Richard Reinhardt: Discontinuous Continuity
17 Minute Read
Richard Reinhardt's best-known pieces today are silver bracelets, constructed in concave or convex forms that curve smoothly and logically in a circle. Intermingled with these simple forms are forged, applied wires that gently scatter and break as if they were trying to redirect the curve. Despite their inconsistent pathways, these parts continue the circle. Reinhardt uses the term "discontinuous continuity" to describe the design. To me, that characterization applies as much to his metalsmithing career as to his work.
Reinhardt was born in Philadelphia in 1921 and developed an interest in art in elementary school. He vividly recalls learning the rudiments of design, like "axial balance," "radial design" and "repetition in a field" during his early art studies "They just clicked with me," he says, but I smiled, thinking that these concepts of 60 years ago have surfaced in the circularity, counterbalance and movement of his current work.
Reinhardt obviously enjoyed art, since he paid 50 cents for Saturday morning classes with Earl Metz, who had graduated from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts (now the University of the Arts). "When people with good jobs were making $6 or $7 a week, $3 or $4 a Saturday morning was good money," Reinhardt recalls. Sometimes as many as eight children painted, drew from plaster casts or modeled clay in these classes.
During his West Philadelphia High School years, Reinhardt chose college preparatory courses. As part of his curriculum, he took a sheet metal course from his father, who taught tinsmithing and wrought ironwork. "My father was a little harder on me because he was afraid I would embarass him, which I did one time. While he was showing us how to lay out a funnel or something like that on the blackboard, I fell asleep and he yelled at me, real loud — it shook me up." Reinhardt describes himself as an average student who excelled at physical education, shop and art.
In 1939, from a student body of 4000-5000, three students competed for the Art Scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts. Because the decision to choose one was so difficult, Harriet T. Biddle, a friend of an office worker at school, funded two tuitions so that all three students could attend. So, Reinhardt entered PMSIA in 1939 as one of the three applicants.
"I was bound and determined to be a painter, a Michelangelo of the 40s" reflects Reinhardt. "I loved to draw and paint. . . l did real well . . . and finally achieving good grades and seeing my work on the wall was a good thing for me. It was the first time I started to get some feeling of personal pride or control. I could, by working hard, do something."
His father, who never had a college degree, predicted that the future would require people to have one, and so encouraged his son to study Art Education, which in 1940-41 was the only degree granted at PMSIA. Reinhardt painted, as others did, in the Illustration Department, but one semester he bravely slipped into a jewelry class taught by Douglas Gilchrist. "He was very near-sighted and he couldn't tell who was in class. I used to sneak in there because I was going with Hazel (Hazel Georgette Scott, later Mrs. Richard Reinhardt) and I wanted to make her jewelry. I made rings and simple bands. I twisted wire and soldered it together. When he looked through his bottle glasses, I wondered if he could tell I didn't belong there. School was very strict. But I remember love conquering my fear. I knew I could never buy Hazel anything but maybe I could make her some things."
At the end of his junior year, Reinhardt quit school to support the war effort. He worked as a patent draftsman for the Edward G. Budd Company, which made streamlined trains and tanks. Six months later, he joined the Marine Corps. Eventually, he was stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina, as a drill instructor. In September, 1942, he married Hazel Scott and they lived together on the island, until three or four days after their son was born, when Reinhardt was shipped out to Guam as a platoon sergeant. "I left the Marine Corps early," he recalls "because I had a lot of points, and I immediately went back to school [PMSIA] for the spring semester."
Back in the Art Ed program, he was required to take Crafts for Elementary Schools from Virginia Cute, who had replaced Douglas Gilchrist. The class included such activities as leatherworking, chip carving and etching on celluloid as well as jewelrymaking. It would be the only formal class in jewelry that Reinhardt would ever attend.
The following fall, the school grew from 300 to 1250 students due to the flood of returning G.l.s. Reinhardt was asked to teach perspective drawing and to help in Virginia Cute's class. "Virginia was smart enough to realize that the classes were going to be full of G.I.s and to have a man, a big man, who was an ex-marine, and also capable as an assistant, would be a good thing. "And it was," he remembers. He graduated in June, 1947 and continued to teach at the school.
With Cute's encouragement, Reinhardt won a national competition to attend one of the month-long silversmithing workshops sponsored by Handy & Harman, refiners and dealers of precious metals, at the Rhode Island School of Design. At the 1948 conference and as an assistant at the 1949 conference. Reinhardt learned stretching and raising techniques from Baron Erik Fleming, court silversmith to the King of Sweden. Reinhardt and other notable participants, including Alma Eikerman, Fred Miller and Harold Stacey, produced a wide variety of work that was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and eventually toured the country.
In 1953, Virginia Cute left the school to head the Occupational Therapy Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Reinhardt became director of the Department of Jewelry and Silversmithing and then in 1955 shifted to the larger and more popular Industrial Design Department. He still worked with metals in his class on Materials and Fabrication Techniques, and he continued to supplement his income outside of school with numerous commissions. A hiatus from metalworking followed when a fellow teacher, who had his own design firm, asked him to make some large boardroom tables for the new Penn Center Complex. Woodworking orders consumed his free time, as he also began to design interiors. He knew he needed to hire help to keep up with the demand, but he preferred making the work himself to running a business. After careful consideration, he completely stopped woodworking to concentrate on his school activities.
Reinhardt became a professor and by 1967 was assistant dean of faculty for the school, which by then had changed its name to Philadelphia College of Art. During 1969-75, he was consecutively acting dean of faculty, appointed dean of administration and appointed dean of faculty. With a change of presidency in 1975, he resigned to return to teaching metals and to begin new work of his own in silver. Administrative responsibilities did not subside, however. In 1980, he chaired the Craft Department, and in 1985, he agreed to work as dean of visual arts for a school that needed continuity as it moved to become the University of the Arts.
Reinhardt's metalsmithing career separates into two distinct phases. The first starts around 1948 when he attended the Handy & Harman workshops. A 1949 sugar bowl, made in Baron Flemings workshop, exemplifies the first phase of Reinhardt's career. The barely noticeable stretch marks give a liveliness to the surface. The base ring, the circular handle and the break between lid and bowl define parallel planes that contrast with the full and continuous volume of the container. The elegant twisted wires appear with great variety in his silversmithing, and, years later on the bracelets. The wires appear to reflect Reinhardt's interest in arms and armor, including swordmaking (He made his own bayonet during his Marine service.)
Apparently, the original twist functioned to prevent a swordsman's grip from slipping if blood dripped on the handle. The decorative function has long ago replaced the practical consideration, but in Reinhardt's sugar bowl, the wire handle grip enhances both the function and the esthetic. Rising from empty space within the ring, the abstracted forms look like pairs of oval leaves defining the cardinal points. If the shapes did originate from images of leaves, Reinhardt has carried the stylization beyond the more naturalistic representations of the Swedes of his day.
Swedish influence dominated the work of metalsmiths in the late 40s and 50s. Reinhardt felt that he didn't have the technical training of those in Sweden, but he had a "notion of what I could do with my skills in that direction. I tried not to make it Swedish because I couldn't." Ultimately, he ended up fabricating those pieces that the Swedes would have stretched or raised in one piece. Sometimes he even fabricated details, which had a decorative tradition in repoussé. Two books of special importance, neither of which were in English, Sigurd Persson's Modernt Svenskt Silver and David Anderson, 1876-1951, provided a pictorial record of current Swedish taste. Reinhardt recalls that the Swedish tradition incorporated designs of leaves or balls and emphasized a verticality in the shapes of the vessels. His coffee pot of 1949 reflects the influence of Swedish style that Reinhardt had emulated through his own experimentation with technique.
In general, Reinhardt's pieces are crafted to function properly, with individual components esthetically integrated yet often maintaining their own identity. The container part of the vessel becomes a shiny volume with a clean shape perhaps elongated in the Swedish tradition. Spouts, handles and knobs often define themselves by proportions larger than those found on classical prototypes. Decoration embellishes a particular area, perhaps a base, maybe a knob or handle, in an integrated manner. Twisted wire, recessed in a groove, lies flush with an outside surface. Beads build an edge. Applied cut shapes contrast the foreground from the background. Piercing activates a flat plane. Small forms sit within larger ones and oxidized sections break up the reflectivity of the metal.
Years of art classes at an early age probably helped Reinhardt to develop his innate sense of design. I think, as well, though, that his desire to work the metal in a way he knew best helped to define his esthetics. He raised and stretched but mostly he fabricated because in that way he could best figure out how to construct what he wanted. By joining part to part and piece to piece, he must have been accutely aware of proportion and balance. Many of the decorative details obviously stem from an interest in the technical processes of twisting, piercing, adding, scoring.
In a few instances, Reinhardt used symbolic imagery for decoration. For example a chi rho marking on a flagon used for the Eucharist probably came from a picture of Baron Flemings work, which in turn had roots in Early Christian Art. He incorporated hearts on his wedding crowns to refer to Cupid and Valentine. In making a chalice for an Art Alliance Show in Philadelphia in 1949, he constructed a wooden stem with three indents curving and joining into one. He thought about the wood as the material of the cross and the indents as manifestations of the Trinity. By adding this imagery, Reinhardt seemed to be affirming the functional context of the object. The symbolism of the flagon and chalice specified the liturgical use, and the hearts of the crowns denoted the traditional sign of love. Reinhardt perhaps employed these symbols not only because they referred to the way the object would be used, but because he enjoyed working with the thought behind the symbol itself.
In the 1950s, Reinhardt made Swedish crowns for three different brides. He made the first for a student who had heard him talk about Baron Fleming's crowns. Developed from 10th-century prototypes, woven with twigs and flowers, the metal crowns were traditional in Swedish Lutheran wedding ceremonies. By custom, the crown passed from mother to daughter, and two of Reinhardts crowns have been used in this way. Reinhardt mentions that the crowns with which he was most familiar, including a large one in the Swedish Museum in Philadelphia, looked like they had been made by repoussé. He fabricated all of his crowns, including the details, because he did not feel he knew enough to shape the metal using repoussé techniques.
This perseverance in making work as best he could resulted in unique pieces despite their derivation from traditional prototypes. He fabricated his first crown out of almost 157 parts. Stylized leaf forms rise vertically to look like Gothic finials, while hearts border the base of the crown. Holes in the bottom edge provide the mechanism by which one sews the crown to the veil. The second crown, with is five triangular points and applied wires, eliminated the feeling of foliage even more than the first. Separated and parallel twisted wires define the edges at the base of the crown, worn, in this case by sliding a long pin with a heart on it through the crown and hair. The five points on the last crown were constructed from open, upside-down heart shapes. This work, with its linear activity and felicitous feeling, captures some of the spirit of the original repoussé crowns. Reinhardt may not have intended to replicate exactly the traditional prototypes but, while employing a different means of construction, he managed to achieve similar expressiveness.
When Reinhardt returned to metal in 1975 (his second metalsmithing phase), he started, as he had in his college days, by making bracelets for his wife. "The notion that you could make a bracelet like a hollow handle without putting a top on it was a revelation for me," he says. He liked concavity because "the curve moves in two directions at the same time." In working the concave curve, he saw another bracelet as a convex form. He set out to complete a piece in the form in which it was conceived, and if new ideas materialized before he finished a piece, he jotted them down to be explored later. Reinhardt's conception of "discontinuous continuity" takes many forms in these bracelets, he says, "the idea of the discontinuous came from attempting to put forged wires on the bracelets in some manner so that they seemed to be going all around the bracelet in a moving way.
I wanted to put one, two, three, four rings going around, that seemed not to be parallel but to be going in and out of one another, and yet seemed to be kind of continuous. I made a couple of bracelets where I wanted to make it look as if a guy simply wrapped a lot of wire around his wrist and let it go, and it got semitangled, yet you could untangle it, and it would be one straight piece of wire." He also uses the analogy of looking at a wrapped ball of string, the strands of which go in different directions but unravel as one. The challenge to him was to build a visual image with separate wires that ultimately would appear as one wire but, upon closer examination, are not.
Reinhardt envisions the end of the string sometimes starting in the middle of the bracelet. During construction, he builds a round unit with all wires in place and then cuts out the 26mm gap so that the bracelet can be slipped onto the wrist. Visually, the eye skips right across that space. Some of the bracelets, like that in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are particularly complicated in that the overall form is based on the spiral instead of the circle. In these cases, the main sections screw together. The torque, another variation, is basically two semicircular bracelets joined on a central axis.
When I first saw a Reinhardt bracelet by itself, the visual weight of the object surprised me, especially since it was made for a small, female wrist. Yet, when I saw the bracelet being worn, is weight seemed appropriate and is boldness immediately captured my attention. Reinhardt likes the durability, strength and mass that he gains when he uses a heavier stock. "If it's supposed to be 20 gauge I'll make it 18. I equate weight with value and value with mass," he says. Edges and endings look strong. There is a physicality reminiscent of some of his earlier vessels. However, as there is a kind of mind game with the wires, there is also some play with mass. The visual weight appears heavier than the actual weight. The highly reflective surfaces can dissolve the mass in strong light. Oxidized areas, which absorb light, cut patterns but do not destroy the solidity.
A 1985 bracelet, essentially a concave undulating curve, gives a glimpse into Reinhardt's interest in reducing a piece to its minimal form. It is a slitted hollow convex curve, reminiscent of a whimsical mouth. Although Reinhardt has mentioned an interest in the human body as an analogue, his overriding concern for "discontinuous continuity" prevails as the underlying reason for form. It is the circle itself, as well as the process of fabricating and soldering, that most often dictates the conception.
Reinhardt has started to take away metal from his more minimal pieces. Just as a concave curve turned over becomes convex, subtracting lines is the reverse process of adding wires. Reinhardt has scored metal before, but in recent pieces lines and cut shapes pierce the entire surface. Very narrow cuts become decorative black voids against polished metal. As the cuts widen into open shapes, light penetrates across the space to reveal the inside wall. Reinhardt not only explores this potential but expands the possibilities of filling the void between the front and back of the work with complicated substructures. The front of a Reinhardt piece always seems dominant because of its visual complexity but occasionally cuts from the back through to the front give the back side unexpected visual interest.
Reinhardt explores this expanded view of outside, inside and backside in both his new belt buckles and bracelets. A striking buckle is Mysterious Passage, which contains four layered sheets with overlapping pebble-shaped cutouts. The top layer and its neighboring planes define a smooth and shiny surface different from the complexities below. Slightly projecting edges on the face of the buckle prevent the light from totally flattening out the surface assuring three dimensionality. This must have been the piece Reinhardt at first lightheartedly called Root Canal or Coronary Bypass.
The bracelet Full Circle with Cones under Cuts resembles a belt buckle as well. Convex cones looking like forms halfway between shore-washed pebbles and mollusks' feet seem to want to move toward their pointed ends. The closely contoured surrounding space limits the environment of each cone, while the gently convexed outer surface connects the units into a small colony. The bracelet could have been a slice from a tall cylinder, which might have revealed the other ends of the cones. Three holes of different sizes pierce through the hollow interior to the inside surface. The cones angle from the outside edge to the interior space.
Despite a career that had its twists and turns, there is continuity in Reinhardts strong commital to metalsmithing. When his teaching and administrative duties took him away from the bench, he treasured his tools, the many his father gave him, the old victrolas he fashioned into soldering units, the collection he bought from the Handy & Harman workshops. During the less productive metalsmithing years, he polished them instead of giving them away. We are grateful that he remains "always excited about the way you could do things. There is a sense of accomplishment and excitement and pleasure in being able to do it."
Reinhardt's accomplishments extend beyond the rewards of personal gratification. His career and work helped to define the development of contemporary crafts in the United States. He persevered in making work when opportunities for training and sustaining craftspeople were limited. In following the Swedish styles of the 50s, he pursued his interests in cutting metal, twisting wire and joining pars to make pieces of singular expression. In exploring the issues of circularity, and broken and continuing movement, he produced bracelets and torques that clearly communicated these visual and intellectual interests. Reinhardt's use of fabrication techniques to make jewelry, although significant, is in my mind less important than his ability to creatively succeed in integrating challenging content with form specific to him alone. Reinhardt's new belt buckles and bracelets attest to his continuing artistic commitment.
Mariam Pritchard is assistant professor at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, where she teaches 20th-Century Crafts. This summer she will travel for a month in Italy to teach a course on Italian craft history to students enrolled in U.S. art schools.
You assume all responsibility and risk for the use of the safety resources available on or through this web page. The International Gem Society LLC does not assume any liability for the materials, information and opinions provided on, or available through, this web page. No advice or information provided by this website shall create any warranty. Reliance on such advice, information or the content of this web page is solely at your own risk, including without limitation any safety guidelines, resources or precautions, or any other information related to safety that may be available on or through this web page. The International Gem Society LLC disclaims any liability for injury, death or damages resulting from the use thereof.
When you join the Ganoksin community, you get the tools you need to take your work to the next level.
Sign up to receive the latest articles, techniques, and inspirations with our free newsletter.