There's nothing so obvious as a wedding dress in the chic little exhibit "Polarities: Black and White in Design" at the Goldstein Museum of Design on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus. But there is a footnote reference to Johnny Cash, whose tough-hombre style earned him the label "The Man in Black."
Focusing on monochrome designs for everything from clothing to furniture, tableware, textiles and magazines, the one-gallery show is a superficially simple display of familiar things in minimalist hues. Stripped of color, their lines and patterns are exposed and their bones as bare as a leafless garden in winter.
That clarity throws unexpected details into sharp relief and calls attention to minutiae that might otherwise go unnoticed. Add in the dualities often associated with white-and-black in Euro-American culture -- good/bad, life/death, hope/despair, provocative/pure -- and you have a potent opportunity for social analysis.
Take the prickles and thorns on rose stems, for instance.
Near the show's entrance is a pretty 1950s party dress decorated with photographic images of black roses printed on creamy white silk. It seems a vision of innocence with its modestly scooped neckline, fluffy skirt and English garden flowers.
But there's something unsettling and a little risqué about those black blossoms. Rather than virginal purity, they flirt with danger and invite despoilation. Their stems curl and bristle with the rough, natural stubble of wild roses, not the polished, waxen sheen of hothouse blooms. Look closely and suddenly the princess purity of that sweet frock simmers with the subliminal sexuality of an Alfred Hitchcock vixen.
"Black and white is a choice," said curator Jean McElvain, who organized the show with Caitlin Cohn, a University of Minnesota graduate student in design. "It isn't just the absence of color, it involves a conscious decision to use an economy of means. Black is associated with outlaws while white is considered more pure and is associated with modernism, especially in architecture. But it's all so much richer than that."
The theme practically demanded a wedding dress, especially since the Goldstein has an extensive collection of marital finery. But the curators resisted because "we're trying to shy away from those cultural presuppositions," said McElvain.
Furniture, fashion and more
Drawn primarily from the museum's collection, the show spotlights a bit of iconic modern furniture, including a white "tulip table," designed in 1956 by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, who used a pedestal base to banish the "slum of legs" that typically lurk below tables. Mies van der Rohe's luxurious black-leather-and-polished-steel Barcelona chair of 1929 is here, too, along with a set of Alvar Aalto's biomorphic Savoy vases from the 1960s.
Samples of tableware -- a white 1988 Mikasa cup and saucer garnished with a single black line, white 19th-century china printed with pastoral scenes and Asian bamboo in black -- track the monochrome trend through history. A high point here is Eva Zeisel's 1942 coffee set. Fashioned in creamy ivory porcelain, her vessels are utterly unadorned but incredibly sexy with pouty little lips, voluptuous curves and graceful handles that beg to be caressed.
A selection of magazines and journals from the 1950s documents the crisp appeal of black-and-white graphics. Among the handsome textiles is a Burmese pony-cart blanket from the 1960s shimmering with Op-Art checks, a luxurious 1880s white-silk shawl heavily embroidered with Asian motifs, and a Nigerian wall hanging from the 1970s that looks like a woodcut of big-eyed heads.
The best is a campy proto-pop scarf from 1953 that's a photo collage of sexpot film stills featuring Liz Taylor and Jennifer Jones incongruously mashed up with pictures of sleeping kids and barking dogs. The black-and-white scarf just echoes the monochrome newspapers and tabloids of its day, but the use of such pop imagery in clothing still seems edgy and sophisticated for the time.
Fashionistas will find a lot of love in this show, as it airs some real treasures from the Goldstein's vast clothing archive. The earliest outfit is a virginal ivory Empire-style gown dating to 1815. Recent items include a deliciously sexy Thierry Mugler black dress from the 1990s that positively beams mixed messages. It has a high standoffish collar in back and plunging neckline in front, prim black buttons contradicted by buckled straps that hint at secret fetishes. It's a dress that "leverages sexuality for power," as a label nicely notes.
And in a something-for-everyone gesture, there are undies -- a lovely ivory satin corset from 1900, a sheer black nylon Rudi Gernreich bra circa 1964, and a 1991 Fredericks of Hollywood bustier and G-string.