I can’t think of the last art show I saw where I wanted to write, off the top, about its sound track. In the course of two visits to “Simply Brilliant,” the Cincinnati Art Museum’s stunning two-room exhibit of some 120 pieces of extremely fine jewelry from the master designers of the 1960s and 1970s—all drawn from the ambitious and sumptuous collection of Kim Klosterman—I jotted down the titles of 25 classic rock-n-roll hits from the time that were playing, in no particular order, in the background. There was “Can’t Buy Me Love” (64); “Good Vibrations” (66); “California Dreaming” (66); “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Hard Day’s Night” (both 1964); “Light My Fire” (67); “Stand By Me” (68); “Respect” (67); “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (70); “It’s a Family Affair” (71), and many more that played in a seemingly-endless playlist whose roots began before this Boomer began listening to rock-n-roll and continued on through the heart of my college dancing and make-out music.
But as much as the playlist put me at my ease, it also suggested to me a series of interesting issues about the show it accompanied. For one thing, the music was tilted towards the 60s and the works in the show were tilted towards the 70s. I don’t mean this as a quibble, but to suggest that the playlist tended to bail on the consequences of the cheery 60s, leaving the objects in the show to stand in for some of the ways that culture had steadily darkened in the 70s. Even so, it struck me that the playlist tended to smooth out the conflicts of the 60s themselves; the titles I heard were by artists much more male than female and much, much more white than black. My point is that it is fair to ask how a show about a couple of tumultuous decades represents the conflict of those decades. We’d ask the same of a Pop Art show, no?
While I was feeling, and still perhaps moving my hips to celebrate, the democratizing elements of the 60s and 70s, “Simply Brilliant” was hardly a democratizing show. I have no intention of sounding like a wide-eyed naïf about what happens in an art museum, which inevitably celebrates the ways that people can come in and admire things for which they were not the intended original audience. Indeed, that frisson is probably a part of every museum’s, every exhibition’s, dynamic. Gazing into each fabulously-lit showcase decked with dazzling gold and bejeweled artifacts, it was hard not to feel how much the show was not about my 1960s and 70s, and that there were peculiarly different demographics represented on each side of the vitrines. I am not sure, for example, what it can mean to refer, as one label does, to a jeweler’s interest in appealing to a “well-heeled hippie clientele.” In a way, it was the endearing soundtrack that was the misstep; the show made a real effort to suggest the dramas of the original owners of the pieces and their makers.
There is a sort of democratization that is sometimes promised but rarely delivered. The movement that seems to have inspired the artists represented in the show drew its inspiration in large part from the International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery held in the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London in 1961. There was hope at the London exhibition that “cheap materials need not mean artistic insignificance.” The CAM show says of Tiffany designer Elsa Peretti that “Although a piece like this would have been costly, Peretti was always interested in offering a lower priced range of jewelry,” though such pieces are not in evidence. The show’s actual social ambiance is better illustrated by the frequency with which, for example, Jackie Kennedy is referred to (at least three times), suggesting that she was in some ways the ideal audience for the pieces, and the use of the wildly unhappy term “jet set.” Of a Gilbert Albert piece, it is said: “Such works were perfect for the jet set of the 1960s and ‘70s who traveled frequently. This jewelry was easily packed into a suitcase and could be worn in various ways, mixing and matching with the other pieces, never looking the same twice. Such adaptable ornaments matched the versatility and variety of fashion in the period.” Of the British firm Kutchinsky, founded in 1893, it is said that “In the 1960s and ‘70s, they produced updated examples to attract a well-heeled but hipper, jet-setting clientele—the ‘BP’ or ‘beautiful people,’ as they were referred to in many British newspapers.”
I preferred thinking of the works in the show as part of the tail-end of the design trends that are called broadly “mid-century modern.” How are the powerful and largely revolutionary aesthetic ideas put forward by high modernism becoming popularized and literally entering the households of the upper middle class (and the visual fields of almost everyone). There was certainly no unanimity about what mid-century modern might look like. It might be figurative or abstract, curved or linear (or both), machine-like in its precision or freehand, like the movements in painting with which it was in conversation. Though it is surprising how many faces and bodies one encounters in the show, figurative inspirations are in the minority. By and large, this was a group of artists who even if they started with the literal, transformed it into something quite different. In Afro Basaldella’s “Necklace with Three Pendants” (late 1940s-early 1950s), for example, it is plainer to see that each pendant is a sort of living creature than to be sure just what sorts of creatures they are—a pair of mermaids, perhaps, or seraphim, and a figure on top of an octopus? But they freely merge into the dream-like and the grotesque. There are plenty of eyes on the figures made from polished cabochon stones—indeed, too many eyes. Surrealism (another strand in mid-century modern) is having its say, and the body makes its entrance in the form of the unsettling and the monstrous—though generally pushed gently back towards the norm by the beauty and the value of the materials.
One argument that the show wishes to make, though its success in making it is uneven, is that jewelry had set its mind on being “keenly aware of the body and wearability,” as was said of the 1961 Exhibition. A “Janus Head Sculpture” (1949) by Franco Cannilla, which is plainly neo-classically figurative, is praised as a “miniature sculpture,” as is a “Necklace” (1970s) by Charles de Temple: “Charles de Temple began his artistic career as a painter and sculptor but quickly discovered that jewelry could be envisioned as miniature sculpture. Abstract in nature, his gestural artwork was sometimes translated into textured ornaments.” The show largely leaves it up to the viewer to decide what sorts of things are implied by this phrase, “miniature sculpture.” One thing I sorely missed in the show as a whole was any illustration of what these miniature sculptures looked like on a living, moving human body. After all, what is most remarkable about these pieces seen as sculpture is what they look like when in motion, slipping in and out of various light sources, seen against a background of skin or fabric. (There were some lovely dresses from the CAM’s collection in the rooms, but I found them less than helpful. Virtually every brooch, for example, would surely have shredded the delicate rayon or silk of the exhibited pieces.)
What I looked for in thinking about the pieces as sculptural was the interplay of light and shadow. At its core, sculpture is three-dimensional, and cannot help that some elements will feel like foreground and some will recede towards the back. When the material is gold—and gold is by and large the great constant in the history of western jewelry—wires can be layered and spaces can be drilled. They can appear solid or made airy. While gold has been the material for pieces of jewelry for centuries, the artists in the show played with the idea of “or sauvage”—“wild gold.” In the Charles de Temple’s “Necklace” (late 1970s), for example, we are looking at a golden waterfall, both bulky and very delicate. The golden components, designed to look like a riot of leaves and other organic forms, are festooned with diamonds and garnets, but you’d barely know they were there: almost hidden like early springtime buds, they are presumably ready to burst into visibility as the light strikes them.
The “sculptural,” of course, can take a wide range of forms. Some pieces looked like monumental conventional sculptures shrunk down to wrist size. Alfred Karram’s powerful “Bracelet” (1970s) is clearly sculptural, emphasizing both the tiny blocks of gold of which it is made, each one of which is covered with surface decorations. It could easily have been the maquette for a wall piece at a sculpture park. Cesar Baldaccini’s “Compression Pendant” (1973) suggested what John Chamberlain might have produced had he put his mind to fine jewelry: Baldaccini worked with Cartier who apparently supplied him with jewelry to be torn apart and crushed together, calling to mind modernism’s interest in the interplay between destruction and creation, fragments and new wholes. To me, some pieces looked rather like the monuments to World War II one sometimes sees in village squares in Europe. The Chopard firm’s “Alexandra Watch” (1971), for example, is both elegant and yet reminiscent of a world that has been bombed to jagged ruins. The watch is wholly surrounded by diamonds (not subtle or hidden), but in this context perhaps takes on the added suggestion of a memento mori: don’t lose sight of the destruction from which all this luxury is rising. Others suggested history in different ways. Lisa Sotilis’s “Necklace” (c. 1970) is made of beaten gold, with shapes and patterns just barely emerging, looking for all the world like something found at an archeological dig in the artist’s native Greece.
I found myself especially drawn to some of the pieces that were the least literal, including several by the American designer Arthur King. He tended to be inspired by the organic shapes of art nouveau while discarding art nouveau’s underlying geometries and symmetries. His “Ring” (1955-70) shows his interest in crowding as many free-form shapes and sizes onto the ring as possible. And he had a serious, if odd, interest in color, working with opaque conch pearls (whose colors are related to each other but are clearly designed not to match) and elsewhere with coral. In his “Necklace” (mid-1970s), the creamy orange coral looks as if it is being used calligraphically, letting nature speak its own language. This piece is also rich in diamonds, but like quite a few other pieces in the show, the diamonds are de-emphasized, allowing us to focus on the almost freehand way the irregular gold shapes grab onto the ends of the linear coral. In general, we treasure oyster pearls for the flickering glitter of their nacre, and when King works with actual pearls, as in “Necklace” (early 1970s), they are stunning but as irregular (“baroque”) as it is possible to imagine. Once again, the diamonds are subdued, and once again, the gold wires seem like vines that are just starting to creep over the pearls, capturing them.
Many of the most interesting pieces in the show take an unconventional approach to their choice of materials, as King did in choosing conch and coral. By and large, I would say the pieces in this collection are not in love with gemstones. Sometimes, they seem to take a playful approach to their materials. The band of Augustin Julia-Plana’s “Watch” (1978) is made of dark chunks of meteorites which probably have a very high market value but, as the description notes dryly, “look like rocks.” On the other hand, there is something more creepy than striking to me about Fred Joaillier’s “Necklace with Pendant” (c. 1970) which is decorated with animal toes, and I felt more alienated than drawn to the “safari-style” of pieces like Bocheron’s “Bracelet” (1971) made of gold and elephant hair. Whose 1970s indeed?
This is not to say that the artists in the show ignored fine gemstones, jewelry’s most typical punctuation, though it was interesting that I cannot think of a single piece built around a single, multi-caret diamond or ruby or emerald, as the jewelry of a previous era might have. There is almost a conscious focus on so-called lesser stones, such as in Jean Vendome’s “Collier Veracruz” (1972), an exuberant celebration of the way that raw amethyst crystals darken at their tips. As the label notes, there is something thorn-like about the amethysts, which further complicates my vision of what it would be like to encounter the person wearing it: you cannot help admiring it, but you are obliged to keep your distance. Barbara Anton works with one of jewelry’s mainstays, pearls, though she makes the decision to emphasize quantity over quality. That is to say, the dozens and dozens of pearls in a piece like “Potpourri of Pearls Necklace” (c. 1968) are not remarkable for their individual magic but for how they affect us en masse, as if they were bubbling up from the bottom of the sea. They are looped in by gold and, as in many other pieces, punctuated self-deprecatingly with diamonds. Anton is particularly interesting for the ways she balanced elegance and excess. The label suggests that Anton was drawn to the pearl “because it could be used just as it was found in nature,” though that seems not exactly the case. Though pearls do not have to be cut and faceted—the distinction I assume that is being made—pearls like the “Potpourri” are more like the pearls in a pirate’s treasure chest than the way they are actually found in nature, which is, of course, one at a time, closely hidden inside the oyster’s shell.
If the show has a single hero amongst all the dozens of designers, it would be the Italian-born Englishman Andrew Grima. A good deal of attention is paid to his retail strategies—he never, for example, sold a similar piece to people who live on the same continent—and his charming and theatrical retail persona. Though the labels take a good deal of interest in his social standing and aspirations (he made pieces for the royal families of both English and the United States—Jackie, of course), there are a variety of ways that his work stands out among the workmanship and the values of the show. Though he works, like most of the rest of the designers, with semi-precious rather than precious stones, he is likely to be the sort of artist of whom people might say that he had an eye. That is, his pieces tend to be among the most carefully curated in terms of their gemmy materials. His “Necklace with Pendant” (1971), for example, is built around a single, iridescent purple abalone pearl. It is baroque to the max: it is so elongated as to be almost figurative, with something of an insouciant contrapposto with its random twists. He has built a close-fitting cage for it of golden wire and diamonds, but they serve chiefly to highlight the specimen. One of his more epic pieces is his “Watermelon Tourmaline Brooch,” in which he has chosen his stones, I would say, to invoke Dorothy’s first vision of Oz. His “Necklace and Earrings” (1975) contain what is, for my money, the most beautiful individual pearls anywhere in the show, some strikingly gold, some a combination of silver and gold. It seemed to me that part of his intention was to show the contrast between gold wire and gold pearls.
Grima was praised for “never allowing the technicalities to limit his imagination,” but questions about technicalities–how to put things together–seem highly relevant for a virtually industrial art form like jewelry. (Besides, it speaks to the original core mission of the Cincinnati Art Museum, which was to improve craftsmanship.) I was disappointed that the show did not pay more attention to questions of technique—indeed, to broader questions of how the various pieces were made, which require sets of very complex, interlocking skills. Though perhaps some of the pieces are truly the work of individuals working heroically alone, more often than not there are teams of people who collaborate to make fine jewelry, from stone setters to casters to gold polishers, among many, many more. A small handful of labels listed the “maker” of a piece separately from its “designer.” It was an interesting side-note at the 1961 International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery that its organizers wanted, on the one hand, to have some of the leading European artists who worked in three dimensions contribute ideas for pieces in the show but dreaded the possibility of cartons of “unmakeable” models being dropped off at their doorstep. There were contemporary videos streaming at the show which sometimes gave us a glimpse of the crowded and industrious designers’ workshops, but I would have liked to know more about the unglamorous underpinnings of the artworks.
I also thought that the show accepted rather uncritically the gender politics of wearing many of the pieces. It is, after all, a short step from believing that the jewelry is spectacular to thinking that it turned those wearing the jewelry into spectacles. This is not necessarily a bad thing: the line between disempowerment and empowerment can be slim indeed. This issue gets further muddied, at least in my mind, by the nature of the original audiences for these pieces, which were people who were between substantially and fabulously wealthy. To what extent were their lives always spectacles?
I thought it was a particular strength of the show that it included so many women designers. The show was less successful—perhaps because it could not be—in addressing gender issues about the jewelry’s actual, individual consumers. By casually focusing on Jackie as the model audience, you solve the allied problems of whose taste and whose checkbook. But I wondered about the pieces not snapped up by Jackie. Was their acquisition a matter of appealing to the woman who would wear it or the man who would pay for it? I don’t mean that the distinction is anything like absolute, but it doesn’t seem absurd to want to know more about the actual provenance of some of these almost monumental pieces of jewelry.
And perhaps it would help address a final question, which is to think about how these particular works of art fit in an economy of desire. The designers clearly have a set of fantasies that drive them to create. The original consumers have a set of fantasies about ownership which are harder, I think, to grasp and articulate, but are very interesting nonetheless. And finally—and I think the Museum should feel pretty good about this—there was a strong network of desire in plain view on the outside of the vitrines. The audience for this show looked to me to be strong and curious and definitely interested in these things that couldn’t ever have belonged to them but maybe almost could.