An Interview with Garth Clark
29 Minute Read
In September of 1988, the CDK Galleries opened their doors. Partners Garth Clark, Mark Del Vecchio and Wayne Kuwada presented the work of 11 carefully selected American jewelers including Fred Woell, Lisa Gralnick, Robin Quigley, Jamie Bennett, Randy Long, Christina Smith, Linda Threadgill, Rachelle Thiewes, Bruce Metcalf, Donald Friedlich and Kiff Slemmons. Located in a separate room within Garth Clark's prestigious New York and Los Angeles ceramics galleries,
CDK intended to do for jewelry what Clark had done for clay - elevate its status in the eyes of the curators, collectors and critics of the art world. In his formal offer to represent the jewelers, Clark wrote with confidence that CDK would be "an acknowledgment of jewelry as an art form."
Only eight months later, Clark's artists received another letter from him. "CDK," he wrote, "will close its doors." On a rainy February afternoon, Donald Friedlich met with Clark in his New York gallery to find out what went wrong.
How did you become interested in contemporary jewelry?
I will answer that in a moment but first I want to preface all of my remarks with a few points. First, most of the comments I will make will be generalizations about the field. They should not be construed as being specific to any of the artists that we exhibited unless specifically stated as such. I was honored to show their work and they all delivered exciting shows. Second, I am not an expert in art jewelry. I am an excited admirer and a collector. I feel uneasy about giving opinions and their only benefit might come from my distance to the field. Third, the problems we ran into with jewelry came from conflicts between the direction that we needed to go with ceramics and the different direction that jewelry was tugging us towards. All the other difficulties could be resolved but for this one, and, when we realized the incompatibility, we decided to pull out. This would not have been true of, say, a gallery dedicated to wearable art. Last, we have not abandoned the entire notion of working with jewelry. We have two possible jewelry exhibitions coming up in the future, but we are skeptical of our ability to be fully effective in this field.
Now to your question: I began by collecting historical jewelry. As a teenager I was attracted to Art Nouveau jewelry and, to some extent, Art Deco as well. When I was about 20, my ex-wife and I began to collect African jewelry - Benin lost wax bronze jewelry and Bushman beadwork. But then I got involved with ceramics and because of a limited budget, we stopped collecting jewelry. Still, I continued to notice and admire jewelry and was particularly impressed by the inventiveness that I was seeing in the United States. My interest was rekindled when I was invited to speak at the SNAG conference at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1987. I was fascinated by the Society and intrigued by the objects its members were making. I couldn't believe there wasn't a market for what I was seeing. At that point I had resumed collecting jewelry in a modest way. It seemed to make sense to do something with jewelry at the gallery. It appeared to be an activity that could run parallel with the ceramics.
As a result of your interest in jewelry over the years, peaking with your speech at the SNAG conference, you had formed an initial view of the jewelry field. Over the life of CDK, how did that view change?
The biggest problem with CDK was neither art nor money. We never expected to make money, at least not in the first few years. We knew what we were trying to do was going to be a long, slow road. Most of the work we were showing was very strong, very good. We had wonderful shows and they were installed well. The aesthetics were fine. The biggest problem I found was that there was basic incompatibility between what we were doing as a ceramics gallery and what we were doing in jewelry.
We had assumed that the ceramics and jewelry could share resources and be complementary. In fact, they were totally and absolutely separate. Ceramics is making inroads into the world of art and jewelry is not. Whether you want to call it decorative art or fine art, I really don't care, but with ceramics there is art world activity. The field made tremendous progress that makes clay a very exciting field to work in.
The jewelry was completely rejected by that world. You and I can theorize about the fact that jewelry is art. You and I can accept that it is art or, at least, the best of it is art. But to the rest of the world, jewelry's marketplace remains the fashion marketplace. That is a world we have no desire to enter.
You have decided that you aren't the one to change that. Do you see anybody else in the position to open some of those doors into the art world?
I think Helen Drutt is doing a great job. Now that I have worked in the field for a short while myself, my respect for her has grown even more.
Do you see any way that the jewelry field in general, or SNAG in particular, can help the art world accept jewelry?
It will be difficult. I felt that I could make little difference myself, which is one of the reasons that I didn't want to continue, even though, as we got closer to closing CDK, the business became more and more successful. It was clear that if we continued, we would probably do reasonably well financially. But it was tearing us apart. We had to have two complete psyches within the gallery to cope with the ceramics on the one hand and the jewelry on the other. That was the biggest problem. Furthermore, jewelry consumed a disproportionate amount of our time and resources, at the expense of the ceramic business.
Sort of a schizophrenic split within an individual?
Yes. There was this split which made us all feel very uneasy. Ceramics is in a very separate world. For some reason the fine arts community was always more sympathetic towards clay than towards any of the other craft media such as glass or fiber. That has given ceramics a head start.
Jewelry has had a different kind of history. For such a long time, jewelry has been considered a portable asset. When the time comes to flee, when revolutions erupt, when the kings are dethroned, you gather your jewels into your jewel box, tuck it under your arm and race away. Ceramics has had a much longer history of creating autonomous art. It can also be precious, but in a different way.
Do you think the intrinsic value of jewelry is an Achilles heel to its acceptance? In much of the worth going on in Europe, and to some extent in the United States, people have rejected the use of precious materials. Do you think that rejection will help to open some of those closed doors?
I think it is very important in the long run, indeed, essential. In the short term, it will slow things down. For example, we have a couple who buy very avant garde art, such as expensive paintings that self-destruct, meaning that in about 20 years' time, the paintings might not exist. At the same time, the same collectors will only buy Cartier Art Deco jewelry. They reflect their intellectual tastes on the walls, not on their clothes. They don't want to present themselves to their friends and peers as a walking, self-destructing painting. They perceive their persons in a more conventional way and, as a result, prefer precious jewelry. In fact, we found there was active hostility from the art community towards the jewelry. At best, they were passive about it, but often they actively disliked it as being pretentious and trying to emulate art. I do not agree, but that was the attitude.
When you say art community, are you speaking of the press or curators, or collectors, or all three?
All three. You have to understand that we do not function as a craft gallery. We have some collectors who collect only craft, but primarily our collectors also collect mainstream paintings, videos, photography, sculpture, whatever. These are people who have a commitment to ideas, not to a material or a single discipline. They are not going to commit themselves to collecting metalwork or jewelry as a genre. Each individual piece of jewelry has to impress them as a work of art, or they won't buy it.
To further complicate things, people's response to jewelry is very emotional. After all, man first made jewelry from the bones of slain animals and wore these to intimidate, to show how powerful and dangerous he was. We do the same thing today, but now the power is reflected by the size of the gem, its rareness and by the weight of the gold. I think this is why people still prize very conservative and traditional jewelry. It is a very atavistic response.
In other words, people still prefer the 47th-Steet view of jewelry, or perhaps the Vogue view of jewelry, as opposed to the small world of "art jewelry" that SNAG represent?
In our limited experience, people who consider themselves serious about jewelry think in terms of Fifth Avenue. People who want to play with jewelry go to Henri Bendel or some place of that nature. Many people who came into CDK enjoyed the jewelry. But when the piece they admired turned out to cost $2,000, they would say, "Well, I like it, but I can get something that will please me as much in costume jewelry For $50 to $200." They were happy to buy cheap, fun jewelry that would reflect another more informed side of their personalities. But if they were going to make a serious commitment to jewelry, it had to be what they considered serious jewelry - gems and precious metals.
But the jewelry you were showing was serious in terms of its content. Did that ever come into play?
Rarely, and that was the most infuriating thing I had to deal with. When we sell ceramics, the discussion is always the content. It's not whether it's big or small or whether it's a celadon glaze or not a celadon glaze. Why is this artist trying to do what he's doing? Why on earth is Adrian Saxe covering his pot with cubic zirconium, for instance? The whole discussion concerns the "why" of the piece.
The way in which the jewelry buyers would decide to buy work made me feel impotent. They would come in and pick up the jewelry, hold it to their bodies and, in that split second, the decision was made. If there was something they didn't like about the way the piece looked on them, it was over. You couldn't discuss it. You couldn't convert them to an interest in the art. If it didn't fit the kind of clothing they tended to wear, forget it. The discussion came to an absolute end. For us, the most interesting moment in selling ceramics is the moment when somebody looks at the work of art and says "no," because that's when we begin to try to turn it into "yes." Also, you find with art, the work you say no to most readily is, in the long term, often the work you eventually say yes to most enthusiastically. We just could not do that with jewelry, because even the so-called serious collectors (and there are not many of them in this country) were still, in a sense, buying art from a fashion perspective. They had a style or a look. They had a certain kind of clothing that they wore. And if that jewelry did not go with how they presented themselves, they rejected it.
But with the ceramics, don't you get people saying this pot just won't work with my couch, or my living room is the wrong color for this vessel, just as you have people saying that this jewelry just won't show well on my print dresses?
No, we don't have that problem, and I think it's because we filter clients right from the beginning. We don't want to deal with clients who want to use art to make their couch look more stunning. For most collectors - at least for most of our collectors - it's not an issue. For instance, we have never dealt with the interior design world. We don't encourage them. We don't advertise to them. We steer clear of this marker because we dislike dealing with that kind of fashion consideration. It's demeaning for the artist. It's demeaning to us. But with the jewelry, we found ourselves drawn into this kind of world, one that we had so carefully steered away from. With the jewelry, what I considered to be a very serious work of art was judged by whether or not it matched the buyer's eye color. To me, that is a very irrational way to buy art, but possibly a justifiable standard in wearable art.
There are those who view jewelry as site specific sculpture, with the individual wearing it as the site. Wouldn't that point of view legitimize the idea that the site - the individual - is of paramount concern?
That was the other problem. A lot of buyers lost confidence in the jewelry early on, because, for site specific art, the work all too often did not take the site into consideration. Most jewelers say they do, but when a piece actually has to fit on the body and deal with shoulders and breasts and bellies and movement, the attitude often seemed to be, "Your body is now going to have to fit my jewelry." You'd have to put it on just before you were going to an event, move very carefully, watch how your arms flew around, come straight home and take it off again. For instance, you can't wear a lot of the art jewelry in the winter simply because you can't put a coat over it.
Then there were other things I found difficult. People who had been in the field for years, who were top jewelers, couldn't do findings properly. We'd try to pin a piece onto a customer's lapel and the whole piece would come adrift. There were pieces designed to stretch right across the body from shoulder to shoulder, but if you moved your shoulders, the piece would snap because it was too brittle and didn't allow for movement. We had many wonderfully embarrassing moments with clients when pieces we were showing came apart and fled the site!
This was despite the fact that one of your primary prerequisites for selecting the jewelers you represented was that their work be functional and function well? Despite that limitation you still found serious problems with how the pieces functioned when worn?
Yes. That caught us really by surprise. In many cases, of course, I made the error because I looked at the pieces from a male point of view. I don't wear necklaces or bracelets. So, I would select work that I thought looked functional and then Gretchen Adkins, our assistant director, would wear the pieces, and we would discover that despite their gorgeous appearance, they were absolute hell to live with. While CDK was open, I must have drawn blood 12 to 14 times, and wrecked three or four articles of clothing with jewelry that just tore into me one way or another. I felt very constrained with certain pieces of jewelry, knowing that, unless I changed by body language, I was going to hurt myself. Well, I don't want to change my body language for a piece of jewelry. I want a piece of jewelry that will accommodate my body language.
I suppose what we're talking about here is a schism between academic jewelry and production jewelry. I don't want to say that I disagree with academic jewelry, because there is always room for the jeweler who creates the theatrical piece, where the patron and the jeweler become collaborators in an act of theater. But those pieces are only for very special moments and can only be pulled off by special artists.
I like to wear jewelry but tend to wear it for celebrations and special occasions. Whenever I go out for a special dinner or opening, I have great fun picking out that special pin to wear. But on a day-to-day basis, I tend to wear a lot of Robin Quigley's work, and yours, as well, because I can live and work in it very easily. Your work worries me a little because I can chip it. Because I respect the piece, I don't want to damage it, and I'm tending to wear it again, more for special occasions. I think that truly theatrical jeweler is wonderful, what is his name, the German conceptualist…
Otto Künzli? Actually, he's Swiss and lives in Germany.
Yes. Künzli is just wonderful because he goes all the way. Much American art jewelry is a compromise. It is relatively conventional jewelry with conceptual aspirations, but it rarely has the courage to go over the edge the way Künzli's does. So, one ends up with the worst of both worlds. You get jewelry that inhibits you, that you cannot wear without a certain commitment to looking ridiculous and perhaps an exaggerated sense of anxiety. And yet you don't get the payoff. It's not a rich enough object intellectually and conceptually to justify making all those elaborate compensations for the piece. Also many mistake a lack of wearability with conceptual content - they are not necessarily the same thing.
And that's not enough to justify a $2,000 purchase for most people?
Not for most people. I think there is something bogus about that work, and as far as American jewelry is concerned, that is a big problem. There are a lot of people making work that is neither fish nor fowl, nor good red herring and few critics to cry "fraud"! So, when I buy a piece, I find myself drifting back to whether I can wear it without having to restrict who I am. As a man, I don't have much opportunity to be involved with the more theatrical pieces.
Also, I have found that when a man wears jewelry, it's a real invitation. Partly, it's fun, in that everybody comments. Everywhere you go, someone has to make a remark. But people can't understand why, as a man, you are wearing something…
Less of a comment and more of a crack?
Yes. If you are wearing a little pin that says you belong to the Rotary, or something like that, they understand. They expect anything a man wears on his lapel to mean something. It's funny in the beginning, but very wearisome on an ongoing basis. If you wear something very conventional and small, there's not much comment, but the moment you begin to wear something exotic or larger, that response comes back. "What does it mean?"
The whole experience hasn't poisoned me, however. It has made me a lot wiser. First of all, I realize that the ceramics and the jewelry were not meant to run together commercially. They have nothing in common. I couldn't take enough time off from the ceramics gallery, which has been growing at a wonderful pace, to turn the jewelry gallery around. I just didn't have that freedom. When we started, I felt that the two could work in tandem. But they didn't work in tandem. There was a tremendous amount of friction and hostility and disagreement between the two fields.
And no economy of effort?
No. There were a few economies of cost, in that we had the same telephone and things like that. But there was no economy of effort. And it was apparent that the job of getting the jewelry going was in many ways a greater job than getting the ceramics going 10 years ago. Ceramics has an enormous amount of art literature that goes back for centuries. Ceramics has had an art status on and off through time, so it was a lot easier for us. We had to work hard at developing the ceramics market, but we had a lot on our side to begin with. Jewelry does not have the same history or the same resources. Do you think the fact that jewelry is primarily used by women helps to undercut its credibility as a serious art form in a male-dominated art world? I've never thought of it in those terms, but as you say it, there is a sort of a chilling truth to that. Our entire culture is managed with that sexist undercurrent. But remember, jewelry has also been a man's business. The major jewelers of the world are not women.
Men are the producers as opposed to the consumers?
Yes. I think the fact that the consumers are women doesn't make that much difference. There is still a strong male power trip involved in jewelry. It's part of the way men have traditionally dominated women. When a man turns up with a $100,000 diamond necklace for his wife or his mistress, then, yes, on the one hand it's a gift. On the other hand, it's an expression of his power. Interestingly, we found that with a lot of the women who collected jewelry, it is their male partners who instigate the sale. In many cases, I don't think the women would even collect it but for the man's interest. The men see the work and bring their wives in and encourage them to wear more adventurous jewelry. So, I'm sure there's some sexism involved but it's also a voyeuristic trip for the men who secretly might want to wear the jewelry themselves.
Let's go back to your talk at the SNAG conference. One of the things that most intrigued me was your point that the craft world needs to court the decorative arts curators rather than the fine arts curators, because, for historical reasons, the decorative arts curators tend to be more accepting of crafts. Did you make any inroads with the decorative arts community with respect to jewelry?
We made a few inroads and placed some pieces in museums. We found that the level of interest in jewelry was definitely far less than ceramics. The jewelry didn't seem to excite the curators very much. But that's not a problem. That is something that can be turned around. The decorative arts curators are certainly historically informed, if not contemporaneously so. With education, they can be won over. It's a matter of spending time with these people, showing them the work and encouraging them to take part in activities. It's simply a matter of making friends. But as for the fine arts curators, at this stage there is no hope.
I don't necessarily believe in a hard and fast division between the decorative and fine arts. I like objects. Therefore, I admire the decorative arts world. The reason I advocated pursuing the decorative arts curators is pragmatic. That is, the organizational reality of the art world at the moment, I think it is very foolish to ignore that fact. That doesn't mean you don't try to change things. We work at softening the boundaries between the decorative and fine arts all the time, but at this point in the history of art, there is no revisionist movement in sight. There is no sympathy towards changing those lines of division. Don't believe the egalitarian things that fine arts curators say to you when they come to conferences like SNAG. They don't want to make a lot of enemies, so they'll say all the right things, but when they go back to their departments, they're not going to vote one penny's worth of their funds to your concerns.
So, there is no hope of interesting the fine arts community in ceramics or jewelry or both?
Ceramics is different. It has made many inroads, but, even so, ceramics is not fully part of the fine arts world. It's expected to live on the cusp of the fine and decorative arts. Actually, it's a place I enjoy being, and I have little desire to move at present.
And in jewelry, there's not a hope?
Jewelry does not live on the same cusp. There is no hope of fine arts legitimization in this century. We were told by the fine arts curators in the bluntest of terms that they were not interested at all. It is just not a field that is important to them.
They wouldn't even look at it?
No, they wouldn't. The same is true of a lot of the art press.
So, if they were in the gallery to look at a ceramics shout, they wouldn't even go into CDK to have a look?
It was interesting that even though CDK was right there, and it was only a matter of stepping through the door, many people chose never to walk through that door. We would drag many in, kicking, screaming and protesting. If we got them inside, they would look around politely and step out. In a year of exciting, very special shows, very few art professionals were touched in the slightest with perhaps the one exception of Kiff Slemmon's show.
Does the fact that fine art prices have risen so astronomically provide any hope for the acquisition of craft by museums? There are only a few museums that can afford a $40,000,000 Van Gogh. A $2,000 Jamie Bennett brooch is a bargain, by comparison.
I can only apply the same analogy that I used at the SNAG conference. People who get their kicks buying ocean liners are not prepared to compromise and start collecting canoes. The museums don't perceive affordable craft as an option. Their option now is simply to purchase fewer paintings and sculptures. They still want to play the game at the top of the power tree. Jamie Bennett is a wonderful jeweler, but, in the world of fine arts, he cannot be compared politically with the top painters and sculptors. So, no, this isn't a "trickle-down" economy. Crafts have always been affordable. There hasn't been a period in our modern history when they have not been a bargain, and, today, even at the higher prices, they are still a bargain. And that has had no impact whatsoever. People buy crafts because of a belief structure not because it is relatively cheap. Affordability is not the issue, passion is.
Can we create that belief structure, or is it so ingrained culturally that all we can hope for is to make small inroads here and there?
There is the potential to build a serious market for art jewelry. It is a tough undertaking because you have to run against so many shibboleths that are so ingrained in society, but it can be done. However, it is going to require some tough, even brutal, criticism. Jewelry lacks a critical language that is pertinent to its own, unique character. With some exceptions such as Bruce Metcalf, writing on jewelry is about retaining the status quo, not questioning it.
But progress can only be as good as the art. I started out feeling much more sympathetic towards American jewelry than European jewelry. I thought the whole intellectual bias toward European was snobbish and unjustified. I must admit that after a period of being much closer to the field, I can understand why European jewelry has the reputation and the higher status. They have dealt with the notion of bringing a real piece of jewelry and a real piece of art together much more successfully. I'm generalizing, of course, but the European pieces often turn out to be really wearable jewelry and, at the same time, very unique and different and exciting. The pieces that are conceptual are complex enough on an intellectual level to justify the theater that the wearer is going to have to indulge in. I think someone like Giji Bakker is a wonderful jeweler. His stuff is crazy, it's inventive, it's exciting and it is very wearable. I find it very easy to snap his football players brooch on my jacket and go out. It really does work very well, and it is challenging.
In revisiting American jewelry with that point of view, I feel that "academic jewelers" have become perhaps too academic. It has amazed me, anyway, that an artist can accept the label "academic." There's no other field in the art world where that label is worn with pride, because the whole notion of an academic artist is almost an oxymoron. But it is a very honest label, because a lot of the jewelry does exist on a purely academic level. It doesn't work as "tough art." It doesn't work as good jewelry. These are artifacts that are passed around at university exhibitions, created more with the academic committees within the university in mind than they are with the notion of art or the notion of jewelry. In other words, people are thinking about their move from associate professor to full professor. They're thinking about tenure. They're often trying to impress the art faculty by making jewelry that looks like art so the art faculty can see that they're artists, too. There is a bit of a crisis there.
And an interesting thing that I found talking to many of the jewelers was the number of them who did not like jewelry!
Don't like to wear it? Or don't like the field?
They don't seem to like the field. Very few jewelers, by the way, wear much jewelry. Most of them almost take pride in the fact that they will wear very little jewelry. Some never wear it. When they do, they do not wear the kind of jewelry they often insist that other people should wear. They will wear something very tiny and understated that they can live with very easily. And often the jewelers who make the most eccentric jewelry never wear eccentric jewelry themselves.
Except perhaps at a SNAG conference?
Yes, when their career is on show. A lot of jewelers are really frustrated sculptors. And, if they had the opportunity, they would rather have an object on a plinth in a gallery than make jewelry. I have had many discussions with jewelers who said, "Jewelry is the compromise I make. I can sell the jewelry. I can't sell my sculpture. But, if I had the choice, I would stop making jewelry tomorrow and I would start making sculpture." This took me by surprise. Is that attitude reflected in the work? Is that compromise apparent? Yes. Audiences looking at the jewelry instinctively feel that the integrity claimed for the work isn't there. Ceramics went through a very similar period and it was very destructive to the medium. During the entire 60s it was considered very entre-nous for you to make a pot. And if you made a pot, you had to somehow disguise it. You had to call it something else. You couldn't say, "Hey, look! I'm a potter. I make pots. This pot is art but it's also just a pot." People like Richard DeVore did stand up early on and say, "Don't call my pot sculpture. It was born of a pottery tradition, not a sculptural one." I'm not sure how many jewelers want to stand up and say, "This is not a piece of sculpture but comes out of a tradition of jewelry. But it is such a great piece of jewelry that it is also a piece of art."
Ceramists invoke their uniqueness and independence all the time now, and that's a sign of their confidence. It's a sign of a field that is saying, "All right. Now we are playing on our own terms."
There's a degree of maturity there.
Yes. The art world can accept us or reject us, but they accept us or reject us on our own terms, not theirs. I think that in jewelry, to put it in the crudest terms, many artists are trying to suck up to the art world by making pieces that the jewelers think will be acceptable rather than working out of a personal agenda and saying, "l know you're going to have problems with this because it looks like a conventional piece of jewelry, but it's not. And anyway, it's what I make, it's who I am."
I was very impressed by your belief that a gallery has to earn exclusive representation of its artists through performance. This strikes me as a very fair and humane approach, but one that is very different from other galleries with your reputation. Could you comment on this?
First of all, what the jewelry field desperately needs is strong commercial support. The artists will hate me for saying this, but art is only as free as its patronage. There are always exceptions but, in general, art movements do not succeed without generous, farsighted patrons. The only way you can get through to patrons is by having strong galleries. If a jeweler takes his or her work and spreads it all around with one piece of work in every jewelry gallery in the country, no one dealer will commit to him. But if he has a couple of dealers who are sympathetic to his work, those dealers now have something to gain and lose. If the jeweler becomes successful, the dealers become part of that success. There's reason for them to go out on a limb. There's reason for them to push you in their publicity. There's reason for them to do all the things you would hope they would do for you. They're not going to do it when they know your exhibition schedule includes 60 galleries in the next two years.
Exclusivity can be a matter of power, not necessarily the exercise of the gallery's power over the artist, but rather the power of the gallery to sell enough work to justify the artist/gallery relationship. We do not hold our artists to exclusive agreements if we cannot deliver. We might ask for it at the beginning, but, a year later, if we can't make the sales, we voluntarily relinquish the arrangement and continue to work with them as free agents.
It might sound restrictive to an artist, but it's a simple equation. Instead of dealing with six dealers, you're dealing with one or two. And that dealer then has something to lose. You're important to them. The way we work around here is that the publicity and development for each artist is a year-round thing. It does not just happen around exhibition. It never stops.
Donald Friedlich is an artist who makes jewelry, Judith Mitchell is a writer who wears it. They live together in Providence, Rhode Island.
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