Copper in the Arts

August 2014

From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Copper Artist Art Smith

Art Smith, Untitled, 1948-1979. Wood, paint, copper.Art Smith, Untitled, 1948-1979. Wood, paint, copper. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Charles L. Russell, 2007

From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith examines the work of jewelry maker Arthur Smith (1917–1982) through a collection acquired by the Brooklyn Museum of Art from the estate of the artist.

One of the leading modernist jewelers of the mid-20th century, Smith was inspired by surrealism, biomorphism and primitivism, and a deep awareness of the female form. As a result, his jewelry is dynamic in its size and shape, but remains lightweight and wearable. The exhibition, on view through Dec. 7, features 26 pieces including silver and gold jewelry created by the celebrated African American artist, and more than 30 pieces by his contemporaries, including Frank Rebajes, Else Freund, Marion Anderson Noyes and Ed Wiener.

Archival material from Smith’s estate—sketches, the original shop sign and period photographs of models wearing the jewelry—enhances the presentation. The jewelry, dating from the late 1940s to the 1970s, includes his most famous pieces: the “Lava” bracelet, or cuff, which extends over the entire lower arm in undulating and overlapping forms; the “Patina” necklace, inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder; and a massive ring with three semi-precious stones that stretches over three fingers. Accompanying the exhibition will be a presentation of Smith’s tools in the Museum’s Center for Creative Connections on Level 1.

The Dallas Museum of Art is especially pleased to be able to work with the Brooklyn Museum to bring From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith to Dallas and shed new light on one of the key figures in modern American jewelry design,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “The varied collections of an encyclopedic art museum range across every medium over 5,000 years, and the language of modern jewelry is very much at home here.”

In 1946 Art Smith opened his jewelry studio in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. He soon caught the attention of buyers in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. In the early 1950s, magazine coverage of his designs in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue led to his establishing business relationships with boutiques and department stores nationwide. One of those was the Black Tulip in Dallas.

“Art Smith’s boldly wrought jewelry captures the spirit of progressive design in the mid-20th century by transforming precious and common metals into wearable sculpture. Artists, notably Alexander Calder, provided inspiration for a generation of designers, but Smith’s creations reflect an especially rich and perceptive approach to the iconography of modernism, the handmade object and the human form,” added Kevin W. Tucker, The Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Dallas Museum of Art.

While Smith’s early work was executed primarily in copper and brass, for affordability, his growing recognition led to special commissions for custom design, and the production of more work in silver. He received a prestigious commission from the Peekskill, New York, chapter of the NAACP to design a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt, and was commissioned to design a pair of cufflinks for Duke Ellington, whose music he often listened to while working. Smith was an active supporter of black and gay civil rights, an avid jazz enthusiast, and a patron of black modern dance groups. It was his keen interest in the latter that influenced his mature work and is reflected in its grander scale. 

Resources:

Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N Harwood St, Dallas, TX (214) 922-1200

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