THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

 

Object Redux: 50 Years of Craft Legacy

Racine Art Museum

 

It is difficult to imagine a time when “craft” was considered to be separate from “fine art.” For many years now, art schools, galleries, and museums that focus on craft have been readily accessible. There are professional associations for specific media, awards, and collectors, and there have now been generations of makers, teachers, and students. Artists have been utilizing what have been considered craft media for thousands of years. But the art world has not always been so welcoming. Makers’ work has not always been pursued by collectors, and the communities that supported craft artists were not always so well known.

In 1969, a gallerist, a corporate president, and a museum director decided to change the relationship between craft and the art world. The timing was fortuitous: artists were exploring new media through a number of opportunities; universities were expanding studio art programs; and collectors were starting to take notice.

Lee Nordness, who ran a commercial gallery in New York City, convinced S.C. Johnson & Son Inc.’s CEO, Samuel C. Johnson, to support an ambitious project. Nordness brought in Paul J. Smith to help curate what turned into a landmark exhibition of over 300 works that traveled to over 30 venues across the US and Europe. It included a substantial print publication, an hour-long film, and a sales catalogue featuring works by artists in the exhibition. The S.C. Johnson company not only purchased and gifted the works at the close of the tour to museums across the country, they also provided the muscle of corporate PR to increase visibility of the project throughout its intercontinental tour.

Fifty years later, the Racine Art Museum (RAM) has partnered with the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft to celebrate the impact of the 1969 exhibition, which was entitled “OBJECTS: USA.” Both institutions have organized exhibitions that are on view concurrently, and they have collaborated on a thoughtful gallery guide that provides important context and reflects on the lasting importance of that visionary project.

The celebration in Racine takes the form of four related exhibitions. The first, “OBJECTS REDUX: 50 Years After OBJECTS: USA Defined American Craft,” features works from the museum and area collections that were either included in the 1969 exhibition or purchased from the accompanying sales catalogue. The display also incorporates some archival material—original exhibition brochures, contemporary articles, the catalogue, the film, and photographs of artists and the installation at the initial venue, then known as the Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C. (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). The three other exhibitions are drawn primarily from the museum’s collection. Each has a different focus. One showcases studio craft made between 1960 and 1985, and two additional exhibitions explore the greater art context of studio craft production and consider primarily functional work that was produced in the decades leading up to the “OBJECTS: USA” project.

 

Marvin Lipofsky and Gianni Toso. Venini Series 1972 #3, 1972. Glass, 12 3/4 x 12 x 13 1/2 inches. Racine Art Museum.

 

Taken all together, the overlapping exhibitions are an ambitious effort. The accompanying materials provide a wealth of information, including clearly written curatorial overviews and a significant interview with Paul J. Smith, the co-curator of the original exhibition. The artists represented are a heady mix of both established and less familiar names: Peter Voulkos, Robert Arneson, Harvey Littleton, Marvin Lipofsky, Toshiko Takaezu, Don Reitz, Ruth Duckworth, Art Smith, Wendell Castle, Toots Zynsky, Michael Glancy, Val Cushing, John Takehara, and Linda Threadgill, among others. The objects are sensational, from the unusual hanging form of Littleton’s 1969 steel and glass Reflections to Castle’s luscious and non-utilitarian Desk (Silver Leaf Desk) from 1967 to Arneson’s whimsical 1972 Sinking Cup-a-Coffee.

One of the intentions of the original project was to bring studio craft works into the resource-rich environment of art museums. Supported by big donors, backed up with deep documentation, protected by preservation missions, and highlighted in beautiful, potentially long-term installations, the art museum setting conveys prestige and authority to objects and artists. There are no other venues where works of art are so carefully presented with the intention of being experienced by thousands of people.

The wide assortment of objects in the exhibitions at RAM—including furniture, wall-hangings, small metalwork, glass, and ceramics—poses particular problems for display. These items’ fragile surfaces and easily transportable sizes require casework and careful pedestal placement to protect the materials. Lighting can also be tricky, as some objects have potential for drama and spectacle, while others require subtlety due to complex surfaces or conservation needs.

The museum’s generous donor community is evident in the loans and gifts that are on display, and the research that went into “OBJECTS REDUX” was clearly extensive. Unfortunately, however, the installation for these important pieces feels flat. The fantastic objects are simply overwhelmed by the sparseness of the space. With even lighting utilized throughout the galleries, there is no emphasis or drama to the exquisite forms and surfaces. The desk by Castle receives the same lighting treatment as small jewelry or glass work displayed in cases. The casework is likewise sadly limiting. An example is the placement of Peter Voulkos’s Platters from the Circular Variations series. Displayed flat in large cases rather than vertically on a wall, the objects’ detailed surfaces are difficult to see in the distance necessitated by the vitrines. The visual power of the series is diminished when the repeated shapes and delicate markings are barely accessible.

 

Peter Voulkos. Platter from the Circular Variations series, ca. 1975. Glazed stoneware, 16 inches diameter. Racine Art Museum.

 

This is a basic conundrum of the museum operation: with so many resources available, how to create an engaging experience around fascinating objects and rich background material? How to make the story of the objects visually engaging? It is why museums remain important places to experience artwork. In bringing together the history and the objects, museums enable personal interaction with physical things, which—hopefully—generates enthusiasm. Providing the opportunity to experience the art works that were part of—or are heirs to—the 1969 “OBJECTS: USA” project is an important contribution, not only to current studio craft production, but to the art world as a whole. I just wish this installation design made it easier for visitors to experience just how wonderful the artworks are.

Ann Sinfield

 

Ann Sinfield is an independent curator and writer. She is also Exhibits Manager at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

 

“OBJECTS REDUX: 50 Years After OBJECTS: USA Defined America Craft” is on view at the Racine Art Museum through January 5, 2020.

“OBJECTS REDUX: Clay, Glass, and Metal, 1960-1985” is on view through January 26, 2020.

“OBJECTS REDUX: Small-Scale Studio Craft of the 1950s and 1960s” and “OBJECTS REDUX: Studio Craft in Context, 1960-1985” are both on view through February 2, 2020.

 

Wendell Castle, Desk (Silver Leaf Desk), 1967. Mahogany, cherry, plywood, gesso, and silver leaf, 40 x 89 1/2 x 66 inches. Racine Art Museum. Photography by Jon Bolton, Racine.

 

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