Metalsmith ’88 Spring: Book Reviews

This article reviews three books “ American Jewelry: Glamour and Tradition” and “Art Aurea” and “The Eloquent Object” published in the 1988 Spring issue of the Metalsmith Magazine.

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American Jewelry: Glamour and Tradition
by Penny Proddow and Debra Healy Rizzolli, NY, 1987
208 pp., illustrated, $65.00 hc

This beautiful book discusses the history and development of American trade jewelry in precious metals. It focuses on those entrepreneurs who manufactured jewelry for the elite and wealthy classes, from the American Revolution of 1776 until the present day. The authors, Proddow, a jewelry historian for Christie’s, and Healy, a jewelry designer, provide a clear and interesting chronology of these entrepreneurs and their proliferation, beginning with the establishment of Shreve, Crump & Low in the late 1700s, to Cartier, and Tiffany & Co.

The publishers have done their job rather well by producing a handsome book, nicely printed and bound, with abundant, beautiful illustrations. The quality and consistency of the photographs is excellent. However, the bibliography is limited and the index is sparse.

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Proddow & Healy combine the documentation of the founding of the various companies with the political and social issues of the time. The authors provide interesting parallels between the design themes of each American era with the stylistic altitudes of Europe, which often originated in Paris. There are discussion of technological innovations, such as the advent of bottled oxygen leading to the creation in 1912 of the contemporary jeweler’s torch. This lead the way to the realization of working with platinum, and all-platinum jewelry. There is a brief discussion of the technology of casting, but its significance and impact on the jewelry trade or on designs that were produced using that technology is not made clear.

The authors contribute little to enlightening the reader as to what is really American and new in the modern era. They say, “the mobility of America’s democratic society has kept precious jewelry from remaining in the hands of a select few, and these changes in ownership have generated stylistic renewals . . .” The examples shown, however, are of pieces so heavily encrusted with jewels that only the most wealthy could possibly afford them. It is important to note that American jewelers have achieved success not only through business acumen, but also through design and technological innovations.

The problem with this text, for those of us who come from the academic rather than the trade tradition, arises when the authors address the post World War II era. Jewelry design bifurcated after the war. One branch was a continuation of activities the authors explain, and the other was the independent jeweler/designer/artist trained in American universities and art schools. As evidenced in their afterword, the authors wished to limit their focus of modern jewelry to that which followed the traditions of the early period. The leading modern jewelers they selected to illustrate the modern American jewelry period are Van Cleef & Arpels, Inc., Harry Winston, David Webb, Inc., Bulgari and Calvin French, Inc. It is true that these companies come out of the tradition of Tiffany & Co In fact, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish these modern jewelry designs from their forerunners.

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A distinctively American occurrence, after World War II, has had a dramatic influence on our jewelry. After the Second World War, many returning servicemen entered colleges and universities under the GI Bill. These men, from rural America, had experienced other cultures while in Europe and the Orient, which caused them to be impatient with traditional art curricula. They wanted more options than their predecessors. This lead to art schools around the country experiencing a sudden surge of interest in the crafts, including jewelry making. The creation, design and production of jewelry would no longer be tied to the European apprenticeship system. Traditional motifs and design sensibilities of the European court jewelers were challenged. University jewelry programs encouraged unique designs and research into ancient and contemporary technology. Jewelry was seen as an art form with esthetic concerns. Because this activity was so removed from the conventions of the jewelry industry, the authors probably chose to ignore it.

Had the title been less inclusive, this reviewer would not feel the need to call attention to the impact on jewelry design made by the numerous American artist/jewelers trained in college and university jewelry programs. After World War II, university-trained jewelers found their way into the industry and have greatly influenced it. This is evidenced by the proliferation of articles focusing on young college-trained designers featured in trade publications such as Jewelers Circular/Keystone and American Jewelry Manufacturer. Much of the recent innovative approaches in commercial jewelry owe their origins to the research activities of the teachers in art programs around the country. Perhaps the title “The History of American Trade Jewelry” would have been more appropriate.

The authors have succeeded in their stated objective; a very good chronology of the development of the jewelry industry. As yet, there is no comprehensive text that documents unique American jewelry originated by the university trained designer/craftsman post World War ll. Nevertheless, one can gain some idea of this recent period from texts such as: Jewelry Concepts and Technology by Oppi Untracht, Tradition and Change; The New American Craftsman by Julie Hall; Objects; USA by Lee Nordness; Twentieth-Century Jewelry by Barbara Cartlidge, The Eloquent Object: The Evolution of American Art in Craft Media Since 1945 edited by Marcia Manhart and Tom Manhart. I recommend Proddow and Healy’s book to those who wish an overview of commercial American jewelry and to individuals involved with estate jewelry.

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– Stanley Lechtzin, Area Head Metals and Jewelry Department
Temple University Tyler School of Art.

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Art Aurea
Ebner Verlag GmbH & Co. KG
Postfach 3060, 7900 Ulm/Donau, W. Germany
Quarterly subscription: 56DM

Art Aurea, edited by Reinhold Ludwig out of Ulm, West Germany, is a striking new quarterly Journal devoted to jewelry and related arts. Prior to the appearance of Art Aurea, post-war Dutch, German, Swiss and Austrian designers had gone without a regular forum for their work, only the occasional coverage in trade publications such as Aurum (Switzerland) and Gold & Silber (Germany). Rather surprisingly, the reputations of Hermann Junger, Claus Bury, Reinhold Reiling, Peter Skubic, Otto Künzli, et. al., have gained international currency through a network of supportive artists and gallery owners, foreign magazines like British Crafts and Metalsmith, books by Ralph Turner and gallery or museum catalogs that have been the main source of documentation in the field. However noble these efforts, they have only circumscribed the need for a representative publication. In its third year, Art Aurea appears to be rectifying this situation by showcasing the work of contemporary Northern European designers on a regular basis.

Art Aurea is visually instructive, with seductive color, graphics, printing and design. The text in both German and English is perfunctory and descriptive, used mainly to amend the content of visuals. The subject matter is primarily jewelry with coverage extended to related sculpture and utilitarian objects by designers from the aforementioned countries. The editorial purview does extend to sympathetic work from England, the United States and Italy, and there is a noticeable penchant for ethnic jewelry and body adornment. Regular features include historical articles, reports and reviews, artist profiles and interviews, editorials—the full menu we have come to expect from any art magazine.

The potential significance of Art Aurea, however, lies beyond its apparent function as a showcase for contemporary European work, as valued as that may be in the current climate of journalistic neglect. Like other arts, the metals community is an international one. Only through an international dialogue can the metals community hope to develop a coherent body of knowledge, historical and critical, that embraces cultural and esthetic diversity.

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Art Aurea is a major step in this direction. It fills the information gap from the European perspective, characterized by a bias for ethnic decoration and a notion of the avant-garde bound by cultural and historical threads. This perspective links jewelry lo a contemporary amalgam of conceptual art, design and fashion.

Jewelers in Europe assume the mantle of designer more readily than in other parts of the world, developing the tradition of industrial materials and methods, structure and architecture, reductive form, minimalist expression and cerebral content that have come to be identified with the Bauherus. It seems more than a coincidence that Art Aurea is published out of Ulm, whose Hochschule has become the spiritual heir to the Bauhaus.

There is also an affinity for conceptual jewelry, that is, jewelry about jewelry. After the devastation of WWII, the economic and social reconstruction of Europe has led to a corresponding cultural reconstruction, a period of questioning and investigation, an attempt to resurrect the values of history and tradition while at the same time evolving a construct for a new German identity that is self-critical yet recuperative. The work of these designers tends to be questioning the critical value of jewelry, its function in validating a class-bound society, its ultimate value as adornment, its commodity value, its liberation in an international expression of esthetic norms.

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But more importantly, Art Aurea is about fashion, not in the sense of complementing current trends in clothing but the fashion of the runway, the semiotic manifestation of cultural identity, fashion, not of quotidian dress and usage but of the fashion photograph whose meaning and appreciation dissolves once the page is turned and only the idea remains. There is an abundance of codified images throughout the magazine, contrived setups of outrageous situations, confrontational and strident constructions about the body, often brutal and unnerving when wearability is considered. This is not art to wear but jewelry to be contemplated. The magazine strives to suggest new directions for fashion rather than jewelry to accompany fashion. It is an attempt by designers to come to grips with the codes by which the culture presents itself through jewelry. In this light, the inclusion of primitive or ethnic jewelry in the pages of the magazine becomes more relevant. These cultural artifacts become important not as anthropological curiosities but as a cultural lesson how other societies are dealing with their struggle with identity. Art Aurea is a welcome addition to the growing body of documentation on modern jewelry. Its circulation both here and abroad facilitates a greater awareness and appreciation of international cross currents vital to a developing art form.

– Michael Dunas

All inquiries concerning Art Aurea, either editorial or subscription, can be directed to their U.S. representative: Joke van Ommen, 2000 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006.

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The Eloquent Object

Edited by Marcia Manhart and Tom Manhart
Essays by the Manharts, Rose Slivka, Horace Freeland Judson, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, Johnathan Fairbanks, Mary Jane Jacob, John Perrault, Lucy Lippard, George Aguirre, Ronda Kasl, Edwin Wade
The Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, 1987
Distributed by The University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA
292 pp., 160 color and 142 black-and-white illustrations. $45.

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In this year of the craft extravaganza, we’ve been told by the American Craft Museum that craft objects speak poetically and now we are informed by The Philbrook Museum of Art that they speak eloquently. If craft objects are talking so much, how come no one is listening?

The premise for this exhibition and the accompanying book is one that has been circulating around the crafts community for some time: craft objects are indistinguishable from fine art objects because they often share similar materials. Further, upon closer scrutiny, profound similarities as to context, intention and esthetic effect can be discovered and thus, as the Manharts indicate in their opening essay: “The old limits, old channels for expression having broken down, we need new descriptive categories and new standards: without them, in this world of flux, critical analysis—even simple conversation—is almost impossible.” T

his choice of perspective is easily understood in light of the current phenomenon of “revisionist” art historians who are rocking the art world with their radical methodologies borrowed from structuralism, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, linguistics and anthropology and whose efforts to debunk the myths of formalist investigations into style and subject matter open the door to “overlooked” art forms like crafts, folk art and industrial art. Unfortunately, in their haste to join the bandwagon, the well-intentioned Manharts have failed to understand that contemporary crafts in a Western industrialized culture have persisted and grown in this century specifically because of the “alternative” values they embody. They neither derive from nor are benefited by a “revisionist” approach to fine art history.

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The visual documentation of the book deviates from the polemical “areas” of the exhibition (see Susan Hamlet’s review of the exhibition in this issue). Instead, the work acts to illustrate the essays, reinforcing the didactic approach that distinguishes the book from the exhibition catalog. The craft objects chosen are by and large confined to artists identified with the 60s and early 70s—a period familiar to the Manharts and to Rose Slivka, primary consultant on the project. Interspersed among the crafts, fine artists using craft-based materials as well as primitive and ethnic artists are introduced to lend credibility to the premise of a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary history. While at first glance this broad perspective appears daring and provocative, the text tails the promise of an “open” dialogue with contemporary craft. The informative captions maintain a humble correspondence with the craft objects in spite of the fact that the essays go their own way in pursuit of their revisionist goals.

The volume opens with the Manharts’ pleasant reminiscence of crafts in the 60s. Their catholic tastes and amiable disposition serves to introduce and evoke “these artists and their works in terms of their abundance, their joy, their life-enhancing exuberance.” Rose Slivka follows with another reminiscence, this time focused on her tenure al Craft Horizons, a story well known but worth repeating. She restates the longstanding dilemma of William Morris that the “aspect of man is no longer the center of things and his eyes are only accessories of his own growing sense of displacement. In the face of all this, the survival of the handcraftsmaker—enemy of mechanical mindlessness and carrier of the weight of humanism with all its objects of art and utility that define a culture—testifies to the persistence of man’s exuberant reverance for himself, of man the artist, the lover of life, its own best reason for being.” The theme of art and culture resurfaces in other essays and Slivka justly posits its historical importance to crafts.

The next five essays disintegrate rapidly into the tiresome art-vs-craft debate. Horace Freeland Judson offers a weak paraphrasing of Gombrich’s relativity of perception in which “he [the artist] obliges us to sustain and resolve perceptual and psychological dissonances of a special kind” as a basis for accepting all visual forms that break the frame of esthetic norms. Penelope Hunter-Stiebel takes the position that the polarity between high and low art (crafts obviously being the latter) will resolve itself in the near future. Although her reading of classical periods is informed, she offers no hard evidence for an imminent reversal of fortune. Johnathan Fairbanks starts off with pathetic plea for equality and rapidly moves on to extol the virtues of museums as protectors of objects of “time and taste,” eloquent objects that are highly useful and often essential for those who are contemplative. You can skip this one.

Mary Jane Jacob’s essay could be considered the keynote to this volume. In it she focuses exclusively on fine artists’ use of craft media, making a convincing case for ignoring a discrete craft sensibility and the attendant phenomena of a subsistent craft community. Her concluding Statement marks the thematic denouement of the text: “A prejudice against crafts endures, even while art has come closer to crafts through an active exchange of ideas. In our campaign to earn status of artist for those who have excelled in their use of craft materials, we have but to look at the changes in contemporary art to see that the former criteria for defining art and craft are no longer applicable and to acknowledge the indebtedness of today’s art to the ideas of craft.” Jacob’s position is that art has changed as a result of its exposure to craft forms and particularly in its recognition and use of craft-based material. Craft is not seen to follow its own evolutionary course but to act as a stimulus for change in the art world through its assimilation.

John Perrault’s witty and often caustic strategy to reverse the roles of art criticism, attacking line art with the same criteria that are usually applied to craft makes for amusing reading but in the end it only serves to galvanize the either/or debate. Perrault has often written intelligently and respectfully of ceramics in the past but insights such as “experience of craft art that retains and celebrates utilitarian forms requires the ability to perceive, receive and process more than one constellation of sense data at a time” seem to get lost in overbearing rhetoric. It is a shame that cognoscenti like Perrault, Jacob and Hunter-Stiebel were commissioned to address the banal topic of art vs craft rather than applying their considerable skills to the craftwork at hand. Rather than being illuminating, they are burdened by overworked themes and ultimately entrapped by the hardened inequities and political infighting of the art world.

The final four essays distance themselves from the rest not only in their avoidance of the art-vs-craft debate but also in their moral independence. Lucy Lippard’s challenge to destroy ethnocentricity in favor of a true cultural democracy permits craft to be respected for itself as an expression of its constituency. “The lack of understanding of art’s function is at the core of the false dichotomies between art’s forms and art for difference audiences.” George Aguirre continues the elaboration of cultural pluralism in his anthropoligcal schema: “As the artist goes to the heart so the culture must go to the artist, who is the heart of the culture,” while Ronda Kasl and Edwin Wade speak to the ritual and spiritual object that nourishes a community.

Although the notion of an art/cultural paradigm is as valid for crafts as it is for all artifacts of a manmade society, its application in this case appears to compromise the “disenfranchised” integrity of contemporary craftsmen. The danger is evident and obvious: you cannot amalgamate all contemporary crafts into an “art” movement, returning to values of primitivism, spirituality, ritual, folk and ethnic art. Too often essays in this section look backward to primitive archetypes or current ethnic art to justify the craft community. Rarely do they look to the amorphous network of “countercultures” that support contemporary craft, in rural, urban or academic environs.

The overall failing of The Eloquent Object (to paraphrase Lippard) is its insistence on dragging these things into museums or fashionable art theories and sacrificing them to the avant garde. Instead, the essayists should have respected crafts for what they already are in their own contexts with their own vernacular. Cultural authenticity is at the heart of all good art. So long as the dignify offered objects is denied to the people who made or inspired them, cross-cultural and interdisciplinary consciousness will be an uphill battle. The curators of this exhibition and their apologists have obviously looked to crafts with adoring and all-consuming eyes but they are still not listening to what they say.

– Michael Dunas

By Metalsmith Magazine
Metalsmith Magazine - 1988 Spring
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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