Describing flashbacks in the context of an art exhibition not about Hunter Thompson may seem unusual, yet this is exactly what the Museum of Arts and Design exhibition “From Picasso to Koons: The Artist as Jeweler” caused in me. I grew up with artist-made jewelry. My mother and her friends made everything from earrings to broaches, necklaces and rings. For me it was something to play with. I threaded beads, pounded copper for a belt buckle and made a few wax molds. As a budding artist I knew that jewelry was considered craft so I did not take it very seriously. Yet, that early childhood experience instilled a great passion for artist-made jewelry that has never waned. To this day I wear jewelry made by my mother, I am a closet collector of works made by mostly unrecognized artists and during the rare moments when I read about artist-made jewelry I would find myself savoring the few lines of text about pieces made by Picasso, Dali or Magritte, dying to see them in person.
As a result, I had reservations about seeing the “From Picasso to Koons: The Artist as Jeweler.” I was expecting designs made for the refined collector who prefers gem stones, quality materials and work of such high craftsmanship that would qualify it to be a modern version of a Faberigé egg. Yet my curiosity was piqued, and I was rewarded.
I was stunned by the unlikely synthesis of intimacy and sculpture achieved by the works. Many of them were custom made pieces, for people that the artists’ truly loved, and hence they provide an almost secret personal vignette in the artist’s life. One story that sets the tone for the whole exhibition is the love story that is told by the collector and guest curator Diane Venet, wife of the sculptor Bernar Venet. She tells how she became excited about artists’ made jewelry when her then beau made a wedding ring for her from a thin rod of silver that he wrapped around her finger. This was the defining moment that began her passion for collecting artist designed jewelry. After that she found artists, both known and less-so, who were challenged by the prospect of making a piece of jewelry. She would often propose the idea with the hope of the artist creating works that are not just a smaller version of a bigger piece but a reflection of the artists’ interest and focus. As a result of her many years of perseverance she has succeeded to put together a fascinating collection that is the bases of this exhibition.
This is an important exhibition where works by some of the greats from modern through contemporary art like Picasso, Braque, Max Ernst, Yayoi Kusama, Louise Nevelson, Jenny Holtzer, Yoko Ono, Anish Kapoor and Alexander Calder can be seen in an intimate context. It is organized based on: Early Masters, Representational, and Abstraction—with sections devoted to the human figure, nature, Pop subjects, words, geometry, and new technologies and materials thus providing refreshing classifications.
Among my favorite pieces is the piece by Nam June Paik. Paik is the father of media art and one of the members of the Fluxus movement and an artist who is often known for his large-scale robotic pieces made out of television sets and radios. In this show, his work is represented by a large spontaneously created pendant called “Untitled,” which is an appropriated circuit board. Keith Sonnier’s necklace: “Flower of Life” made primarily of neon light tubes highlights his preoccupation with the space in which it is shown, in this case the wearer’s body. Sonnier was one of the first artists to use light in his work in the 1960s and was a member of the Process art movement. This movement associated with artists like Pollock and was concerned with the actual activity of making of art and the artists saw this as pure human expression. Tatsuo Miyajima is a younger artist from Tokyo whose concerns are based on three tenets: perpetual change, relationship with others, and continuity. This focus is captured in his digital LED rings which count from 1 to 9.
In contrast to the high-tech works, Yayoi Kusama’s low-tech necklace is made out of felted white wool phalluses. She describes herself as an “obsessive” Japanese artist who makes installations, performances, collages and soft sculpture. In 2006, Kusama became the first Japanese woman to receive the Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s most prestigious prize for an artist. Magdalena Abakanowicz is a Polish artist noted for her often headless figurative sculptural casts that are fabricated from fabric and wood. The aluminum “Cast of Her Own Hand” is a true-to-life size cast of her hand in the action of grasping that is attached to a knotted piece of every-day string to form a necklace. Her piece reflects her interest in using alternative materials with the intent of revealing the unconscious.
Seeing the range of artists who stepped into the world of jewelry’s intimate creation is remarkable and raises an interesting question: what would a jewelry collection that emphasizes New York contemporary artists look like? With the advent of new technologies would wearable sculpture of the future be fashioned with a 3D printer or include a USB drive? What type of jewelry would be made by Julia Kunin, a ceramic artist who aggregates natural forms into contemporary Chinese scholars’ rocks? Or Richard Humann who makes cultural chimeric sculptures forming amusement park rides out of execution devices. If their artistic sensibilities drive smaller scale works, Lee Boroson’s inflatables would be whimsical, Beth Campbell would provide diagrams of thought, Jessica Higgins a personal poetic forest of haikus and David Opdyke a look at cultural detritus.
Seeing an exhibition of this nature in theUnited Statesis truly a gem and one that I can’t wait to see many times over before it closes.
through January 8, 2012
Museum of Art and Design
2 Columbus Circle