International” exhibition (see review in this issue) it was obvious that Dutch jewelers are taking a very different approach. In order to explain the origins of this conceptual trend, Boekhoudt began by talking about the post-World War II era when European jewelry, like American, fell heavily under the influence of Danish Modern design. “For 20 years the work being done in Europe was uninteresting. But in the early 60s things started to change.” In 1969 there was an exhibition of Dutch jewelry that traveled to the United States but was poorly received. “The work was very minimal and the Americans didn’t understand it. This was strange because minimal art came from the United States. American metalsmiths don’t look at their own fine art. Maybe it’s a result of the art versus craft controversy because art has been rejecting crafts for so long, crafts has turned its back on art trends.”
According to Boekhoudt the climate for contemporary art in Holland is currently very good. As a result, metalsmiths have been encouraged to take great freedom in their work Although no one style predominates today, Dutch metalsmiths are primarily concerned with discovering new forms by redefining classical ones in new materials and sizes. To Boekhoudt, developing forms is what jewelry is all about. “Jewelry is a media in which you can concentrate on creating living forms,” he said.
At this point I felt compelled to ask him about the wearability of his forms. lf they are jewelry, shouldn’t they be able to be worn? lf not, aren’t they sculpture? “Yes and no,” was his answer. “Jewelry is something near to a human being. You can’t deny it,” he abstractly explained. “Jewelry is a detail in your surroundings. lf I make something that can’t be worn, it’s unimportant. Jewelry is a feeling of belonging to a human being, not necessarily being worn on the body.” To clarify his ideas he described his design process: “l start by making a piece of jewelry that you can easily wear. From that piece, I may then develop another form that you can’t necessarily wear, but it is jewelry because the original concept on which it is based is jewelry.”
Inevitably, as a practical-minded American, I had to ask him about the marketability of this conceptual work. Boekhoudt’s reply suggested that economic conditions may be the underlying reason for the difference between Dutch and American metalwork “Because the market for art jewelry in Holland is extremely small, and selling one’s work is very difficult, regardless of the style or material, metalsmiths are free to explore new ideas. There is no point in trying to pander to a nonexistent market,” he said, adding that he supports himself by teaching. “In America you see more people wearing jewelry than in Holland. It’s easy in America to make money with jewelry. It’s not necessary nor practical to discover new concepts. In Holland there are only about 50 serious metalsmiths, none of whom make a living from selling their work. There are no art jewelers working for industry. Maybe this is a good thing. It gives the artist much more freedom.”
In her presentation Wendy Ramshaw approached the concept of freedom for the artist craftsman in another light “Today in Great Britain the strength of the works produced is not in a unified link to a slowly developing esthetic tradition, but in the many forms of expression explored by jewelers. This freedom is not only due to advances in technology and the growing number of materials available to the jeweler, but to the worldwide fast exchange of information and ideas on a multimedia level. The biggest impact is that of the visual image combined with the possibility of travel. While looking in the past and in the present the jeweler can sustain a belief in looking to the future and so maintain the necessary idea that the craft of the jeweler is a worthwhile, ongoing dialogue with society as well as a means of personal expression.
“The great strength of jewelry remains in the need of individuals and groups to decorate the human body. In our society this need is expressed differently of each generation of young people—the clothes they wear, the cut of their hair, their choice of ornament and the way in which they bring together these elements. Each new grass-roots expression is fascinating and happily beyond, at least in its first manifestations, the control of the designer and mass producer.
“l am doubtful if the punks and stylists of our urban environment are the future wearers of the more sophisticated works of the artist jeweler. Theirs is already a powerful statement, and those who would make large body ornament must draw strength from the crudeness and vitality of their challenge.
“l believe the success of an object lies in the ability of the maker to fully express the idea contained within their materials, be it by means of imposing form upon the material or allowing form to arise out of it. I have not time or patience for the idea that it is better or more meaningful to work in one material rather than another—or that objects which are quickly and easily realized are less morally sound than those which become costly because they need to be slowly and skillfully worked. Clearly cost in monetary terms has no bearing on esthetic issues at all but has its own rationale.”
To discover how freedom or lack of it is felt by American metalsmiths, I queried some of the people attending the conference. Pat Flynn of New Paltz, New York sees a definite lack of freedom, adding “American jewelers are underneath a rock. They seem to be making jewelry for the marketplace, making things sale and by the rules. Breaking rules is healthy, not necessarily in size but in new applications of materials.” He characterized the international metals phenomenon as extremely important and hopes soon to study in Holland. Although Flynn finds the hard reality of making a living with conceptual pieces frightening, he thinks the results are worth it. “The thoughts behind the pieces are very exciting although I’m not sure how you could apply them to the marketplace. You probably can’t do it unless you’re subsidized.”
Susan Hamlet of Stillwater, Oklahoma was equally stimulated by the international work, especially the holloware and the varieties of materials. “I’m not sure what to do with all these new ideas,” she said. “Americans look stale in comparison. In the past decade Europeans were looking to us for ideas and now it’s reversed.”
Fred Fenster of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin was intrigued by the international work but somewhat skeptical. “The Dutch work looked a little sloppier than I would like to see.” he noted “I’m wary of this ‘anything goes—if you do it, it’s valid,’ attitude. Experimentation is good but it’s important not to lose technique.”
Alf Ward of Somerset Center, Michigan took a more noncommittal approach. Having moved to this country three years ago from England, he is very aware of the difference in traditions and conditions in the United States and Europe. “Americans have more energy and enthusiasm,” he said. “And you must remember that conceptual jewelry is not a great part of the English metals movement. One isn’t better than the other, just different.”
Sharon Church of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania summed it up succinctly: “Americans are more pragmatic—Europeans more conceptual.”
To many people the slide presentations by the international jewelers were the highlight of this three-day conference. Although the majority of the time was spent doling out practical advice on how to make money and get ahead, it was reassuring that esthetic concerns created the biggest stir. Judging by the reaction of many of the conferees, especially the significant number who expressed a desire to study outside the United States, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that American metalsmithing may be in for a change in the near future. It is a credit to the Society that it was instrumental in introducing these new concepts to a broad American audience.