Just as certain housewares scream their decades — pink and gray bathroom tiles in the 1950s; avocado green and harvest gold kitchen appliances in the 1960s — so do the paintings, sculpture and fine crafts of the time. It’s as if everyone who passed through art school in the ’50s somehow learned to make the same angular scratches and loopy Pollock drips and splashes.
Those are the kind of design signatures that enable clever pickers to spy treasures in flea markets, and museum curators to evoke a zeitgeist with objects.
Minnesota Museum of American Art curator Christina Chang has deftly encapsulated some of the key moments in mid-20th-century American art and craft in “Objects: MMAA,” a choice sample of the museum’s collection on view through April 13 in downtown St. Paul. The show owes much of its success to Chang’s keen eye and rigorous editing. Starting with about 90 items from the museum’s 4,000-piece collection, she refined the display to a mere 55 pieces — paintings, sculpture, ceramics, jewelry, drawings, weavings, glass, metal — by 55 artists, including loans from six contemporary talents whose work brings the show up to date.
The mix of media plays to the MMAA’s historic strength as a pioneering showcase for fine crafts. In the 1950s the museum launched a biennial craft competition, “Fiber-Clay-Metal,” which grew into the nation’s most selective craft event by the mid 1960s. Items purchased from that expo are the core of the museum’s craft collection, many of them early pieces by artists who went on to transform their fields, including ceramists Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson.
By pairing craft items with paintings, drawings and other traditional “fine art,” Chang sets up lively visual conversations about form, color and material.
A large 1970 abstraction by Enrico Donati, for example, is nicely sited next to Arneson’s bulbous 1959 “Three-Spouted Vase.” Not content with mere paint, Donati appears to be trying to wrestle both architecture and sculpture onto his canvas, posing two monolithic shapes against a vibrant orange-red sky. Encrusted with thick, blackened sand, the forms stand in front of dark, bulky structures. Though considerably smaller, Arneson’s swollen vase holds its own beside Donati’s abstract landscape, its rough gold-and-brown body a swarthy counterpoint to Donati’s chunky sentinels.
Mary Bauermeister’s stunning “Stone Interruption,” hung near the gallery’s entrance, announces the meld of media, materials and illusions that make this show so engaging. Concocted in 1965, it is a surrealist mix that has, remarkably, survived intact for nearly half a century. From a drawing of a sleeve emerges a photo of a hand holding scissors that are cutting a pile of stones; a little stack of real stones anchors the photo. Other stones sit atop drawings, paintings or printed images of identical rocks. Words, images and objects blend throughout in a trompe l’oeil illusion that is a testament to the artist’s wit and meticulous craftsmanship.
Conflicts raised, resolved
Art and craft were often at odds in the mid-1900s, the former claiming a loftier intellectual plane and denigrating craft as mere handiwork. That snobbery has eroded over the decades, thanks in part to feminists’ insistence on the value of traditional “female” art forms (quilting, lacemaking), represented here by Miriam Schapiro’s “A Cabinet for All Seasons (Winter).” Part of a four-panel installation, “Cabinet” is a collage of feminine imagery including snippets of lace, floral wallpaper and woven quilt patterns.
It is cleverly paired with Ilya Bolotowsky’s 1974 “Black Diamond,” a quilt-like abstraction composed of stripes, triangles and other geometric shapes. Nearby, Anne Youkeles’ 1972 “Stepping Stones” amplifies the quilt concept in an intriguing three-dimensional print comprising cut-and-folded triangles of paper, and Amalia K. Amaki concocts a striking tribute to singer Billie Holiday out of hundreds of pearl buttons.
Many of the show’s objects are simply elegant, among them Zaven Zee Sipantzi’s biomorphic three-piece silver coffee service and Benjamin F. Cunningham’s clever “Scarlet Tesseract,” a hinged painting that folds into a corner where its geometric forms — circles, triangles, ovals — suddenly look like a 3-D cube. There’s even a case of handmade jewelry including a gold wrist-cuff by Ronald Hayes Pearson that resembles a miniature mountain range and appears to weigh about that much.
True to the “Minnesota” in the museum’s name, many of the artists are state natives or residents, including painter Steve Sorman (surprisingly represented by a stained-glass window); wood turner Craig Lossing, color-pencil drawer Frank Bigbear, abstract painter Ruben Nusz, installation ceramist Monica Rudquist, textile artist Eun-Kyung Suh, painter Claudia DeMonte and sculptor Jan Elftmann, who livens up a window with “Blue T-Rex,” a dinosaur head fashioned from hundreds of tiny blue plastic baubles.