Master Metalsmith Robert von Neumann

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HomeLearning CenterJewelry DesignBehind the DesignMaster Metalsmith Robert von Neumann
By Carol S. FisherMore from this author

This article was completed just weeks before Robert von Neumann's accidental fall and subsequent death on April 23, 1984.

Books and artifacts - from Eskimo masks to Picasso prints, from anthropology to art history - as well as wildlife - aquaria of native fish, nesting birds, wounded muskrats, hatching butterflies - all were Robert von Neumann's childhood companions. While exposed to the art world by his father, a painter, printmaker and professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he was also encouraged by his mother to explore natural history. Summers were spent at the western Great Lakes - Michigan and Superior - and the northeast Atlantic coast of Maine and Massachusetts following commercial fishermen, his father's favorite subject matter.

Von Neumann now admits he was ". . . an indifferent, wool-gathering student in school. . . ," who took a college level course in basic zoology and found the process of scientific training terribly boring. In World War II he joined the military and served in the ski troops of the 10th Mountain Infantry Division, spending the war years in the Colorado Rockies and Italy.

After the war, von Neumann enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to major in painting and illustration, but found those forms of expression to be unsatisfying. While browsing in the library he came upon a book written in 1902 by H. Wilson called Silverwork and Jewelry. Interested, he began teaching himself the basic processes of sawing, filing, soldering and finishing. Since there were few retail jewelry tool suppliers in Chicago in 1947 , he used what could be found in hardware stores - bulky, shark-toothed pliers, heavy saw frames and a gas mouth blowpipe which attached to the front burners of the kitchen stove.

Robert von Neumann - Goat Pin

During the late 1940s, few people in the country were concentrating on decorative metalwork. Alexander Calder had done a number of pieces, and New York jewelers Paul Lobel and Sam Kramer occasionally had work illustrated in fashion magazines. In Chicago, Robert Peirron and Quentin Neal were trained in painting, sculpture and design, and, like von Neumann, were working in decorative metalwork. A number of small galleries began to show this unique work on consignment - a reasonable 10 percent in those days. Display techniques were primitive and the appearance of silver objects began to deteriorate the moment they went on display. Tarnish, if removed at all, was removed with paste silver polish, so that recessed and oxidized areas soon looked terrible.

Fortunately, there were also a number of national exhibitions exclusively for the decorative arts, that is, ceramics, metal, weaving, enameling and some woodwork, and they were beginning to attract more and more artist-designers. Von Neumann entered many shows: the National Decorative Arts and Ceramics Exhibition, Wichita, Kansas; First National Decorative Sculpture and Crafts Show, Sarasota, Florida; Fiber, Clay and Metal, St. Paul, Minnesota; and Designer-Craftsmen USA, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, where he collected prizes and purchase awards. Regional competitive and invitational decorative arts exhibitions were also beginning to gain momentum and reflected a growing interest in all of the media.

Concurrently, a number of national and regional associations of the decorative arts began enlarging their memberships. The American Crafts Council became the predominant force in increasing public and professional awareness. The ACC magazine, Craft Horizons (now American Craft) led the field in articles on techniques and materials. The ACC also sponsored important exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City.

After receiving his BFA from the Art Institute, von Neumann began to search for graduate programs in metalwork and soon heard that the University of Wisconsin at Madison was about to start such a program. The powerful driving force behind the Wisconsin program was Arthur Vierthaler, who through overwhelming enthusiasm, persistence and great technical knowledge, had found space, equipment and financial support for several undergraduate courses in metalwork. (In 1984 the school initiated a Master of Science in Applied Arts in metalwork.) As the first candidate in the new metals MS program, armed with a teaching assistantship, von Neumann found himself teaching several classes in which he was also enrolled.

Vierthaler encouraged competency in all metalworking techniques, not only fabrication but enameling, casting, lapidary work and toolmaking. He also instilled a respect for and fascination with techniques of the past. Wisconsin soon accumulated one of the best metalworking reference libraries in the United States. Vierthaler's attitudes concerning all-around competency influenced von Neumann, and he has always hoped to instill similar values for competency and expression in his own students.

Upon graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1950, von Neumann landed one of the two academic positions available to his class. During the next five years, while teaching the gamut of courses offered in art by Iowa State Teachers College (now Northern Iowa University), he produced several hundred works, primarily in sterling silver and karat golds. His subject matter reflected then, as it still does today, his love of forms in nature, mammals, birds, fish and dinosaurs as well as mankind and mythology - Greek myths, Old Testament stories and Arthurian and Northern European fables.

Particularly important in von Neumann's work is the human male, encrusted in armor, hopefully fierce, often pompous and always ornamented elegantly. The images are always sculptural, even narrative, often satirical - seldom simply abstract decoration. The sources for his imagery are best expressed in his words: "I have had a personal prejudice - for myself only - against the nonobjective image, exquisite as this often can be. There is, built into this kind of form/invention, a kind of anonymity that depresses me. Much work, whether it be painting, ceramics, sculpture or what have you, lacks the fingerprint of only one creature on this earth, one being who in visual expression, invests the image with the entire complexity of background needed to form the artist. Call it style, call it identifiable image, but it must reflect that which only one being can invent. I try to do this with my own work - which has seldom been fashionable - and I try my best to encourage this kind of confidence in 'self' in my students.

"Fashion, often dictated by all the wrong motives (profits for the gallery owner, quick fame for the artist, reflected glory of the museum curators and art critics) has a short life today. Visual information takes moments to circle the globe. That which is the height of success in an artistic medium at this moment in New York, London or Tokyo will be jaded by the time an art student becomes aware of it and its short success span. The temptation to be influenced and to cash in on the vogue is great, but it is always a 'catch up' game.

"Though I was comfortable working in cultural isolation - on a table next to my bed for a studio (metalworkers need little space, just deaf neighbors) - I became somewhat involved in organizational aspects of the decorative arts. I had not properly learned the lesson painfully experienced by my father that, like mushrooms, art 'leagues,' 'associations' and 'organizations' grew, spouted manifestos, built memberships and soon died through internal jealousies and ennui. How often he contributed his time and energy, and how soon he regretted it. Then, watching him through years of entering his prints and paintings in national and regional exhibitions, to be elated when accepted, ecstatic when winning prizes and deeply depressed by rejection, also taught me much about such lotteries. I can understand the need, for young artists especially, to exhibit often. This is how the game is played. What they should not do, and what I do not do, is peg their personal sense of values on such successes or failures. I have been on dozens of juries. I realize how much compromise and aggressive domination can dictate results. Competitive shows are a lottery and standards change each time a new jury is appointed. I have always been fortunate in such shows, but if I had to attach value to exhibitions I would place much more on the invitational exhibition which, after all, should reflect the growing importance of a given artist. Even then, those doing the inviting are often less than objective and such shows can reflect quite narrow biases. All in all I approach this aspect of artistic activity with as much humor as possible.

"Organizational activity in the early 50s consisted of becoming a member of the American Crafts Council and participating in several meetings in New York and Seattle. Perhaps I should have remained in such organizations, if only to represent my point of view, which is fundamentally this: 'Art is to do - not to talk about" My father gave me another version of this when I presented him with the first edition of my metalwork textbook, The Design and Creation of Jewelry. 'Some people do it, others write about it.' A bit crushing at the time, but I can see the justness in his attitude.

"The 'crafts' field especially seems overfond of clusters of like-thinking souls. Somehow painters, sculptors, etc., have never been able to mount viable interest groups. Even Artists Equity, once including major names in the visual arts, lasted for only a few years. Not so with crafts groups. Is it because standards of excellence are generally still lower than in other media? Does this result in a collective self-congratulation which ignores critical insights? Are marketplace realities so important that interlocking sales efforts require this sort of grouping? In my experience, the best metalworkers, the most innovative potters and weavers have not needed the collective impact of an organization to succeed in the acceptance or sale of their work. Quality brings the consumer to one's door.

"One group that differs greatly from the multitude of guilds is the Society of North American Goldsmiths. Before I comment on what I feel to be its virtues, and they are many, I'd like to express my unhappiness with not only the name itself but especially its acronym 'SNAG.' The former is pretentious, inaccurate and awkward. The 'North American' limitation is not necessary for an organization which is based in the United States and 'goldsmiths' is much too limiting. Where do the ironsmiths, silversmiths, jewelers, enamelers, etc., fit in? The term 'goldsmith' is really quite narrow, especially considering how relatively few artist-craftsmen work exclusively or even primarily in this metal. The acronym SNAG is both ugly and strained in its coy attempt at 'with it' humor. It belies the seriousness of purpose demonstrated by the organization 'Society of Metalsmiths' (though implicitly excluding enamelers) is much more accurate, lean and to the point.

"The system for acquiring full membership through peer review is not of itself a bad idea. It must, however, be immaculate in its administration and must constantly review its own objectivity and honesty. A task not notably successful even in the heyday of the guild system in Europe and elsewhere.

"What is really extraordinary about (forgive the expression) SNAG is its conviction that the broad spread of technical, historic and experimental information is healthy and to be supported. Through Metalsmith magazine the practitioner can learn through another's recent experience. Information about the directions of individuals and schools found in the critical articles and excellent photographs brings the movement into focus in a most successful manner. I am not aware that any other organization or publication has this success.

"In general, however, I have always felt ill at ease in the organizational milieu - too much socializing, too much political maneuvering, too much genealogical involvement with who studied with whom."

By 1960, von Neumann had been at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for five years and was a prolific jewelry artist-designer. His work was shown in the United States Pavilion at the Brussels' World Fair in 1958 and was a part of a United States Information Agency exhibit that toured Europe and the Near East from 1958 to 1961. During this period, his work in metal had been developing into greater complexity in technique and scale. He had long been fascinated by traditional Japanese metalwork, dating from the gift of a family friend of a small ceremonial Samaurai sword when he was a boy. The richness of detail, the almost incredible mastery of chiseling, overlay, inlay, patinas and lamination stimulated many attempts, on his part, to redirect these ancient processes into contemporary Western expressions. He was especially influenced by the willingness of the Japanese artist-craftsman to use metals and their alloys in a purely coloristic manner. When precious gold or silver were used, it was for the rich warmth of the gold or the cool, reflective mood of silver. The intrinsic value of one metal over another seemed quite unimportant, and the most unlikely combinations, in Western terms at least, of pure gold, roughly forged or cast pig iron and lead, worked because the craftsmanship and esthetic concept was highly sophisticated.

"We in America are now coming to the same way of thinking about metals. In our case the motivation is to conserve the expensive metals, but the results are equally valid and handsome. In a given work today one might find acrylic plastics, pearls, electroformed copper, nickel-silver sheet, gold inlay, etc. What the artist does with materials is more important than potential investment or resale value - these latter being the reason for the existence of much jewelry in earlier days. I find this free choice in material and process very healthy, and the current attention to mastery of the old and new brings great seriousness to the profession.

"By 1959 I had accumulated such a sheaf of notes and class outlines on jewelry processes that it seemed logical to organize them into a book. There was the need for a serious book at that time, one to reflect the serious, artistic approach. The few technical books available were either outdated in terms of process and design attitude or they were utterly simplistic how-to-do-it volumes. What I felt was needed was a text that told the 'how' in the words of an instructor sitting at one's elbow and guiding from basic to ever more complex processes. The 'what' was dealt with philosophically and with flexibility, encouraging the need for a unique expression of self. I tried to avoid telling the reader, either directly or by implication in photos of work, what the 'going thing' was, knowing full well that the 'going thing' goes very rapidly. Ninety-five percent of the illustrations are of work done by beginning students - my own students at the University of Illinois. This was done intentionally. Too many books show the handsomely made and sophisticated form inventions of established professionals in the field. I felt this could be too intimidating for the beginner. I've heard a number of times that people felt enough at ease with the book that they were able to teach themselves with its guidance.

"In 1960 I was asked to be part of a four-person team of two industrial designers, a potter and a metalsmith, to tour parts of Japan for two months. The State Department's International Cooperation Administration and the Japanese Government wanted us to view traditional handicraft products in various regions. We saw work in ceramics, paper, bamboo, wood, fabric and toys but very little in metalwork. Decorative metalwork using ethnic Japanese processes was limited to a handful of individual Japanese artists at that time, with only a Kyoto-based niello and overlayed jewelry industry that could be called traditional. At that time the museum of the University of Art in Tokyo and the metalwork courses offered by that University were virtually the only locations for the study of chiseling, overlay, inlay, lamination, casting, holloware and patination.

"The greatest impact of this two-month visit was seeing how deeply rooted the ceramic tradition is in Japan. Early forms, such as the slab built Haniwa figures, were especially compelling to me since they also treated the human form encrusted with armor."

From that time on Robert von Neumann began to work in clay almost to the exclusion of small-scale metalwork. He took great pleasure in working with larger forms in clay, a malleable and forgiving material. After years of working with resistant metal, he felt an incredible release. The imagery was the same but scale, color and surface were different and tremendously exciting to him. From the beginning he combined elements of formed, chased, repousséed, etched and patinated metal with the stoneware and porcelain forms. But the main thrust was always the clay. The size was somewhere between one and six feet in height, and the stoneware reduction glazes and added metallic luster glazes were always important elements. "I realize it probably shouldn't be a factor, but the relative monetary return of clay sculpture versus metal jewelry became evident very early on. I soon realized that the marketplace dictates that a three-foot-tall clay and metal figure is worth so much, and a brooch or a pendant - even of silver with gemstones - can only be worth one-fourth as much. The jewelry piece might represent impressive mastery over several processes and might have taken two to three times as long to complete. The intrinsic value of materials alone might be worth 10 times that of the clay object. This double standard, somewhat better adjusted today than even a decade ago, has always irritated me, and it is irrational in our society." Recently von Neumann has returned to doing some work in sculptural jewelry using metal in combination with other materials such as plastic, wood and clay, but he has not abandoned the larger clay combination sculptures and still makes that his major area of concentration.

Von Neumann, as an educator, is concerned about today's students and the philosophy behind their education. "Most young visual artists today go through a foundation training program that is essentially identical for the painter, sculptor, designer and metalworker. Usually the student doesn't begin his major concentration until the junior year. I continue to feel that the artist today should develop skills and expressive abilities in a far greater variety of media than formerly. It certainly is much less rare today to find an individual who is a painter, jeweler, ironsmith, photographer and designer. Each area requires the same dosage of keen perception, imagination, and the ability to be one's own severest critic."

"This philosophy has been reasonably successful. Our undergraduates have been accepted in the best graduate programs around the country - almost always with financial support. We have been in on the beginnings of the careers of many nationally and internationally recognized metalsmiths, such as Eleanor Moty, J. Fred Woell, Francis Stephen, Lane Coulter, Joan Weiskopf, Anita Fechter, Marvin Lipofsky - all undergraduates in metal at the University of Illinois or Iowa State Teachers College.

"I am much impressed by the truly superior craftsmanship of the current metalworkers. There is an elegance of execution and an inventive use of new materials that has not been seen before. I think that artists like Al Paley and Eleanor Moty have been tremendously influential in this direction in the United States and Claus Bury and Wendy Ramshaw have led the way in Europe.

"Sometimes flawless execution gets in the way, however, and a juiceless coldness results that is all technology and no humanity. Jewelry should have humanity. It should enhance, not diminish, the wearer. Unfortunately there seems to be a current abhorrence for the decorative, the unabashedly delightful." Von Neumann feels strongly that today's art students should investigate the humanities, the classics and particularly art history to flesh out their knowledge and background and develop a healthy curiosity about all of life, past and present. Almost all art students are exposed to some Western art history, basically architecture, painting and sculpture, and very few are aware of what mankind has achieved in the Near and Far East, Africa, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and our own diverse hemisphere. Reading folklore, myths of all lands, science fiction - things that stimulate inner vision - can bring that humanity back into art. This exposure should be part of the student's total training. Von Neumann feels that the ability to draw, to delineate the mental image, is of utmost importance. The act of drawing helps the artist-designer create a preliminary order out of the chaos of possibilities the mind generates. And drawing helps to communicate with the potential consumer of art as well. This is perhaps more important to the artist-craftsman than to anyone else.

Robert von Neumann at work

Life has been full for Robert von Neumann, not only teaching, writing and doing his own metalwork and sculpture, but also investigating and enjoying the world. He and his wife, Mary Willson, a professor of ecology at the University of Illinois, spend as much time as possible backpacking, canoeing, biking, skiing, rafting, testing themselves and enjoying the challenge of the wilderness.

Von Neumann continues to enjoy those interests developed as a child - keeping aquaria and writing articles for aquarist periodicals and building models of oil sailing ships, which he has sailed in both oceans with his three sons. The von Neumanns have also built, and constantly add to, a house and terraced gardens in Wisconsin where they long to live and work full time.

Robert von Neumann says his plans for the future are: "First a trip to the high Canadian or Greenland Arctic to hear wolves singing and watch the walrus and narwhal. And to continue work in sculpture, stoneware, porcelain, metal and wood, using as subjects mythological and biblical events. More ship models, more aquaria, more! more! more!"

Carol S. Fisher is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Special Programs at the School of Art and Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

By Carol S. Fisher


Magazine – 1984 Summer

In association with SNAG‘s


magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Carol S. Fisher

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