It is a feast for the eyes of those who appreciate jewelry this Spring in the Queen City. The spirit of craft and its revival shines through in large scale, highly sculpted pieces of jewelry created by Art Smith and his contemporaries in From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith, February 22, 2014 through May 18, 2014.
This exhibition features twenty-four pieces of silver and gold jewelry created by African American artist Art Smith, as well as more than forty pieces by his contemporaries, including Sam Kramer, Margaret De Patta, and Harry Bertoia. Three pieces of jewelry by Alexander Calder, who influenced many of these artists/jewelers, also are featured in this exhibition. This exhibition was organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum
is the first to host this exhibition. It will then continue to the Dallas Museum of Art and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.
Inspired by surrealism, biomorphism and primitivism, Art Smith (1917-1982) was one of the leading modernist jewelers of the mid-twentieth century. Early in his career, Smith met Talley Beatty, a young black dancer and choreographer, who introduced him to the world of dance, in particular the salon of Frank and Dorcas Neal. It was there that he met several prominent black artists, including writer James Baldwin, musician and composer Billy Strayhorn, singers Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, actor Brock Peters, and painter Charles Sebree. Smith began to create pieces for dance companies, who in turn, encouraged him to design on a grander scale. This experience is evident in the scale of his mature work.
In 1946, Smith opened his own studio in Greenwich Village and started selling his jewelry. He soon caught the attention of buyers in Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago. In the early 1950s, Smith received pictorial coverage in both Harpers Bazaar and Vogue and was mentioned in The New Yorker shoppers guide, On the Avenue. Smith soon established business relationships with Bloomingdales, Milton Heffling in Manhattan, James Boutique in Houston, LUnique in Minneapolis and Black Tulip in Dallas. While his earlier work was executed primarily in copper and brass, because it was less expensive, growing recognition increased sales and special commissions for custom designs. This allowed him to begin producing more work in silver. He received a prestigious commission from the Peekskill, New York chapter of the NAACP, for example, to design a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt. He was even commissioned to design a pair of cufflinks for Duke Ellington, whose music he often listened to while working.
Included in the exhibition are major works by Smith including his famous Patina Necklace (c. 1959). Worked in silver, it is an example both of the large scale of his jewelry and of his use of asymmetry. Alexander Calders influence is also clear in this piece. From the curved structure that wraps the neck, two pierced ellipses dangle over the breastbone, giving the necklace a kinetic energy that enlivens the piece. With a sculptors sensitivity, Smith emphasized negative space in his designs and viewed the human body as an armature for his creations. He considered his jewelry incomplete until it rested on the human structure.
According to Cincinnati Art Museum interim Chief Curator Cynthia Amnéus, Working in the heart of Greenwich Village, Smith was influenced by jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, visual artists like Robert Motherwell, and the poetry readings of Beat Generation writers like Alan Ginsberg. Smiths work, like that of his contemporaries, appealed to an artistic and intellectual clientele. These artisans were not concerned with making pretty jewelry. They created works of art that were meant to be worn on the body.