Winter @ Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow

Untitled II (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and acrylic on stretched canvas.

Contemporary craft is having a moment. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently placed ceramics by George Ohr next to Van Gogh’s Starry Night in their re-installed galleries. Taking a Thread for a Walk, an exhibit that celebrates weaving and fiber art in all its forms, both ancient and modern, will be on view there until April, 2020. Meanwhile, over at the Whitney, there’s a comprehensive survey of modern and contemporary American craft from 1950-2019, called Making/Knowing: Craft in Art.

Members of the Cranbrook arts community might be forgiven for asking what took so long; since its founding in 1922, Cranbrook has been a champion for American craft traditions. The museum seems to be taking a victory lap for its prescience right now:  4 exhibits on view through March carry the vision of craft as art forward while also looking back at important moments of its history, in Detroit and beyond.

Wireworks by Ruth Adler Schnee, 1950, ink on white dreamspun batiste

Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living

A major retrospective (her first) of eminent Detroit textile and interior designer Ruth Adler Schnee occupies the museum’s front gallery. Adler Schnee’s family fled Nazi German in 1939, settling in Detroit, where she attended Cass Technical High School. After earning a degree in design at the Rhode Island School of Design, Adler Schnee returned to Detroit to study architecture with Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, graduating in 1946. She faced obstacles as a woman to a career in the male-dominated field of architecture, but immediately found success in textile design. Her memorable modernist cotton prints are on display and will be immediately familiar to anyone who feels an affinity for the recently resurgent interest in midcentury modern design.

Ruth Adler Schnee made it her mission to democratize good design for the post-war mass American market. “We are living in a democracy. Our designs for living must have social implications,” she states in her Cranbrook master’s thesis.    She worked extensively as an interior designer and textile designer with architects like Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen, as well as operating (for 30 years with her husband Eddie) Adler Schnee Associates, a retail design business in Detroit. She also worked with American car companies; for an amusing look at their symbiotic relationship and a historic overview of the importance of Detroit as a driver of design in the 50’s and 60’s you can view American Look, a 1958 promotional film sponsored by Chevrolet.

At 96, Adler Schnee continues to be a relevant force in textile design today through adaptation of her classic printed textile designs into woven fabrics and carpet design. Examples of both are on display in the gallery.

Designs Worth Repeating, Woven Textiles by Ruth Adler Schnee. Woven fabrics based on Adler Schnee’s mid-century modern prints, re-introduced for the 21st century.

Christy Matson: Crossings

Contemporary L.A. fiber artist Christy Matson is a multi-disciplinary shape shifter whose work occupies an esthetic space at the intersection of painting, weaving and collage.  Employing digital technology and a jacquard loom, Matson expands the formal parameters of weaving. She creates tapestries that incorporate organic curving lines and shapes unavailable via more traditional techniques and employs novel fibers and pigments added to traditional yarns and threads. The results are fiber artworks that have been aptly described as “painterly.”

Crossings, a solo exhibit of her work currently on view at the museum, consists of two large tapestries realized as a commission for the U.S. Embassy in Ashgebat, Turkmenistan, as well as several smaller, more intimate pieces that allow a welcome closer look at Matson’s technical means.

Matson has an expressed interest in the symbolism and the technical realization of traditional Turkmen textiles, as well as a kinship with the women who make them. The traditional costumes of Turkmenistan are deeply symbolic and incorporate imagery specific to the gender, social position and age of the wearer. Varieties of technical decoration in local costume, such as patchwork and embroidery, make a richly colorful and tactile pastiche that relates formally to Matson’s work.  The rugs for which the region is justly famous are woven by women from a variety of fibers dyed with a combination of synthetic and natural dyes, another point of correspondence with the artist.

Untitled I (for Ashgebat) by Christy Matson, 2016-2019, hand-woven cotton, linen, wool, indigo dye and arcylic on stretched canvas.

The two colossal tapestries that anchor the exhibition incorporate abstract pattern and stylized images of plants using long narrow woven panels joined two by two.  Untitled 1 (for Ashgebat) consists of stripes and floral motifs that are repeated and occasionally reversed and tilted to yield a roughly symmetrical counterpoint. A central stylized blossom anchors the composition.  Untitled II (for Ashgebat) flirts with the illusion of pictorial space.  The hazy vertical stripes on the left suggest grasslands, while the same lines reversed and repeated on the right suggest the fringe of a rug.  The stylized seed heads and blossoms on each panel create a satisfying rhythm without precisely repeating themselves.

The smaller pieces in Crossings allow a closer look at Matson’s art practice. Particularly illuminating is her Overshot Variation 1 which incorporates bands of painted paper using the overshot technique often employed in Jacquard weaving.

Overshot Variation I by Christy Matson, 2018, deadstock overseen linen, acrylic and spray paint on paper, Einband Icelandic wood

In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969

For artists who dream of an idyllic creative space where collaboration, mutual support and disciplinary cross-pollination are the rule, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts represents a dream come true. The 90 pieces that fill, and threaten to overflow, the museum’s middle galleries recount the history of this important creative community from 1950-1969 for the first time.  The objects in the exhibit range from textiles to printmaking, ceramics, metalwork and painting, and even to jewelry making and glass art. By discarding ideas regarding the primacy of fine art versus craft, the members of Haystack approached a non-hierarchical egalitarian ideal. Many of the artists represented in the exhibit also had ties to the Cranbrook arts community during a particularly fertile period for craftspeople who lived and worked and created in this uniquely supportive creative environment.

Video still, from Dance of the Looney Spoons, by Stan VanDerBeek with Johanna VanDerBeek, 1959-1965, 16 mm black and white film transferred to video with sound, 5:20 minutes (Haystack)

Silver Road Runner by Stan VanDerBeek, 1954, assorted metal silverware (Haysta

 

Ancient People by Hodaka Yoshida, 1956, relief print on paper (Haystack)

For the Record: Artists on Vinyl

In the lower level gallery, you can experience the unexpected pleasure of 50 designs for vinyl records–some vintage, some recent– by a who’s who of artists comfortable working at the intersection of design and fine art:  Jean-Michel Basquiat, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Banksy, Shephard Fairey and Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Motherwell, to name only a few. The square parameters of the vinyl record cover seem to have offered the perfect creative space for artists to create bite-size versions of their more ambitious works. It’s worth a trip down the stairs just to see Jean Dubuffet’s painting Promenade a deux from the museum’s collection, installed next to his lithograph Musical Experiences.

Promenade a deux by Jean Dubuffet, 1974, vinyl on canvas, matt Cryla varnish

The exhibits at Cranbrook right now, particularly the Ruth Adler Schnee retrospective, demonstrate some of the diverse ways in which craft and design have historically influenced America’s aspirational culture. The built environment of the country, though, has changed–is changing.  As the past gives way to the future, the times will require creatives that bring the same level of creativity seen here to new challenges like technological innovation and environmental change.

Winter at Cranbrook Art Museum: Craft Takes a Bow  through March 15, 2020

 

Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions @ GRAM 

The Grand Rapids Art Museum Showcases Five Years of Acquisitions

Adonna Khare (American, b. 1980) Elephant Whirlpool, 2014, carbon pencil on paper, 96 x 72 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Museum Purchase, with funds from Bill and Marilyn Crawford and the Artist, 2014.10 copyright: Adonna Khare

In 2007, the Grand Rapids Art Museum opened the doors to its newly-completed, ultra-modern exhibition space in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids.  Rounding out a year of celebratory programming commemorating the GRAM’s first decade in its new location, the show A Decade at the Center: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions brought together over a hundred works acquired by the museum over the past five years.  It was an eclectic but strong ensemble of works spanning a diverse array of media across both the fine and applied arts.

As an introspective exhibition which took the GRAM’s collection itself as its subject matter, A Decade at the Center was necessarily a bit of a mish-mash—these works came from all over the world, and were created by artists ranging from Rembrandt to the Apple Design Team.  But the explanatory wall-text curated and structured the experience, lending insight into what exactly goes into building an art collection, helpfully addressing questions like “How does a collection grow,” “who decides what’s acquired?” and “how permanent is a permanent collection?”

The significant presence of applied arts and design resonated nicely with Grand Rapids’ historic contribution to 20thcentury furniture manufacturing—the city is famously home to such design powerhouses as Hermon Miller and Steelcase.  Among the acquisitions on view included examples of design that fudge the porous boundary between functionality and art. A zany bench and table set designed by the Danish-born Nanna Ditzel seemed more like sculpture than interior design, as did the radiating  Metal Spokes Wall Clock by George Nelson and Associates, which helped define the American interior aesthetic of the 1950s.  While most of these examples of applied design pointed to the recent past, a set of dinner cutlery by Iraqi-born megastar architect Zaha Hadid seemed decidedly from the future—no surprise given the other-worldly appearance of her architectural output, which includes Michigan’s very own Broad Art Museum in Lansing.

Also on view were examples of design which illustrated the rapidly changing shape and form of technological devices, including an original Walkman cassette player, an early handheld Kodak camera, and a rotary telephone.   There’s even a first-generation iPod Shuffle, which, though not even fifteen years old, is a relic rendered just as archaic as the Walkman by the ubiquitous iPhone.  Given the rapidity of technological change, one can’t help but reflect that fifteen years from now the iPhone itself may very well be added to this pantheon of the obsolete.

William E. Gundelfinger (1900–1976) KM ‘Flatwork Ironern’ Iron, Model no 444, 1939. Chromium-plated steel, Bakelite. Made by Knapp-Monarch Co., 5 x 7 3/8 x 7 3/4 inches. Photo by Shane Culpepper, Tulsa OK.

 

 

Some of the more traditional works on view also had regional significance, like the paintings of Carl Hoerman, Matthias Altan, and Reynold Weidenaar, the latter of whom was featured in a massive retrospective here in 2015, occasioned by the centennial of his birth.  All three artists lived and worked in West Michigan, and their work, which took Michigan’s landscape as its subject matter, reflects their affection for the natural beauty of the state.

Mathias J. Alten (American, 1871–1938) The Gravel Pit, 1909. Oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of the Estate of Peter M. Wege, in memory of Peter and Louise Wege, 2016.14

Historically, the strong suite of the GRAM’s permanent collection has always been its holdings of European and American art post-1800, and many works have been added to this number. These include offerings by such recognizable names as William Blake, Audubon, Picasso, Marsden Hartley, Emil Nolde, Warhol, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Calder, de Kooning, Dubuffet, Chuck Close, Kara Walker, and Louise Bourgeois.  Among the oldest works acquired include a pair of 15thcentury engravings by Martin Schongaur and a small nude figure study by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669). Nude Man Seated on the Ground with One Leg Extended, 1646. Etching on paper, 3.88 x 6.63 inches. Grand Raids Art Museum. Gift of Margaret Goebel, 2017.27.

 

Kara Walker (American, b. 1969), Boo-hoo, 2000, linocut, 40 x 20 ½ inches. Promised Gift of Martin and Enid Packard © Kara Walker and Parkett Publishers, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

While European and American works make up the majority of the GRAM’s new acquisitions, there’s nevertheless a robust international presence, and these works hail from all six inhabited continents.  These include a large, reflective, geometric glass sculpture by Monir Farmanfarmaian, the Iranian superstar artist who enjoyed a handsome retrospective in this same gallery suite last summer.  Inspired by Sufi geometry, her composite sculpture throws reflected light across the floor of the gallery space like a stationary disco ball, and echoes the geometric tessellations of an untitled pen and ink drawing, also by Farmanfarmaian, included elsewhere in the show.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (Iranian, b. 1924) Untitled, 1980, ink and pen on paper, 18 x 25 inches. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Gift of the Artist and Haines Gallery, 2018.12 ©Monir Farmanfarmaian

This exhibition serves as a veritable who’s who in art and design– all the more impressive given that it comprised just five years’ worth of acquisitions and promised gifts.  Furthermore, in addition to established masters, the show included works by emerging talent, such as Elephant Whirlpoola massive graphite drawing by Addona Kharre, who in 2012 was the winner of Art Prize, the city’s celebrated annual art festival.  Recent Gifts and Acquisitions is an exhibition that will live on in perpetuity as these works join the 6,000 other artifacts that form the museum’s permanent collection, ever on rotating view in the GRAM’s gallery spaces. 

Grand Rapids Museum of Art 

Ruben and Isabel Toledo: “Labor of Love” @ the Detroit Institute of Arts

Ruben Toledo, “Broomstick Librarian Shirtwaist Dresses,” 2008, Designed by Isabel Toledo, Painted by Ruben Toledo, image by DIA – William Palmer.

We normally think of industry as the machinery of the production for making a particular thing, like the steel industry, or, especially in Detroit, the auto industry, but entering the current exhibition, “A Labor of Love,” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, we are greeted by a magnificent image of twisted swirls of colors and pleats of seven dresses. This very energetic image was composed and painted by Ruben Toledo of his wife, Isabel Toledo’s dress designs for Anne Klein, one of the leaders in the Fashion Industry. It’s not a huge leap of the imagination to go from car design, with its annual turnover and retooling for the latest, sexiest, avatars of human desire, to the fashion industry and its latest adjustments of hem and neckline and introduction of the latest color to elaborate on the human body. That’s just what this famous New York husband and wife team of artist and designer did in “Labor of Love,” their investigative interventions in the encyclopedic collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ruben and Isabel Toledo, “The Choreography of Labor,” 2018 Remaining images by DIA Eric Wheeler

Situated in the DIA’s Special Exhibitions galleries, the main thrust of their installation is an exploration of Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry Murals,” the heart and soul of the museum and, art lovers might say, Detroit itself. In her exploration of the collection, Isabel Toledo saw the connection in Rivera’s fresco murals between the fashion and auto industry immediately and brought them together in a large collage (Image #2) that depicts a flowing dance of her dress designs across silkscreened representation of Rivera’s painting of the factory with workers depicted engaged in car production. The darkened gallery, filled with sculpted manikins wearing formal gowns of various cultural origin, suggests a grand promenade celebrating immigration and integration of world cultures to Detroit.

Installation image of Special Exhibitions Gallery with Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine in foreground.

There is a haunting tableau composed of Isabel Toledo’s first sewing machine wrapped in black taffeta, with ghostly gowns floating in the air above, with a quote on the wall from Isabel that offers the idea of the fashion industry and (by proximity) the auto industry, as a metaphor for the generational influence of migration and change, of death and rebirth: “The combination of ideas, time and imagination can all be triggered by fashion and how people dress, undress, expose, or cover their bodies, fashion offers the perpetual next—the never ending now, the reinvention of inventions.” It is a twist on Darwinian Evolution that goes back to LeCorbusier’s use of it to explain the evolution of design. (Incidentally Isabel’s sewing machine, in looking like a little animal, echoes Rivera’s drawing of an V-8 engine block that looks like a dog).

Diego Rivera drawing from DIA Collection

Throughout the exhibition the female body is explored as the medium of exchange for cultural expression and happily this exhibition gives us the opportunity of seeing four of Rivera’s breathtaking Detroit Industry preparatory cartoons, two of which are female figures representing the seed and fruit of the female body. Because of their fragile paper the cartoons are not displayed often.

Much of the “Labor of Love” exhibition becomes a treasure hunt. Spread throughout the museum are nine Isabel Toledo’s playful, sexy, even downright erotic designs for female adornment which are in response to particular themes and moments of the history of art arranged in the chronological galleries. It is intriguing to ferret out the connections to the specific art or gallery theme. A map is provided but, even for a seasoned museum visitor, it’s a joy to walk through the museum, with chance encounters of things that catch your eye, trying to find Isabel’s interventions. It is a clever way to break the museum’s “ideology” and cast a completely different agenda on its organization, and get the public into the galleries.

Isabel Toledo, “Synthetic Cloud,” 2018, Nylon

There are many intriguingly inventive responses and fashion interventions by the Toledos including Isabel Toledo’s design for Michele Obama’s inauguration outfit found in the American Colonial house and interesting twists on the shenanigans of the surrealists, and to Alison Saar’s “Blood/Sweat/Tears” sculpture, but the most engaging is “Synthetic Cloud.” Installed in the “minimalist” gallery and inspired, it appears mostly by Robert Irwin’s diaphanous acrylic disc, “Untitled, “ but as well by the hard-edged paintings and sculpture of Donald Judd, Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse and Ellsworth Kelly.  Above Irwin’s chimerical disc, the most mysterious piece of art in the museum, hang eleven multicolored, nylon, tulle tutus that float like a formation of clouds high above our heads. Layer upon layer of pastel underskirts support the dancing figures that also support the rigid wire bodices of the imaginary ballerinas. Somehow echoing Irwin’s ineffable image of light and shadow, Toledo’s fantastic ballerina clouds are worth the trek.

Panoramic installation view of gallery

Isabel and Ruben Toledo: Labor of Love, Detroit Institute of Arts    –  Through July 7, 2019

 

Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986 @ Cranbrook  Art Museum

Installation Image, Cranbrook Art Museum, Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986, 2018

Punk Rock is a music genre that developed in the mid-1970s in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia. Rooted in 1960s garage rock, punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock by typically producing short or fast-paced songs, with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk Rock embraces a “do it yourself” ethic; many bands self-produce recordings and distributes them through independent record labels and other informal channels.  Accompanying the music is byproduct: a distinct style of graphic art.

Installation Image, Cranbrook Art Museum, Punk Rock Graphics 1976 – 1986, 2018

Although I was there during this time, and in the early throws of raising a family, I was not drawn to the anti-establishment, but rather seduce by the  music of Motown, Detroit Jazz, and the 60’s music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Sting and Bob Dylan. Punk Rock was a distraction for this writer and as an observer, I missed the graphic art side of the cultural phenomenon. If that resonates, no matter what your age, this exhibition opens up a trove of information and design that can take you on a journey and easily introduce you to a culture defined, in part, by its graphic design.

The Cranbrook Art Museum opened a large and sprawling exhibition of Punk Rock Art Graphics (600 pieces), Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976 -1986, 0n June 15, 2018.

The exhibition features several hundred posters, flyers, fanzines, handbills, record sleeves, badges, clothing and other graphic materials from the New York collector Andrew Krivine.  In addition Robert St. Mary, a local author and music historian, helped to curate the Detroit portions of the exhibition at the request of Cranbrook Art Museum. St. Mary was asked to contribute his knowledge of the Detroit punk scene as an extension of a project he is working on as a recipient of the 2017 Knight Foundation Arts Award. In his 2015 book, “The Orbit Anthology,” St. Mary focused mainly on the punk scene at Bookies, known as the original punk nightclub in Detroit. Most people know about the famous London, New York City and Los Angeles bands, but St. Mary points out that the origins of punk are really right here in Detroit.

He says, “When we talk about punk, the primordial ooze of it is here,  with The Stooges and the MC-5”

Jamie Reid, Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen, Poster, Collection of Andrew Krivine, 1977

“That’s the arc of the show — from a black-and-white gritty feel to this explosion of color and pattern,” says Cranbrook Art Museum director Andrew Blauvelt. “The graphic language of punk was much broader and really paralleled what was happening — and was even ahead of — contemporary art in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Blauvelt says patrons will be quick to recognize the work of a featured artist who, in many ways, defined the visual representation of the punk rock movement. “What most people think of when they think of punk is the work of Jamie Reid,” says Blauvelt. “They may not know him by name but they would certainly know him by his work with the Sex Pistols.”

Installation, Punk Rock Memoirs 2018

 

While Too Fast to Live isn’t an exhibit based on musical history, it does present a chronological timeline tracing the evolution of the punk and new wave music genres overseas and in the U.S. via New York City. During this era, New York served as ground zero for a critical mass of counterculture musicians and artists who were forging an aesthetic that continues to be an influential force in contemporary design.

Robert L. Heimall -Design, Robert Mapplethorpe – Photographer, Patti Smith, Horses, Poster, 1975

 

In her debut album, Horses, 1975, Patti Smith became a fixture in the New York punk rock scene.  Critics have viewed the work as one of the most influential albums in the history of the punk rock movement.  Her three-cord rock was a simplistic cord structure, with rudimentary guitar work, and lyrics channeled by influences from William Blake to Arthur Rimbaud. Her performances often provided room for musical improvisation, and drew at times on Reggae, and jazz riffs. Horses mixed philosophical elements with traditional rock elements. Her early biography bleeds over into the life of Robert Mapplethorpe, who took the black and white image for the cover, as the two live together for a short time in lower Manhattan.

Smith says, “Horses was a conscious attempt to make a record that would make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different … I wasn’t targeting the whole world. I wasn’t trying to make a hit record.”

The B-52’s, American rock group, 1979

Go-Go”s, American all women rock group, Poster, 1981

The design of punk graphics ran concurrent to postmodern art practices of the times by raiding popular culture, scavenging history, subverting messages, and transgressing aesthetic rules. Punk fed the alternative music scene that would emerge in the late 1990’s as well as today’s do-it-yourself cultures that blur and erase the lines between professionals and amateurs.  Punk’s trangressive spirit emboldened people from all walks of life to reimage themselves as creative agents and active participants in a culture driven by music, art, and design.

The legacy of punk has permeated modern culture and society, and its visual vocabulary infuses much contemporary art, while the punk spirit resonates in particular with the anti-elitist, DIY ethos of today’s young, blogging artists and musicians.  Too Fast to Live…, recalls the anarchic spirit of authenticity and amateurism, the volatile and ambiguous celebration of negativity, and the creativity that was punk.

Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976-1986” and the related Shepard Fairey. Salad Days,1989-1999 run June 16-October 7, 2018.

Cranbrook Art Museum