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Major exhibition of famed Modernist jeweler presented by the Oakland Museum of California
Margaret De Patta. (American, 1903–64). Pin, 1956. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of Eugene Bielawski, The Margaret De Patta Memorial Collection. Photography by Lee Fatherree.

OAKLAND, CA.- The Oakland Museum of California and the New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) present Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta, the first major retrospective of the San Francisco Bay Area artist, who was a seminal figure in the emergence and growth of American studio jewelry and an important teacher and formative member of an expanding community of midcentury California artists and craftsmen. Premiering at OMCA, February 4 through May 13, 2012, Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta offers new scholarship in its comprehensive overview of this American modernist’s oeuvre and her influence on studio jewelry as both a maker and social activist.

The exhibition will travel to MAD in June, where it will be on view from June 12, 2012, through September 23, 2012. The partnering of MAD and OMCA on this thought-provoking tribute is uniquely appropriate, as each institution played a role in this influential artist’s career, and each remains dedicated to celebrating her achievements with important De Patta works in their respective collections.

“Margaret De Patta’s bold, yet meticulously conceived brooches, pendants, and rings signaled a radical departure from prevailing moribund designs and practices. Through extraordinary technical innovations she aligned her jewelry with modernist design aesthetics to create an art reflective of her time,” says MAD’s Curator of Jewelry Ursula Ilse Neuman. “Her cerebral jewelry expresses her own evolving aesthetic and social philosophy as it unfolded over four decades of enormous change in American society.”

“Margaret De Patta’s jewelry is a stunning example of how a California pioneer influenced significant changes in the art of jewelry making,” says Julie Muiz, OMCA’s Associate Curator of Design & Decorative Arts. “This exhibition not only allows the Oakland Musuem of California to highlight the strength of its craft and decorative arts collection, but to reinforce OMCA’s commitment to telling the extraordinary stories of California and its people.”

The Oakland Museum of California’s collection features more than 1,000 pieces of American studio craft, and boasts the most extensive collection of De Patta’s work anywhere, much of it donated after the artist’s death in 1964 by her husband Eugene Bielawski. Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta will feature 50 jewelry pieces as well as ceramics, flatware, photographs, photograms, and newly released archival material. In addition, the exhibition will display artwork by such international modernists as Lszl Moholy-Nagy, Gyrgy Kepes, and El Lissitzsky, whose work greatly influenced De Patta’s Constructivist designs.

Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1903, Margaret De Patta (ne Strong) was raised in San Diego, California, where she studied painting and sculpture for two years at the local art academy, before moving to San Francisco to attend the California School of Fine Arts. In 1926, she won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Arts Students League in New York, where she was exposed to the work of the leading European modernists. Upon her return to San Francisco two years later to marry, she became interested in jewelry making when she could not find a wedding band that suited her modern taste. Always self-directed, she taught herself the craft. In the years that followed she found exploring space in three-dimensions to be more compelling than two, and so gave up painting to devote herself entirely to the making of jewelry. For De Patta, jewelry design shared many of the same concerns as modern architecture and sculpture, as they both involved themselves with “space, form, tension, organic structure, scale, texture, interpenetration, superimposition, and economy of means.”

Eager to expand her understanding of the latest modernist theories, to learn the newest techniques and to explore novel materials, in 1941, she traveled to Chicago to study at the School of Design with its founding director Lszl Moholy-Nagy, whom she had first met and taken classes with when he and his faculty spent a summer at Oakland’s Mills College the previous summer. A former member of the German Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy was renowned as a teacher and an innovator in the fields of photography and Constructivist sculpture. Keen to emulate the Hungarian artist’s concept of “vision in motion” in her jewelry, De Patta invented ingenious “opticuts” in which the facets of rutilated quartz act as transparent windows allowing light to penetrate the stone and reveal its internal structure. She also came to include kinetic elements in her jewelry and emphasized the structure of her pieces by reversing positive and negative design elements.

Although she only spent a year in Chicago, it completely transformed her life. She divorced Samuel de Patta, and a few years later married the industrial designer and educator Eugene Bielawski, whom she had met at the School of Design. Together they sought to promote the Bauhaus design philosophy and its democratic social agenda in the Bay Area through a host of creative endeavors, including a line of affordable modernist jewelry, architecture and interior design projects, and several educational ventures.

Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta has been supported by a cadre of enthusiastic, generous, and committed funding partners. Chief among these is the Terra Foundation for American Art, which—through its support of Space-Light-Structure, its first involvement with the field of modern jewelry—has demonstrated its commitment to furthering cross-cultural dialogue on American art, and to fostering exploration, understanding, and enjoyment of the visual arts of the United States for national and international audiences. Other funding partners include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design at the University of North Carolina. A group of loyal individual donors has also supported the exhibition, both at OMCA and at MAD. Accompanying the exhibition is a 248-page catalogue co-published by the Museums with support of the Rotasa Foundation.

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