The Work of Gary Noffke

Preparation for writing this piece began, I guess, when I was six or seven years old. At that age, my whole world was confined to a small yet comfortable apartment in Brooklyn decorated in the material evidence of my parents’ modest means. The customary appointments of sofa, chairs, dining table, drapes, offered little in the way of fantasy or even amusement. They all were part and parcel of my parents’ world, a world I was instructed to respect, a world of listless and foreboding icons, off limits to me, all except one—the “Frigidaire.”

Here was something to get excited about. At a party, everyone would hang out by the frig—staunch, robust, its belly filled with the impending repast. Late at night, the sleepless were eventually drawn to pilfering by its beacon. Every holiday, every memorable occasion was marked by the ebb and flow of its contents. It was the treasury of my family’s wealth and the appliance that ministered to their good-natured hospitality.

The Work of Gary Noffke - Gold Goblet
Detail of chased pattern on 18k Gold Goblet, 16cm h. 1970

Early on, I realized that you are what you eat. So, one evening, during a rare opportunity, left unattended, I paid homage to the most important object in my life—I painted the refrigerator. I covered its entire surface with scribblings, letterforms, borrowed images, everything a child’s mind could muster. I used crayon, water colors, magic markers, finger paints, silly putty—anything I could get my hands on. I even crawled behind the refrigerator to decorate its unseemly side and then, when done, I signed my name over the “GM” hallmark—it was mine. When my parents returned, they did not hesitate to forever discourage the defiling of such functional beauty. While scars ran deep, the memory of that ecstatic evening lingered. Ever since I have been looking for Gary Noffke.

Goblet full view

You cannot help being entranced by Gary Noffke’s own brand of scribblings and graffitilike markings. You cannot let go of their enigmatic code. Like scrimshaw that inevitably draws us to the experience of the carver, to his state of mind as he scribed his sentiments during long hours of isolation, Noffke’s marking invite curiosity and amusement. These markings render Noffke’s objects antique—musty relics, curios with no clue to their origin, use or provenance. Yet they feel special, objects that have distinct meaning to someone, somewhere; heirlooms lost to their owners. We cherish such discoveries, like old family photos, remnants of a protracted story. We keep them, hoping someday to find a clue to why these objects were important, hoping someday to share in their memories.

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Pocket Knife, sterling silver, gold, steel, 5” l. open, 1974. Photo: Evon Streetman.

Gary Noffke began these mysterious markings on metal, this hermetic language, chiseled, or, more appropriately, chased, on surfaces of commonplace forms quite early in his career. Arriving at the University of Iowa in 1967, seeking a Masters degree in fine art as a painter, he realized that he was one of 500 or so potential candidates. Not one to be part of the crowd, he reevaluated his interest in metal. He had already experienced some attraction for the medium while at Eastern Illinois University, as an undergraduate taking courses with Garret De Ruiter. He decided to pursue metalsmithing with Raoul Delmar at Iowa. This decision led him to further study with Brent Kington at SIU. At Carbondale, Noffke used the surface of metal forms to continue the insouciant, instinctive, informal approach to composition and technique that he had employed in his paintings.

Noffke’s early metalwork sacrificed form for the sake of ornamentation. He attacked the metal relentlessly. Stamping, piercing, chasing and engraving covered everything from necklaces to knives. He used the form of commonplace objects as a come-on, suckering viewers into the complex, diminuitive world of his personal iconography. Ironically, however, his text was opaque and noncommunicative. While traditionally, decoration is used to augment forms that are restrictive in the amount of information they carry, with Noffke the decorative surface is legible, but, on closer inspection, it becomes more chaotic and incoherent, a secret code of ciphers an cryptographs.

Chopping Knife, forged and pierced tool steel, 4 x 8”, 1970

The finest example of this early work is undoubtedly the 18k gold goblet from 1970 (see Cover). Already considered by some the “holy grail” of metalsmithing, this goblet incorporates all of Noffke’s esthetic “tricks.” It is pre-Columbian, Peruvian, in design, signaling his interest in simple classic forms. The surface is entirely covered with fastidious chasing, so much so that some who have used the goblet claim that the surface “squished” to the touch. The pattern is beyond explication. A square centimeter may contain letterforms, hearts, arrows, crosses, dollar signs, eyes, geometric symbols, cowboys, stars, words that have no apparent context. It goes on and on in a mysterious narrative known only to the maker. As we inspect these markings at close range, we become enveloped by their self-contained text. Focusing on a detail leads immediately to inspection of the adjacent scenario. We can frame each segment almost indiscriminantly. There is no rhyme or reason to the composition. We are intrigued and continue to ask, why in the world did he do this? What do these markings mean? We become so absorbed that the goblet disappears. We are more concerned with the mind of the maker than the goblet itself.

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But Noffke draws us back to reality, for in the end the piece is only a humble goblet. Legend has it that he carries the goblet around in a gunnysack ready to pull it out on appropriate occasions, to drink wine on a trout stream or beer at a clambake.

There are more stories about Gary Noffke than you could shake a stick at. The tales of his metalsmithing exploits, not only in regard to his work but also to his approach to work, leave in their wake a reputation of self-indulgence, arrogance and independence—the ultimate maverick in a profession that by appearances has so few. These tales serve not only to fuel his professional reputation but more importantly to extend the reverberations of his philosophy seen in his objects, lifestyle and method. Since, for Noffke, they are all interdependent. By his own admission, he is a “reprobate,” although his esthetic effects can be appreciated for their own sake, his approach to metalsmithing is a major factor in the esthetic statement. He has chosen to work in and through the metal tradition. He is reacting against the tight, constrained, self-conscious working methods. He is reacting against the formal contrived decoration that is its assumed language. He is reacting against the “preciousness” of gold. He is reacting against the loss of social relevance in contemporary metalsmithing. All this is in evidence in the ultimate statement of the goblet and its use.

Knife (Shark), steel, bone, 27.5 x 3.5 x 6 cm

Although Noffke appears in incorrigible iconoclast, he has an affinity for process that is essential to the metalsmithing mind. For example, in working for months on chasing the surface of the goblet, spending endless hours, Noffke was apparently mesmerized by the personal narrative of his own “real” time. Cognitive thought about design or form or structure conceivably dissipates with such tortured constraint. One’s hand has been given its freedom and it discharges its twitching energy upon the passive metal; one’s conscious mind, at such a moment, is probably doing no more than observing the slowly changing tangle of forms. What time that can be spared is taken up in contemplating, not design, but the subject of the work causes the mind to be thinking of one thing while feeling and doing something else. Noffke’s mind is obviously engrossed in something else beyond the handiwork. As this test of endurance and concentration continues, the hand becomes involved more and more in killing time, allowing technique to more fully approximate subconscious thought. As Noffke’s pictures take form, it appears that his hand hardly pauses to consult his intentions, seemingly lost as he is in the intense reveries of his thoughts, whatever they might be. That Noffke does not make the viewer privy to his thoughts is of little consequence to his affirmation of the maker’s independence from form. If the maker focuses the whole of his conscious mind on technique, his natural instinct will thus be freed to resolve things on another level and in its own terms. Noffke’s craft relies on the work and time necessary to transform an already familiar material to approximate his intuition. It further requires the viewer’s innate appreciation of work, time, material and function to bind its meaning.

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Swine Horn, carved sterling silver, raised, cast. Fabricated, 24” h., 1970

Noffke’s obsessive surface manipulation, as pyrotechnic as it is, suggests a subtle dichotomy in his approach to “process.” On one hand, he commends the metalsmith for his ability to communicate through process, yet, on the other, chastises him for obfuscating intuitive communication through excessive finishing. This concern for transparent process continues to develop throughout his later work, where the virtuoso chasing and iconoclastic attitude toward metal begins to dissipate. Maybe as a result of maturity or inner resolve, Noffke is less concerned with “getting a reaction” from the metals community. This is not to say that the “reprobate” has become prodigal. There are plenty of recent tales, of Noffke demonstrating the fine art of gem setting by employing glue to control a recalcitrant stone, or by finishing a baby’s spoon by shearing the edge of the bowl. The endearing “black sense of humor” and caustic wit continues to surface now and then, but the major pieces are more straightforward, more restrained in approach. The gold goblet and stamped necklaces are truly memorable but only an isolated outburst when we consider the whole body of Noffke’s work. The spoons, knives, cups, spatulas, the range of utilitarian ware form a coherent opus that in retrospect successfully quiets the memory of the goblet.

In these, Noffke’s motivation to art maintains a link to function as its guiding principle. In graduate school at Carbondale, Noffke was moved by a knife made by Brent Kington. It convinced him that simple though unusual objects were valid and appropriate forms in the pursuit of art. Stirred by the conscience of the 60s, Noffke has doggedly sought the resolve of art and social relevance in utility.  As he has said, with function you can’t go wrong, there is no fear that you have “wasted materials” in merely a self-serving activity.

Noffke’s peculiar brand of functional objects uses utility as a received value. The knives, spatulas, cups are not unusual in form nor do they pose design problems that suggest innovation. In fact, their historical references are familiar, friendly, reliable, durable tools and utensils will serve us well if respected and cared for. They appear to have been “found” at a flea market, imbued with a history and mystery as well as rejuvenated in reuse. Noffke imposes himself on these familiar forms, celebrating their value with his manipulation of surface and subtle changes to utility. He is not calling attention to the object itself but to our relationship with the object itself but to our relationship with the object. By interposing himself, through the personality of his handwork, he is illuminating the functional personality of the objects. Utility becomes a bridge to but not the end result of his work. The tool is not merely task oriented but a true partner in activity, in which Noffke is a catalyst. The closes analogy is with a famer’s self-sufficient relationship with his material world. The farmer respects his tools and utensils as members of the family, as essential extensions of his ability to maintain a lifestyle that is independent and tailored to his constituted needs.

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The implications of Noffke’s approach commends a mode of communication in material evidence, a style imposed on function. Every time someone has manipulated matter, in a particular way, to satisfy his practical or esthetic needs, he made a statement. Yet, it is the nonverbal, unspoken perhaps even unconscious nature of the statement that gives it particular meaning. In any age there are certain widely shared beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, values that are so obvious that they remain unstated. They are clearly seen and communicated not in what society says it is doing but rather in a the way that society makes things. The way things are made in society, at a particular time in history, is its style, communicated by the maker and communicative of the reigning ideas of culture.

Noffke’s style is nonverbal, nonliteral and probably unconscious, but a style nonetheless. It is not meant to be systematically analyzed but to be appreciated as material evidence of Noffke’s working time. Though some of the iconography is familiar, it is incidental as a result of Noffke’s free use of any available shape and image provided by the culture. He is trying to debilitate our need to read the work in favor of an intuitive response. If we must, we could find a relationship with anonymous graffiti, ancient hieroglyphs, as well as the accidental effects of wear or tear, or even, in the most surreal, a product of automatic writing. But no matter, that course of inquiry will lead nowhere. Noffke is intent on confronting our inhibition toward appreciating the object for what it is. Even though we don’t know why or when the maker produced this artifact, or that it was made for the maker’s own delectation, shielded from interpretation, it is valid because it exists and becomes part of the material culture to be used and cherished.

Caper Spoon, forged sterling silver, carved, stamped, pierced, 5 x ⅞”, 1986

There is yet another story about Noffke that helps to illustrate this point. As the story goes, being despondent over the absence of his work in the prestigious Vatican collection of historic metalwork, Noffke decided to take matters in his own hands. He ventured to Rome and surreptitiously placed one of his pieces in a dark and dusty corner of the collection. The hypothetical consequences of this incredible story are both humorous and provocative. What are the officials to conclude when they discover this piece? Although they would not be able to establish its provenance, they are faced with the dilemma of establishing its worth purely upon esthetic criteria. Should they discard it because they did not know where it came from, or should they keep it if they believe that its esthetic value is comparable to other works in the collection.

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Brailie Cup, fabricated, keyed sterling silver, repoussé drawings (raised dots on surface), 4 x 2½”

Whether fact or fiction, such stories are evidence that Noffke’s humble objects have a compelling effect upon his audience based on their relationship to lifestyle issues, metalsmithing history and ultimately to Noffke, the maker. By calling attention to the values that produced the artist, Noffke’s objects function socially not only through utility but also through their inclusion in a cultural dialogue. The integrity of the artist is enhanced as his spirit and intellect operate to culturally transform useful objects in the “domestic” arena.

Noffke’s determination to work in a straightforward manner, to simplify the already simple, to temper his arrogant behavior in all-consuming decoration,  to be more unadulterated, more commonplace, practical, antivirtuous, to push the limits of the humble object is the overriding esthetic of his current work. If the gold goblet symbolizes his early period, the cappuccino steamer (1984) signals his current temperament.

Billy Pot, keyed fine silver with titanium bail, 5 x 6”, c. 1982

In form, the steamer is simply an inverted funnel with a long gooseneck spout, rendered with humorous associations to oil cans and rural stills. The fabrication is bare minimum handiwork, with crimped base and hammered vessel. There is no attempt to finish the piece—a signature Noffke effect that challenges the viewer as to its ultimate intention. The material is base metal, copper, though Noffke has manufactured one out of silver for exhibition—a jab at preciousness.

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This unpretentious, anonymous, junkyard relic is an effective counterpoint to the proliferation of commercial cappuccino makers on the market and the attendant ritual of brewing coffee that has instigated their revival. When we consider the chrome and steel icons that are being produced by notable designers, stylized after traditional Italian coffeepots or Bauhaus “modern” machines, we can see the assertions of a prescribed socioeconomic class. Espresso and cappuccino have become the preferred after-dinner drink of the cognoscenti and thus the appropriate design must glorify its ritual through a fashionable object of use.

Cappuccino Steamer, fine silver with elements, 11 x 10 x 6”, 1984. Photo: Wagle/Gehrke

Noffke’s steamer stands as a stoic alternative. It reclaims coffeemaking as a quotidian and egalitarian activity. Capuccino, that European culinary delight is still coffee and can be made and drunk without assuming the guide of fashionable ritual and appointments.

As an object, in itself, it is as strong and evocative as any other cappuccino maker. The raw intensity and readable function conveys and interprets its operation. Although I have not tested its workings, the essence of a functional esthetic is that the object visually mitigates between what it is and what we expect it to be. When we think of the cappuccino method of brewing, we begin to see Noffke’s funnel vessel as an erupting volcano. The heat source changes the contained water into violent steam that pushes against the outer skin described by the hammer marks. As it erupts, the dark liquid of coffee transformed in its bowels is forced upward, through the long tortuous spout, seeking release. As the coffee drips from the spout, there is a sense of elation in the success of the almost miraculous transubstantiation, like those crude though delectable drops of moonshine. Where other cappuccino steamers seek to claim the user through their design, hiding the violent process in either delicate harmony or in the confidence of rational design, Noffke’s steamer is a dramatic statement that is personally interpretive, evocative and does not sacrifice its utility. He has accomplished so much with so little; therein lies his esthetic.

Copper Steamer, fabricated, sterling silver tip, brass fittings with stick blowout, c. 1982. Photos: courtesy the artist

Noffke’s objects are bound by process and the social relevance that evolves from the appreciation of the maker’s labor and the object’s utility. These objects are at once simply made yet operate with complex associations, suggesting a philosophy that does not consider either mutually exclusive. Noffke’s objects are patterned after natural and familiar things, like vessels and utensils. Yet, something comes into existence, almost blindly, through the fierce throes of his labor, bearing the marks of his exposed and threatened culture. No sooner than the work is finished, or unfinished, it takes place amongst the other things of our material world; assuming indifference and dignity, they take on an aura of performance and melancholy consent.

Notes

  1. Patrick Heron, “Submerged Rhythm,” The Changing Forms of Art, New York, 1955.
  2. Jules David Prown, “Style as Evidence,” Winterthur Portfolio 15, 1980.
  3. This sentiment was expressed by Rainer Maria Rilke upon observing the working method of Rodin in the Rodin-Book: First Part, 1903.

Michael Dunas writes on craft, art and design.

By Michael Dunas
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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