Florence Resnikoff: New Esthetic Potential

Florence Resnikoff delights in the use of color. Vibrant and glowing, muted and moody, color for her involves extending beyond  traditional metal and stone in washes of purple, rose, peacock blue gray—the expanded palette she achieves with anodized titanium, tantalum or niobium without losing the essence of their metallic character.

Florence Resnikoff’s sensitive use of color is an integral part of her work. It is as apparent today as a motivational force as when it led her into the arts as an avocation and provided an expressive balance to her professional work as a medical research technician.

Florence Resnikoff - Vortex Series #4 bowl
Vortex Series #4 bowl, electroformed copper, silvered platform, 2¾ x 5 x 4″, 1987

Color soon assumed greater import and fascination as she was introduced to enameling in classes at Chicago’s Hull House. With only scant formal instruction, Florence Resnikoff acquired new skills and mastered a self-taught repertory of basic jewelry techniques. She produced small pieces, often in silver with richly embellished surface color. Although the continued to work with enamel for several years, the transition from enamelist to jeweler was virtually inevitable as she became more absorbed in working the metal itself.

Echoes of her recurrent search for color are found in some of the densely patinated cost silver, gold or alloyed pins of the 50s and color retains its importance with the introduction of dyed, cast resins into her work of the 60s. In a less obvious manner, it may be found in the nuances of color and value differentiations that she gained by combining various cast, plated or electroformed metals with sheet and wire.

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Set of engagement and wedding rings, gold, emerald, cast, 1956

Although there have been periods when color was subordinated to tonal values and structure, the accomplishments of her recent work return it to a central position. It is now richer and more varied, as the optical qualities perceived in undulating, textured and patterned surfaces offer intensified or softened effects. This is well realized by the enriched color of the neckpieces in the Ribbon Wrap series as well as in three pendants, Landscapes, which exude a transcendent painterly quality. To consider color alone, however, would be an injustice to Florence Resnikoff ‘s design and structural vision.

Ribbon Dot #5 Series pendant, anodized niobium, 14k gold, moonstone, 4¾ x 2¼”, 1983

The crucial years of her passage from avocational to professional commitment began in about 1951 with a move to the San Francisco Bay Area. A comprehensive, though informal education began as she was guided substantially by interaction with members of the Metal Arts Guild. This fellowship among metal artists was a stimulating experience, as it brought an end to the isolation in which most of her previous growth had occurred. Guild discussions often featured the thinking of one of its founders Margaret De Patta, whose remarkable presence exerted a salient influence upon Florence Resnikoff through the interpretation of Bauhaus sensibilities and Constructivist thought.

Although this relationship was not bonded by the close association of teacher and student, De Patta’s largely self-taught experiences and attitudes evoked an empathetic response from the younger artist. It was De Patta’s emphasis on structural conceptualizations and the systematic probing of materials that most affected Florence Resnikoff . During this time she briefly studied casting from wax models with Bob Winston, who introduced the use of a centrifuge into studio practice in this region, and who also provided a less structured approach to form and design.

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Pin, alloy of beryllium, copper, silver, cast, 4 x 3½”, 1964. Photos: George Resnikoff

Florence Resnikoff ‘s temporary stay on the West Coast ended with a return to Chicago for the year 1963-64, as her husband continued his academic career. The final relocation to California occurred in about 1965. Family obligations and career needs conflicted with her artwork, but a judicious budgeting of time was by no means unique to her experience. In fact, the moves between Chicago and the San Francisco area served Florence Resnikoff well. She became a member, and later an officer, of the Midwest Designer Craftsmen. She maintained contacts with craftworkers in both regions, which established a pattern of involvement and leadership in craft organizations that would continue for many years on the West Coast.

In this era of the craft movement, the group experience often provided direction and definition to individuals of disparate backgrounds and esthetic attitudes as they sought recognition for their professions within the arts. The liaison between independent craftworkers and those affiliated with colleges and universities was beneficial in many ways, not least of which was in creating a broader and more select exhibition forum for their work.

Pin, sterling silver, laminated layers, 3½ x 1¼”, 1962. Photo: George Resnikoff

Relying primarily upon construction and casting, Florence Resnikoff ‘s earlier designs derived much of their character from the process and the palpable qualities of the metal. Although well defined, her designs often rejected the Spartan clarity of form that characterized so much of modernist thought, by her tendency to enrich surfaces with ornamental detail. Throughout the 50s and 60s, her cast pieces were generally executed with considerate restraint, as she avoided the beguiling excesses that often seemed to be inherent in the technique. The form of her rings and ring sets was fluid in transition, and many of them also gave a connotation of draped or folded fabric to the metal that relates to the character of the ribbonlike forms in her recent work.

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Detail of pendant

However, exuberance was sometimes allowed more expression where casting was the dominant procedure. Even so, the castings were conceived as contained masses, often of penetrated volume with textural contrast gained by richly patinated and polished surfaces. A cast pin of 1964 is among the most expressive and organic reaches of her work at this time. The attitude is one of arrested agitation in a form that is suggestive of nature’s seemingly random and sometimes harsh sense of beauty.

Other earlier methods combined lamination with casting as exemplified by a silver pin of 1962, where a detailed linear form was separated to create an expanded volume at each end, offering an enigmatic sense of organic growth. There is a duality of focus here that appears in other examples of her work, while the strength of its structure can be felt beneath the surface. Visual interest is also gained from the pattern of its cast shadow. Here the surface may predict the future use of the dot as it is combined with variant circular forms.

Pin, vermeil, blue spinel, movable pearls, 3 x 1″, 1963. Photo: Gary Sinick

Among other available examples of her work predating the 70s is a vermeil pin of 1963. Constructed with laminated wire, its strong linear shaft presents two opposing axes. It contains a lens cut, blue spinel, which provides multiple aspects of the metal shaft, as the electrotextured bezel enriches detail and textural contrast. Tension is created through a shift of focus to the structure’s diagonal thrust. Tension is augmented by yet another strong contrasting element, a cubic volume of metal that is placed upon the same axis as the stone, pierced and contoured to contain a nest of movable, curved wires with pearl finials. This complex piece is particularly interesting on several accounts. It acknowledges Margaret De Patta’s exploration of the  inherent optical qualities of transparent stones.

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Florence Resnikoff ‘s re-examination chose to emphasize the multiple visual qualities of the stone by developing a relationship between its transparency and the contrasting opacity of metal. In doing this, Florence Resnikoff lessened the stone’s impact, but also stressed the ability of both elements to embody aspects of fixed and moving form. The pin was reworked in 1968 with the addition of electrotexturing to the bezel. No other examples of Florence Resnikoff ‘s jewelry so clearly resulted from the study of several areas of De Patta’s interests. It is essentially a tribute to her as well as a point of departure.

Pendant, fine and sterling silver, copper, moonstone, fabricated, spicule, electro-mokume, 6½ x 10″, 1979

By the mid-60s Florence Resnikoff was an established jeweler who was also exploring metalsmithing on a larger scale as well as bronze sculpture. Her jewelry was marketed in craft galleries and shops, and she also executed individual commissions. Her work appeared in several national shows and in numerous juried and invitational exhibitions on the West Coast and in the Midwest. It was also finding its way into public collections. However, these years also marked a turning point in her career that may have been brought into focus by her return to California where many of the significant changes in attitude within the crafts had had occurred. These changes had not only swept through the crafts but struck down many traditional determinants and opened the entire field to new scrutiny and evaluation.

Strawberry Fields, electroformed copper container, rose patina, 10 x 5 x 1¾”, 1982. Photo: George Resnikoff

The stimulus was also internalized in 1962, when she had been greatly encouraged by receiving a prestigious exhibition award for a cast bronze sculpture. Florence Resnikoff felt that she needed to explore her options, and that formal training, which had not been possible at the beginning of her career, would help her establish new directions and strengthen her work. She later described her feelings of dissatisfaction and expectation in this manner: “I found myself becoming anxious to break out of the precious metals, precious stones format. I wanted to become more of a metalsmith, to develop a personal image, to become part of a new wave which was open to the artist.”

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Neckpiece, sterling silver, gold, bronze and copper inlays, turquoise, mokume-gane, 6 x 9″, 1978. Photo: Oakland Museum

Although it appears that she was overly critical of the individual characteristics that were apparent in her work, she now became a re-entry student in sculpture at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Florence Resnikoff ‘s time for studio work was soon shared with graduate studies in art at California State University, San Jose, which she completed in 1973. This year also marked the receipt of a crafts fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to study electroforming techniques and their application to jewelry and metalsmithing. To further her understanding of this process, she entered a graduate workshop conducted by Stanley Lechtzin at the Tyler School of Art that summer. She then set up her studio to probe its potential with the related processes of electrotexturing, which she had used earlier, and electroplating.

Necklet, forged sterling silver, fabricated, amethyst prism, gold prism, pearls, 7½ x 10″, 1976. Photo: George Resnikoff

The jewelry that followed in the 70s represents a period of great energy, exploration and assimilation, as she established the foundation of her current work. Stones disappeared for a time, as metal gained even greater importance. Combinations of metals included bronze, the metal of choice in most of her sculpture and containers. Bronze with silver, silver with copper, and chrome plating over silver with copper, all indicated a quest for color that was achieved mainly without stones, or with dyed plastic elements. In some instances contrast was obtained by a confrontation between a graceful, refined form and one of seemingly artless, awkward immediacy.

Genes Pin, transposed inlay of silver, bronze, malachite, 3 x 2″, 1981. Photo: George Post

As Florence Resnikoff turned her attention toward the unification of dissimilar structural forms, many of the old design dictates of order, balance, harmony, for example, were replaced by eccentric focus and sudden juxtaposition. Not all the work of this time was charged with this level of energy. A respite is felt in a Marine Series of 1972, as Florence Resnikoff stepped back into traditional subject matter with forms that were extracted from nature and retold in a more rhythmic, but less gentle spirit. Out of this striking mélange of risky and demanding forms there emerged two modes —one tense, dynamic and expressive, and the other, static and measured in its post modernist sensibility. It is in this latter vein that some of the forms begin to explore industrial construction methods.

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Multi-Dot Pin, anodized tantalum, sterling silver gilt, soladite balls, cultured pearl, 6 x 2½”, 1982. Photo: George Resnikoff

When mokume gane was brought to the attention of this country’s metalworkers in the 70s, Florence Resnikoff felt challenged to master its technique. At first she achieved the “wood texture metal” effect by the traditional Japanese method, but soon concluded that bonding the thin layers of different metals by plating, would replace the tedious process of soldering. Its finely detailed, repetitive imagery of circular form and curvilinear pattern evoked an immediate response from Florence Resnikoff , as it related closely to an important aspect of her surface design.

A pendant of 1979 contains a featured segment of contoured electro-mokume that has been embedded upon an abruptly terminated, elongated oval platform by electroforming, which she also uses to achieve volume and finish to its curving, irregular contours. A copper tube with a raised meander compliments the mokume, and the wire collar introduces a gently swelling curved segment between the moonstone and the related volume of a tubular form to emphasize the asymmetry of its dominant character.

Square Pin-Pendant, anodized niobium, sterling silver, jade pillow, 1¾ x 2¾”, 1986

Florence Resnikoff taught for several years in the State University system and joined the faculty of the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1975, where she is presently head of the Metal Arts program. The latest major exploration of techniques and metal forming methods occurred at the end of the decade when Peter Haufee spoke on his work before her students. Its striking color led Florence Resnikoff into the research and study of anodizing highly refractory metals. Also, the transfer of this new technology, which brought a new dimension of color and material that had not existed previously in the artist’s arena, was a development she could support wholeheartedly.

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Ribbon Loop Neckpiece #2, anodized niobium, titanium, sterling gilt, rutile quartz, stainless steel, nylon band, 10 x 10″, 1986. Photo: Gary Sinick

Florence Resnikoff finds little that is appealing about nostalgia or consciously drawing inspiration from the past. She has placed her work firmly in the present throughout the more than 40 years that she has been a jeweler and sculptor. Working within the context of one’s own culture is a deeply rooted tenet and one that is central to her art.

She also believes that we can be informed by and enjoy the contributions of other cultures without borrowing irrelevant symbols, and that we can learn from them and our own cultural past without having to romanticize their methodologies. It is not surprising, then, to find in her studio machinery that replaces some traditional hand procedures, nor is the equipment to work with highly refractory metals a negation of her identity as an artist and creator of unique objects. That her recent work incorporates the so called “high-tech” materials is not incidental, but the result of several years of study and an ongoing probe, “. . . of their potential to be moved beyond the technical into a new esthetic.”

Hazel Bray is a retired curator of decorative arts from The Oakland Museum

By Hazel Bray
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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