This week we are putting the finishing touches on the DMA’s presentation of the exhibition From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith. Highlighting a pioneer of late 20th-century jewelry design whose work represents the progressive modernist impulse of “sculpture for the body,” the installation is both dramatic in appearance and revealing in what it contains. This collection, which also features examples of works by Smith’s contemporaries, is drawn from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, which received a major gift of the artist’s work in 2007. While we are thrilled to host this exhibition of a leading American jewelry artist, our interest in having From the Village to Vogue appear at the DMA was also to note the larger importance of this medium and reflect upon the DMA’s interest in expanding our jewelry holdings. Just as fashion boldly entered our galleries through the 2011 presentation of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, this year we will not only feature the work of Art Smith but also, excitingly, make plans for future exhibitions of jewelry and other design arts.
Beyond the realm of curators and collectors of modernist studio jewelry, Art Smith’s work is often unfamiliar, yet his impact and those of his contemporaries in the decades following World War II helped shape a new American movement in both design and craft. Drawing from the trend toward abstraction in painting and sculpture, Smith and other designer-craftspeople experimented with highly stylized forms, particularly the biomorphic imagery that characterized the work of sculptors such as Isamu Noguchi and, notably, Alexander Calder. Unlike other sculptors who may have occasionally produced jewelry, Calder’s passion for the medium appeared at least equal to that for his more widely known large-scale mobiles and stabiles. Like Calder, Smith reveled in the whirling organic line: bent wirework that was complemented by flattened ovoid forms, semiprecious stones, and richly finished patinas. Unlike so-called “high-style” jewelry, faceted gemstones and highly polished precious metals were typically set aside in preference for subdued materials and more direct fabrication techniques that were undoubtedly less labor intensive, but also ones that provided more visceral results by reflecting the hands of the artist as an immediate, personal expression. What could be more perfect for the medium of jewelry, which is, like other elements of fashion, an equally personal manifestation of the wearer’s preferences? And they were indeed artists in keeping with the spirit of the times; the modern sculpture, painting, and rhythmic vibrancy of jazz that Smith admired certainly echo throughout the punctuated, gestural lines, which form a type of visual play in his richly syncopated designs. You may notice this almost immediately upon entering the darkly colored main gallery, which features Smith’s work. Even in static display, each piece seems to dance with a particular life of its own.
As you might expect, it is always exciting for the many hands and minds that make such exhibitions possible at the DMA to delve into a new arena as we are doing now with modern jewelry. From interpretation to design, each of our exhibitions requires hundreds of hours of brainstorming, logistical planning, and creative input, all with the hope that whatever subject we bring you will be offered in a way you will find compelling or even thrilling. As a curator, communicating facts is only one part of my job; sharing my enthusiasm for looking, learning, and celebrating the diverse creative achievements of the visual world is, at heart, what I and all of my colleagues at the DMA do every day. We hope you will find From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith and our new jewelry endeavors just as exciting as we do!
Kevin Tucker is The Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the DMA.