Rapaport Magazine
Style & Design

Tales to tell

The stories behind the fabulous contemporary jewels at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design are the focus of an engaging exhibition and companion book.

By Phyllis Schiller

Image: Museum of Arts and Design. 

Jewelry has always been an integral part of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), going back to the venue’s inception in 1956. With over 1,000 pieces, the category represents a third of the museum’s overall collection. As associate curator Barbara Paris Gifford puts it, jewelry “is in MAD’s DNA.”

When MAD moved into its current space at Columbus Circle in 2008, it established a gallery solely dedicated to jewelry. The section’s user-friendly design included 45 open storage collection drawers that visitors could slide out to see the jewelry for themselves, Gifford explains. Initially, each drawer had a label listing the name of the piece, the date and the materials in it. Gifford, who came to the museum in 2013, felt there was more of a story to tell, which was the impetus for the museum’s “45 Stories in Jewelry: 1947 to Now” exhibition.

Finding the words

Gifford assembled a committee of experts, including contemporary artists, historians and enthusiasts. “For two years, we debated every single piece of jewelry in the collection, coming up with 105 pieces.” The goal was to choose items that represented the major moments in studio and contemporary jewelry, spotlighting artists who pioneered new techniques or innovative designs.

Each drawer includes a story of about 100 words by an expert on the artist or movement in question. The idea was to help people understand “the trajectory of contemporary jewelry in the US,” Gifford says. Since people are used to processing information visually, many of the drawers include photographs to connect viewers with the artists and their inspirations.

The drawers offer visitors an “element of discovery,” explains Gifford. There isn’t a strict path to follow with a beginning, middle and end; viewers can start at any point and explore as they please.

Longer essay versions of the stories appear in the exhibit’s companion book, Jewelry Stories: Highlights from the Collection 1947-2019. It also features a beautifully illustrated, expanded timeline of the jewelry.

The post-war years

Several factors influenced the creation of the pieces on view. In the mid-20th century, there was a glut of plastics and alternative materials developed during World War II, and Bauhaus artists were emigrating to America and encouraging art students to use these materials, says Gifford. “At the same time in this country, you had touring exhibitions of Scandinavian design, Mexican Taxco silver, and Native American jewelry.”

Thanks to efforts by galleries, museums, educational institutions and private collectors, there is “a very passionately dedicated audience for studio and contemporary jewelry, as evidenced by the emerging secondary market beyond the usual suspects like Alexander Calder and Harry Bertoia,” she continues.

She cites Art Smith as one of the artists who helped shape this jewelry era in the US, along with “mid-century artists like Sam Kramer and J. Fred Woell, who started working with found objects. During the period of protests against the Vietnam War, artists had a lot of things they wanted to say with their art, which was easier to do with found materials like bottle caps or bullet casings, for example. And that work, which begins around the 1960s, is very influential to young artists today. Upcycling, working with things that already exist to make something new, is very much an ethos of this generation.”

Bodies of work

One notable exhibit is jeweler Arline Fisch’s Body Ornament. “It’s this wonderful kind of transition piece,” says Gifford. “You can see the Scandinavian influence in it and also Fisch’s search for her own voice. The piece is in the form of a vestment, a beautiful silver neckpiece that extends down to the feet and down the back. It takes the mid-century aesthetic and extends it to the full body. When people walk into the gallery, there’s a familiarity to it that still feels new.”

Woell’s subversive piece The Good Guys, meanwhile, is probably the best known among art jewelry enthusiasts, Gifford remarks. “It’s designed to look like a religious icon, but instead of the holy trinity, it shows images of Dick Tracy, Superman, and Little Orphan Annie framed with bullet shell casings. It asks questions about American culture: Do we worship popular culture as a kind of religion? And would we kill for capitalism? On the surface, it seems humorous, but when you take a deeper look, there are larger questions being asked by the artist, a signature of Woell.”

Among the other items she singles out is David Bielander’s Cardboard Crown, which is actually made of gold and “is always surprising.” In addition, “Madeleine Albright donated some of the pieces she wore during her time as [US] secretary of state, and people enjoy seeing them because she was communicating messages through her jewelry.”

Studio and contemporary jewelry was a field that embraced women artists, Gifford points out. One example is “a heart-wrenching piece” by Aline Berdichevsky about the US-Mexican border.

The essays by the experts add a great deal to the viewer’s experience. “All of these voices were necessary for people to understand that art is put on the map by the actions of many who believe in it, not just by a passionate few,” says Gifford.

“45 Stories in Jewelry: 1947 to Now” is on view at MAD through April 10. Jewelry Stories: Highlights from the Collection 1947-2019 has been published by Arnoldsche Art Publishers.


Article from the Rapaport Magazine - February 2022. To subscribe click here.

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