We know that post-World War II Greenwich Village was a center for progressive Modernist arts in the U.S. — Abstract Expressionist painting, the Beats, method actors and Folk musicians like Bob Dylan.
But the Village, so full of creativity and new ways of thinking, also was the center of a lesser-known avant-garde movement in jewelry design. And that is the subject of an exquisite, just-opened show at the Cincinnati Art Museum — From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith. It will be up through May 18.
The exhibit, which features 24 silver and gold pieces by Smith, comes from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which received a gift of his major, later work — along with such ephemera as his tools and account book — in 2007.
Cynthia Amnéus, the CAM’s fashion arts and textiles curator (as well as interim chief curator), added to that with work by his contemporaries loaned by private collectors and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Smith’s work here is choice — larger, more expensive silver or gold pieces that he saved rather than sold.
Smith, who died in 1982 at age 65, was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by Jamaican parents and studied at Cooper Union. He became interested in handmade jewelry and worked for Winifred Mason before opening his own storefront studio/shop in Greenwich Village in 1946. The sign for his business, with an atomic-age “A” made from metal, is in this exhibit.
He had other interests that merged with artistic talents. As a rare African-American jewelry designer, he connected with black dance groups in New York that wanted necklaces and other items that stood out and flowed gracefully with their body movements.
A lover of Jazz, he liked jewelry that was exciting and vibrant, yet not superficially “pretty.” And he was alive to the Modernist paintings of Joan Miró and Salvador Dali as well as the mobiles of Alexander Calder (whose jewelry is included in this show).
By the early 1950s, his jewelry was featured in Vogue.
All this had an effect on his painstakingly created work. “I think he’s definitely influenced by Surrealism and Biomorphism,” Amnéus says. “His Ellington Necklace is a great example of his amorphous amoeba-like shapes that are so very Modernist. For me, (his Modernism) is in the lyrical quality of his work, along with those connections.”
His Ellington Necklace is a tour de force. Displayed on a mannequin’s upper torso, its slim, sleek bent-silver neck looks weightless. But across the front (the necklace dips almost to navel level) are outward-curved shapes reminiscent of tree ornaments or peacock feathers.
Inside each are semiprecious stones that give some color but not so much as to detract from the erotic curves and bulges.
Another piece, called the Last Necklace because it was Smith’s last piece of jewelry (many of the titles were given posthumously), is almost all silver, curving and geometrically turning in and out from the neck, shoulders and chest like a miniature roller coaster. Whoever wears it would seem wired to receive broadcasts from extraterrestrials — it’s not so much Modernist as it is Futurist.
“The triangular pieces are hinged, so when you moved shoulders and collarbone, it moved with you,” Amnéus says. “He was very interested in the body as armature and felt it was as important an element as all the other materials he was using.”
The post-war world of Greenwich Village and its arts and politics seems as well-documented a subject as any aspect of American popular culture.
Yet here is a designer — and a field — as influenced as any by the currents of artistic Modernism, and he seems so little known today.
“There is a group of very dedicated collectors who assiduously have collected Modernist jewelry,” Amnéus says. “But in the general public, nobody knows who these people are.”
When he died, Smith was a hero to New York’s black community. Online, I found an obituary by Mel Tapley from the The New York Amsterdam News, the city’s African-American newspaper. He attended the funeral service in Harlem where Jazz notables such as bassist Al Hall and pianist Randy Weston played solos.
Tapley remembered the excitement of going into Smith’s studio/shop in the Village.
“You felt all the astonishment and pleasure of Ali Baba entering the gleaming treasure trove of the Forty Thieves,” he wrote. “But these jewels were stolen only from the rich imagination of this unique jewelry magician…”
At Cincinnati Art Museum, you can see what he meant.
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