Rapaport Magazine

Moving Icebergs

Artist Daniel Brush has turned his considerable talents to designing with stainless steel and diamonds.

By Ettagale Blauer

Steel and diamond “Bad Girl” cuff.
Photo courtesy Lee Siegelson.
When Daniel Brush sets out to conquer a new technique or a new material, he doesn’t have an order or a deadline or even a collector in mind. He does it for the love of the work. “When I learn something, that’s a good day,” he explains during an interview with Rapaport Magazine to discuss his latest work, stainless steel set with diamonds. The new pieces are part of a retrospective “Daniel Brush: Blue Steel Gold Light” of more than 100 works of art from his 40-year career on exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City.
   Unlike some of Brush’s previous work, such as his sumptuously granulated objects, this recent work looks relatively simple. But a much closer look, under a high-power loupe, and a discussion with the artist reveal that the diamonds are not precisely and uniformly cut stones used in contemporary pavé work. Instead, these are Mughal-era diamonds, individually cut and unique in their proportions. Each and every one must be coaxed into place. “Steel is moving icebergs into position,” Brush muses about working with such an intransigent metal. When he set out on this “Mission Impossible,” he discovered that “steel” is not a singular metal but rather a nearly endless range of alloys.

Steel Explained
   “There are over 5,000 kinds of steel,” Brush explains, “and different metals do different things.” For a metalsmith, two of the most important qualities are the metal’s malleability and its ductility. “I have to know what is in it, so I know how to work it,” he points out. In spite of the industrial equipment that occupies nearly half of his spacious New York City loft, the question had to be asked: “Did you buy any new tools to do this work?”
   “I bought an entire metal workshop,” Brush replies. “I got obsessed with steel because I thought it was indestructible.” That very quality makes it difficult to work and he is eager and delighted to explain the qualities of steel alloys, and especially the alloy he has chosen to work with. “I like stainless because it is so hard; it rejects oxidation….The material
has porosity.”

   Brush compares working with steel to “getting in a ring and doing battle.” His basic material arrives at the workshop as a billet of dull-looking metal, nine to ten feet long, which he says, “I cut by hand, saw by hand, set by hand.” His Mughal-era diamonds need to be sifted. “They’re sifted by me, repeatedly, to achieve as uniform of a diameter as possible,” he explains. It’s not easy to drill holes in the metal, to create a space for setting the diamonds. Each hole must be drilled individually, as he goes. To accomplish the work, Brush does the setting under a 40-power microscope. These extremely brilliant stones satisfy his goal to “draw with light. They’re refracting so much light.”
   Two collections of delicate diamond pieces are among the most lighthearted works in the retrospective show. Their titles, “Loose Threads” and “Geometric Light,” are remarkably descriptive. While the Geometric Light pieces are easily worn, as he demonstrates by quickly affixing one to his wife, Olivia’s, dress, “Loose Threads” is meant more as a wall hanging consisting of a group of individual pieces. They were inspired by the loose threads often found on his wife, a textile designer.

The Artist’s Vision
   Brush, as he readily admits, has been remarkably fortunate in finding patrons to support his inexhaustible search for perfection in everything he does. The new steel and diamond work is not his first obsession with the stones. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brush became enamored with pink diamonds and soon, as magically happens in his life, he found himself with a gift of 5,000 Argyle pink diamonds for his work. When he needs some new type of material for his work and doesn’t yet have a source — as with the Mughal-era diamonds — he turns to one of his powerful friends in the industry. A word in the right ear and the problem is solved. For the formidable amount of money needed to run his studio, he has the backing of unnamed patrons.
   The show at MAD was first suggested to him by David Revere McFadden, the museum’s chief curator, who saw Brush’s gold and steel work at the Smithsonian Institution some 15 years ago. “I was just blown away,” McFadden recalls, “and we
stayed in touch. His work is completely outside the art commodity market.”

   McFadden describes Brush’s “sheer joy of figuring out something different, striving
for perfection. I have never met an artist like Daniel. The idea of working with diamonds that are irregular — this is the mark of the genius.” Visitors to the museum, McFadden says, are at first mystified by the work. “I watch what happens when they ‘get’ what the show is about. People take the time to appreciate the beauty.”

Borrowing from Collectors
   Much of that beauty, and the show itself, was made possible by the generous contribution of the lead sponsor, New York–based jewelry dealer Lee Siegelson.
When he was introduced to Brush’s work years ago, Siegelson was immediately
struck by the remarkable quality of the objects and says, “I admired his process, the thought that goes into each piece and the beauty of the finished work.”

   When asked by McFadden and Holly Hotchner, MAD’s director, to sponsor the exhibition and make it a reality, Siegelson was more than willing to come on board. “Sharing a passion for Daniel Brush’s work and a desire for others to have an opportunity to publicly witness its greatness, I immediately offered my help by committing to be the lead sponsor and to loan six pieces” from his personal collection, Siegelson says.
   In spite of the public attention to the work created by the retrospective at the museum, Brush is likely to remain one of those secrets like invisibly set gemstones, treasured by those in the know. Siegelson concludes, “In the small world of art critics, experts and collectors who truly understand great jewelry, Daniel Brush’s work is held in the highest regard and coveted. Despite the newfound popularity and attention to Brush’s work, the supply of his work will remain limited as Brush creates all of his work completely by his own hand. Pieces already in collectors’ hands rarely come to market.”
   “Daniel Brush: Blue Steel Gold Light” runs through February 17, 2013, at the
Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle in New York City.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2013. To subscribe click here.

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