ORNAMENT AS ART: AVANT-GARDE JEWELRY FROM THE HELEN WILLIAMS DRUTT COLLECTION
This review was first published in The Journal of Modern Craft, v.3, n.2, July 2010, pp.269-272.
And so here it is, the enormous catalogue to the Helen Williams Drutt collection, acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) in Texas and co-published by that institution and Arnoldsche. Presided over by Cindi Strauss, curator of Modern and Contemporary Decorative Arts and Design, the publication is an extraordinary resource, packed full of analysis, images and the tools of art history (biography, bibliography, chronology and exhibition history). Divided into four parts, the book is in some ways a schizophrenic entity, in part an homage to and documentation of Helen Drutt and her collection (and in general the important role of the collector) and in part a scholarly contribution to our knowledge about contemporary jewelry around the world. It is also – and unashamedly – an old-fashioned catalog, featuring a carefully researched checklist of the collection.
Drutt’s contribution to this project is not overlooked. She contributes a somewhat self-serving essay called ‘A Golden Age of Goldsmithing: Four Decades,’ about the importance of collectors and their role as historical caretakers, securing history in danger of being lost by acquiring objects and narratives. Drutt is also interviewed by Strauss, which, while interesting, effectively duplicates and personalizes information we have read before in Drutt’s own text.
While there is much that is impressive here, the title – Ornament as Art – establishes one of the things that remains problematic about this catalog. Jewelry, with the assistance of the concept (and mythology) of the avant-garde, will be transformed into art. As Houston MFA director Peter C. Marzio writes in his foreword, the museum acquired the Drutt collection ‘motivated by the belief that fine art transcends all media and academic classifications.’ ‘The Drutt Collection attacks traditional academic, art-historical categories,’ writes Marzio. Accordingly, ‘This subversive challenge forces us to abandon certain conventional modes of thought and to redefine ideas of sculpture, painting, decorative arts, and so forth.’ Thus, the collection is intended ‘to open up the traditional categories of artistic expression, and to welcome “craft”, “design”, and “jewelry” into the galleries.‘ It’s notable that art is neither mentioned here, nor given speech marks – but of course not, since this is the defining term. Here, jewelry becomes art by ceasing to be jewelry and therefore part of the crafts. Jewelry, it seems, is not subversive enough to tackle the hierarchies of art history, or to affect the automatic assumption of fine art’s primacy.
While it’s common to imagine that the art versus craft debate no longer has relevance, there is still a lack of sophisticated analysis about this issue. This book disappoints because, putting aside the lack of rigor in Marzio’s foreword, the promise and premise of the title is never fully tackled. The major argument about jewelry’s status as art unfolds in Cindi Strauss’s essay ‘Minimalist and Conceptual Tendencies in the Helen Williams Drutt Collection,’ in which Strauss demonstrates how minimalism and conceptual art offer ways to think about a number of jewelers collected by Drutt.
It is nicely done. Strauss notes that the interdisciplinary nature of minimalism and conceptualism made them relevant to jewelry along with other fine art and craft practices. She also saves some agency for the crafts: ‘Many jewelry artists who were active in the major art-making centers and universities during this period also embraced elements of these movements, yet it is incorrect to imply that jewelry artists active between the late 1960s and the 1980s adopted their tenets in a wholesale manner. Rather, they utilized some of the strategies in forging their own artistic identities.’ She rightly suggests that the strategies of both movements hit jewelry as part of a larger shift in the field and that jewelry was restricted in its ability to conform completely to either: ‘Because of its reliance on form and not merely idea, jewelry, whether decorative, sculptural, or born from serious design and intellectual processes, is unable to adopt these strict conditions as defined by [Sol] LeWitt and others. For regardless of artistic or intellectual associations, what sets jewelry apart from other media is that the boundary between the idea, object, and the body cannot be completely separated.’ She demonstrates that Giampaolo Babetto, for example, made jewelry closely aligned with Donald Judd’s sculpture and the work of other American minimalists: ‘Like Judd’s Specific Objects, these three-dimensional works are neither painting nor sculpture (nor jewelry) but rather self-referential works that exemplify seriality.’
And so it continues, with references to David Watkins and Gary Griffin (Minimalism) and Otto Kunzli (Conceptualism). Strauss concludes, ‘The intersection of Minimalist and Conceptual strategies with contemporary jewelry presents new frameworks for understanding jewelry, frameworks that reinforce the validity of art forms across media, regardless of function. . . . Jewelry that prioritizes ideas, whether Minimal, Conceptual or something else, refuses to be pinpointed as simple adornment. The result is that, by removing artist-made jewelry from the realm of the expected, its true nature and possibility can finally be experienced and realized.’
In actual fact, what is realized is not jewelry’s true nature but its nature as art, which means adopting a submissive and provincial relation to fine art. Discussing Babetto’s minimalist jewelry, Strauss writes, ‘The fact that they were made from precious materials and required the hand of a craftsman would have negated them ideologically in Judd’s eyes; however, the lineage of influence still remains strong.’ Jewelry, it seems, can only ever be poor Minimalism, compromised Conceptual art, which surely leads to the question: why bother making it into second-rate sculpture? Why not leave it as really good jewelry? And why not make the case that Babetto’s jewelry actually challenges the legitimacy of Minimalism’s conclusions, offers a critique of Minimalism’s limitations?
But the main problem I have with Strauss’s discussion is its restricted terms of reference. As a platform for arguing the premise of the book – that jewelry is really art, and can play with the big boys – why choose such a limited focus as minimalism and conceptualism, which at best only relates to a small portion of this collection? There would be a range of other possible ways to effect this transformation, including appropriation, relational aesthetics, postmodernism – even modernism itself would get as good and much more inclusive results. Indeed, the first section of the interview with Helen Drutt makes the case for modernism very strongly. ‘I had never seen a brooch before that could be identified so closely with the aesthetics of fine art,’ says Drutt of her first purchase, a brooch by American jeweler Stanley Lechtzin. Take modernism as a movement of philosophical propositions about art – not as an aesthetic or stylistic phenomenon – and you have the tools to argue that almost all of this collection is art.
As a reader from outside North America and Europe, one of the most notable things about this publication – and Drutt’s collection – is its geographical inclusiveness. Drutt really got around the globe, making connections overseas and getting to far-flung locales where contemporary jewelry was happily being produced. To her credit, Strauss works hard to maintain this global outlook in the book, especially in the essays on featured works in the collection. Between two and twelve pages each, these texts are well-illustrated and comprehensive introductions. Most hearteningly, they sustain the awareness of the breadth of contemporary jewelry practice happening all around the world, not just in Europe or America.
But this dynamic is hard to juggle and at times Strauss’s act comes tumbling down. In her essay ‘A Brief History of Contemporary Jewelry, 1960-2006,’ an almost impossible task, Strauss writes from a kind of moving geographic position, shifting zones as required to lay out the significant movements and ideas of contemporary jewelry internationally. The essay is focused on infrastructure, sociological information about groups and networks, exhibitions and institutions. In part it is a checklist, demonstrating the depth and breadth of the Drutt collection and revealing how this collection gathers authority through its encyclopedic coverage of jewelers who have been central to the practice from the 1960s to the present.
Yet there is also something limited about this presentation of international jewelry discourse. The Drutt collection is great because it allows for a wide range of locations for contemporary jewelry; people all over the world get a look in. Strauss also pays attention to a varied array of countries in her essay. But much is flattened, homogenized. This isn’t global jewelry discourse so much as European one masquerading as something international. The opportunity to challenge definitions of contemporary jewelry practice is again not fully capitalized on. The catholic selection of jewelers working in varied and often conflicting ways, suggests the real possibilities of Drutt’s collection to construct some kind of international jewelry discourse to which everyone is invited. But Strauss’s attention often seems to be elsewhere.
The limitations – indeed the impossibility of what Strauss and this publication set out to achieve – is most on display in the chronology in the appendix. This heroic but ultimately doomed exercise results in a surprisingly detailed document that is at the same time extremely parochial in its concentration on Europe and America (with a sprinkling of Asia and Australia thrown in). I’m really not sure it is even meaningful to try and achieve something like this, since either everything from everywhere is included (clearly impossible) or the chronology can’t support the scope of the collection and the international story it tells.
This very interesting and impressive publication is required reading for anyone seriously involved with contemporary jewelry. The problematic aspects of it are not unexpected, since what project with this kind of grand ambition would not suffer speed wobbles somewhere along the way? But it seems to me that some of the limitations of this project are intimately tied to Helen Drutt and the way her stamp is felt everywhere in this book. What might have been possible if Drutt herself was less central to the end result? This book is a lavish celebration of an amazing collection and an extraordinary resource that the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is lucky to have. But as a monument to one woman’s activities, it becomes a flawed representation of contemporary jewelry and, for all its marvelous aspects, somehow less than one would hope for.