When Craft Meets Art

Investigations in Beauty

by Alison Armstrong

Jane Kauffman, EmbroideredIn 1919, the Weimar Bauhaus proclaimed: “There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman…. Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant banner between craftsman and artist.”1 Whether the distinction between craft and art2 can or should ever be erased is debatable. However, this concern resurfaces periodically, often from unclear motives that may be aesthetic, mercenary or ethical. The American Pattern & Decorating artists, fine artists who bridge the craft/art dichotomy, began their conscious explorations of decoration as art in the early 1970s. Their work continues to generate interest, even though their original motives—to challenge modernist formalism and to put forward the validity of “women’s work” at the height of a feminist atmosphere—may now have lost momentum, or comes forward again with new implications, if only nostalgic.3
The influence of the late art critic and eccentric teacher Amy Goldin and the later art of Matisse were fundamental to the impulses of certain artists (most of whom were born in the 1940s) to make art informed by multicultural imagery. In 1978, Goldin’s “Pattern and Print” appeared,4 as did Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon’s definitive essay, “Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture.”5 The first organized P&D exhibition, “Ten Approaches to the Decorative,” was at the Allesandra Gallery in 1976. The Holly Solomon and the Sidney Janis galleries soon became important Manhattan venues. One member, Robert Zakanitch, declared that, without P&D, postmodernism would not have occurred on the American art scene. Exaggerated as his claim may seem, there is some value in it. If all art comes from other art and new movements generally stem from a conscientious revolt against preceding ones, we have clear motives for the new art practice. But these motives do not guarantee achievement of goals, much less sustainability. One prominent aspect of postmodernism is that it chooses to quote motifs from past periods and reproduce them in strange new materials and juxtapositions. This was true architecturally for the 1980s “mannerism” of Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, Robert A.M. Stern, Robert Venturi and Charles Moore, whose Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans used stainless steel and neon tubing for classical motifs that would traditionally have been rendered in marble.6 Jane Kaufman’s feather-covered standing screen and Kim MacConnel’s overpaintings of 1940s and 1950s printed fabrics are other examples.
P&D is no longer defined as a revolutionary break from its painterly predecessors.7 However, it continues to generate interest, perhaps because of its affinity for craft and folk arts. P&D artists were interested in using patterns from various folk and craft sources to express a new approach, elevating attitudes toward “women’s work” and the decorated surface, in contradiction to Adolf Loos’s dicta8 against ornament as “primitive” and “criminal.” Not only on aesthetic grounds but also from a moral and economic perspective, he claimed that a decorated item exploited craft workers at the lower rungs of society who were not paid extra for decorating a plain surface. Operating in a post-industrial North American society, P&D artists looked to various cultures, including Islamic, Mexican and Asian, for sources of decoration. Kozloff delights in labor-intensive work for herself as maker and expects her viewers to become collaborators in reading the dense surfaces. Yet, that a work is the product of repetitious intensive labor does not guarantee that it is beautiful or useful or even decorative, whether floral/organic (as with Kushner and Zakanitch, both men) or geometric (as with Jaudon and sometimes Kozloff). Critic John Perreault “differentiated them into ‘a formal track and an emotional track.’ Their sources allowed them to pursue an investigation of beauty [as] necessary and restorative for our contemporary lives.”9

Decontextualized Decorative Motifs

European high modernism promoted the idea of the uselessness or lack of practical utility of a painting, and of the beauty implicit in pure utility—the home as a “machine for living in,” as Corbusier put it, the “less is more” aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe. In the wake of their influence, we find ourselves caught in a strange dichotomy, one that may help us to clarify the craft/fine art distinction. When fine artists turn to craft or usable art, such as ceramics that are rendered useless because they can serve only as vehicles for decoration, ironic humor replaces and challenges utility. Self-referentiality by means of allusions to other contexts and cultures is typical of postmodernism, e.g., the irony of Robert Venturi’s notion and practice of “the decorated shed” and his “less is a bore” retort to Mies.
P&D has had a more serious intent behind its playful use of decorative patterns and materials. Like Oscar Wilde, they (and we) are meant to “look deeply into the surface of things.” Dave Hickey claims: “Pattern is the mother of memory. Pattern is the mother of meaning.”10 Isn’t everything that we experience a kind of patterning? It is the stimulation of memory by the repetition inherent in pattern that then generates meaning. Perceptual learning is as cumulative as the conceptual. Scanning a work of P&D art takes time, although at first sight it may seem to be mere “eye candy.”
Decoration devoid of context, separated from its original cultural and philosophical messages, is reduced to pure visual stimulation without any apparent intellectual or philosophical meaning or cultural value, or so one might think. And therefore, it fails to fulfill the supposed responsibility of fine art—to carry forward accumulated experience within an historical evolutional stream of artistic interpretation. But the inutile—which includes the non-utility of pattern that decorates surfaces of utilitarian objects as well as the “useless” work of fine art—has a function that is mental (emotional/intellectual). And perhaps a new association is achieved in the appreciation of visual pattern—one that evokes chanting, the comfort of repetition, something beneath language, subliminal, tribal and communal, like women making quilts together. “This is a female aesthetic,” according to Kozloff. “I think women involved with public art are…making pieces that encourage viewer participation and require time to experience. I’m thinking here of artists as diverse as Jackie Ferrara and Cynthia Carlson…. My work is about that anonymous craftwork that is around, but people don’t see…. Also, non-hierarchical patterns make you think automatically of other cultures.”11
There was an opportunity to examine these ideas in practice at the recent Hudson River Museum exhibition “Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975–1985.” The exuberance of Bob Kushner’s and Bob Zakanitch’s flowery patterns, at one extreme, was set off against the austere yet humorous intricacy of Valerie Jaudon’s complex grids (which turn out not to be perfectly symmetrical). Jaudon’s Prologue (2008), a 72-inch-square white painting on buff linen, suggests the organic geometry of Celtic interlace. There was meticulous craftsmanship in Kaufman’s Embroidered Beaded Crazy Quilt (1983–85) and densely packed design and colors in Kozloff’s work. The screen and quilt are at first sight “useful” objects, yet they are too precious, too (dare we say it?) beautiful for use.

Valerie Jaudon

Not all the P&D works bear close scrutiny, that is, not all the artists are scrupulous crafters. Zakanitch’s painting is slapdash; the works look best from a distance. However, Jaudon and Kaufman are exquisitely attentive to detail; the closer one gets to the works, the more impressive their precision of execution. Jaudon’s paintings, her Pantherburn, for example, intersperse thickly impastoed oil paint with separating delineations of pencil on bare linen—a nearly impossible feat of precision that is also found in recent paintings such as Prelude.12
From a different sensibility, that of craftspeople, the recent show “Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting,” at the Museum of Arts & Design, New York City (formerly the American Craft Council Museum), raised issues of craft aspiring to the condition of fine art. We might discuss in another essay the convergence of craft and fine art in light of such historical Arts and Crafts movements as William Morris and the Omega Workshops in England, the Cuala and Dun Emer Industries in Ireland, the Weiner Werkstatte in Austria, the Bauhaus in Germany and Roycrofters in the United States. Our point would be not to treat decorative arts specifically in terms of architectural ornament, from Gothic Revival to Venturi-esque postmodernism, but to explore the function of decorativeness, with an emphasis on artists who turn to craft techniques to realize their artistic statements. Albert Paley, jeweler turned metalworker,13and Dale Chihuly, glass artist extraordinaire, are two examples of artists who derived from the world of craft. We now have fine artists who, for decades, have been using craft techniques as makers of fine art, including Rosemary Troeckel, a German fine artist who makes knitted paintings. The terms craft and craftsman, wrote Bruce Sharpe in 1983:

…are probably inappropriate to describe the activities and persons engaged in contemporary crafts. Craft implies the dominance of skill over expressive content and innovation. Both words…are used to describe skill in a variety of professions…. Perhaps the words “artisanry” and “artisan” are better suited. They avoid the pretentious, almost religious aura of profundity and heroism that contemporary criticism has made of the words “art” and “artist” and…take into account the vast activity that represents contemporary craft…. The growing application of the crafts to architecture and the involvement in painting and sculpture by craftsmen using the traditional materials of the crafts broaden the field still further.14

Collage is a shared sensibility among P&D artists. Both three-dimensional and flat-surface illusions are evident in the work. Miriam Schapiro and Kaufman literally combine pieces of fabric with other materials, while Kozloff juxtaposes disparate cultural imagery in watercolors or tiles. When craftspeople diverge from a traditional unchallenged and unexamined way of making, easing into decorative arts with a conscious, often ironic or humorously exuberant attitude, the distinction between craft and fine art seems to fade. Hybrids appear in the applied arts, as British art critic Tanya Harrod points out: “Craft practice requires an ethnography rather than an evolutionary history.”15 Perhaps the difference lies in the approach, the attitude, of the maker. What does the maker wish to experience in the process of making? What does the maker expect to produce, and what reaction (if any) does the maker expect from the audience? Yet a work of fine art has no predetermined responses or uses. It is set free for the world to value over time. It has no utilitarian use, but more importantly an intellectual and emotional resonance beyond reckoning.
Islamic tile patterns profoundly influenced several of the original P&D artists from the 1970s on. Now with fifty percent of the cultural treasures that were in the Baghdad museum gone and the great library there burnt, it is important to see what Kozloff and her contemporaries have done in deriving decorative motifs from other cultures. Is this expansive openness to other sources of patterning a particularly feminine form of generosity (albeit practiced by some male artists), a curiosity unconstrained by masculine political animosities? The issue of taking art-making from its feminine context resulted in at least two reactions. Because Eva Hesse’s work emphasized feminism as a reaction to perceived masculinity, she was constrained to using “brutal” materials and images. Jaudon’s art, however, subtly subverted the rationale of Frank Stella’s “protractor” paintings and, at the same time, deliberately aimed at beauty. She sets up order in order to subvert it; the result is both serenity and frustration.

Acts of Re-Presentation

Referring to or quoting from Islamic and other cultural uses of decorative patterns—deliberately devoid of original meanings—is an issue that presents perhaps the core of the P&D position with regard to fine art. When decorative artists turn to installations, or art in public spaces, they seem to think that this re-contextualizes the ancient designs. Because they are interested solely in appearances, and with the playful juxtaposition of clashing or contradictory sets of patterns (akin to the superimposed grids that underlie elaborate abstract Islamic patterns), they are, at their best, “making strange.” This defamiliarizing of everyday modes of perception is what the Russian linguist Viktor Shklovsky (c. 1905) described as the function of art. In making the familiar and habitual fresh again, in re-visioning, art thus moves beyond mere mimetic functions or as windows through which we perceive the already familiar phenomenal world to substantiate what we think we already know. Instead, the art experience becomes a matter of formal dominance, with content a function of the art’s form that “speaks of its own coming into being.” This argument is very close to theoretically collapsing P&D in with the best of high modernist art. There is more than one way to defamiliarize or make strange. In separating content from original cultural contexts, Kozloff, et al. seduce the eye with pattern and color that allude to other worlds, lost cultures. Devoid of coherence perhaps but nonetheless beautiful, they are, as well, feminine, non-hierarchical and non-threatening. As a mark of artistic crafting, as opposed to traditional crafting, the making strange is a fundamental function of and intention in the fine arts which enable the reader/beholder to experience things-in-the-world afresh, and thus to raise consciousness.
But what about the recent handcraft shows sponsored by the new Museum of Arts & Design (MAD) in Manhattan? “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery” and “Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting” had jokey titles. The term subversive in particular is humorous, because subversion is not the normal task of craft; it was the task of early modernism, épater la bourgeoisie. Rather it has been the privilege of fine art to subvert that which has gone before in a serious dialectic, as Romanticism reacted against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the scientific rationality of the Enlightenment had reacted intellectually against medievalism. Each era, with its unique sensibility, as expressed in and driven by the arts, represents changes of values, shifts in perceptual, conceptual, spiritual and material values. As T.S. Eliot reminds us in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” we are more fortunate than our predecessors because they had only themselves while we have them and ourselves as well. We have an increasing privilege of hindsight, a growing treasury of imagery from which to express and explore the world. To subvert, in this context, then, is a valuable and honorable activity that keeps alive awareness. To subvert knitting—as in making tiny sweaters that cannot be worn or a bodysuit, stuck through with knitting needles, that sports the words “Craft Kills”—is not true subversion, but a show of embarrassment. Such crafting hits a dead end that is neither useful nor beautiful nor informative. Such work does not advance us in our humanity, with perhaps exceptions such as Yoshiki Hishinuma’s gorgeous and wearable wool seamless knitwear, inspired by flowers. MAD’s appropriation of the words extreme, radical and subversive is, like much of the work exhibited, an unwarranted exaggeration that betrays a lack of respect for valid disciplines within the context of artisanry.

Pattern and Variation—The Mother of Memory

Dave Hickey’s comment that pattern is the mother of memory and of meaning certainly applies to literature. The value of incremental repetition in poetry, ballads, Ciceronian rhetoric, music—even advertising—is understood by practitioners of these genres, which appeal mainly to the auditory faculty. The pattern seems to gain significance with repetition in time. The eye, too, scans the decorated surface, and the spatial becomes a temporal experience. Through visual pattern—whether mosaics, paintings or ironwork—we are taken into a process of movement in space that references historical time; it takes time to perceive patterns, due to complexity and size. Time and space, of course, work together, creating harmony and counterpoint. Spatial and temporal art produces a perspectival experience, away from personal stasis, and we are caught up in the delight (or tedium) of repetition, feeling how something new and strange is becoming ours, that is, meaningful. Kozloff collages “naughty” visual imagery in her book Patterns of Desire16evoking the universality of sexual activity in a delightful array of sources for erotica, including Japanese prints. Jaudon makes visual references to Gothic pointed style arches and to mandalas and mazes. Her overlapping complex patterns seem to be perfectly balanced yet refuse to cohere within a closed system in her paintings. Her grilles in some New York City subway stations include Long Division (1988, painted steel, 12-by-60 feet), installed at the 23rd Street Station, Lexington Avenue Line in Manhattan.
Kozloff reworks motifs from historic sites, adapting to contemporary utilitarian settings imagery such as the fifth-century mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. Like Klimt, Kozloff responded to the gold mosaics of Ravenna. She produced a Gesamtkunstwerken—a total work of art—in public installations, including train stations in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. Her skill is to revivify, to invest the traditional with new life in a fresh context. The contrast often creates humor: she depicts Ben Franklin in the Pennsylvania train station in mosaics as he might have appeared in the tomb of Galla Placidia.
Nina Yankowitz, who designed unique architectural decoration in the 1980s, and ceramicist Miriam Woodman, who sometimes collaborated with Kozloff (e.g., their Purple Toucan Pitcher of 1981), pushed the boundaries of the traditional. Yankowitz’s tiled furniture and architectural ornament in boldly colored glazes in the form of lizards and other creatures had no formal connection to the architectural style of the building, while Woodman pushed the boundaries of traditional objects of utility into occasions for the form to partake of its own decorated surface. Fiber arts and fabric design also present occasions for contradiction. On the one hand, Kim MacConnel uses found pre-printed 1940-ish fabrics as supports for his applied contradictory imagery, a very different attitude from the elegance of the original fabric designs by Jack Lenor Larsen and Lenore Tawney, both formerly prominent in the American Craft Council. Their refined aesthetic is not generally carried forward by our contemporaries, judging by contributors to “Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting” and “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery.”
Today, the ego of the maker intrudes; the emphasis is too often on playing with the materials and techniques at the expense of both utility and beauty; the items are aimed at the luxury marketplace for unusable works. However, to move from making usable or useful artifacts to the useless (e.g., tiny sweaters) does not transmute craft objects into fine art. Most of the participants in these two recent exhibitions subverted only themselves and their skills as craftspeople. Thus, the items and their makers betray both Art and Craft. Why does this criticism not apply to Albert Paley (metal artist), Dale Chihuly (glass artist) or the P&D artists? The ancient Greek term techné, from which we derive our word technique, brings to mind what Jackson Pollock is reputed to have said in 1950: “Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.” That is, the technique, the crafting, is not the statement of the work of fine art. However, with craft, technique is inseparable from the statement; the medium is the subject. Craft work is about itself and its making in ways that do not apply to fine art. Who can separate the dancer from the dance? Who can separate the maker from the made, the artificer from the artifact? Have craftspeople gone from the anonymous “unknown craftsman” praised by Soetsu Yanagi to the egoism borrowed from today’s art market?
“The Art Form that Dares Not Speak Its Name,” by Carol Kino,17 re-addressed the old distinctions between craft and art. She asked, “Why has ‘craft’ become a dirty word?” and pointed out that “…a number of prominent institutions devoted to handmade arts have downplayed or dropped the word.” Since 2005, when she wrote this essay, there indeed has been what she calls “a spate of rechristenings.” The American Craft Council Museum, which opened in the 1980s on West 53rd Street, favorably placed next to MoMA’s design shop and opposite both MoMA itself and the Folk Art Museum, has changed its name to the Museum of Arts & Design and will have a new venue at Two Columbus Circle.
In contrast to these “Arts & Design” items that are self-referentially craft-oriented, the paintings and installations by P&D artists are less about their making and their makers than about translating decorative imagery into patterns of visual harmony, transcending the materials that give them substance. These artists are not constrained by any obligation to materials, techniques or content. Kozloff stated in 1985:

I think I am moving away from pattern. The Buffalo piece [Humboldt-Hospital Subway Station, 1983–84] with its scale jumps…breaking up the tight overall pattern. I broke with pattern in a different way in the Harvard Square piece [1985]. I painted an expansive landscape over the repeated pattern of the tiles, integrating the two kinds of painting through a decorative code language derived from New England Folk Art painting. I wanted it to be about art, not nature.18

The works of P&D artists still spring from a feminist motive.19 They still embody patterns of repetition and variation. Despite—or perhaps because of—the referencing of various decorative traditions from the worlds of many lives, P&D remains peculiarly American in its eclecticism.


1 In Bauhaus, 1919–1928, an exhibition catalogue (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1938), p. 16.
2 Distinctions that seemed to increase throughout the twentieth century, since William Morris’s Art and Crafts movement in England in the nineteenth century.
3 WACK! at PS1 (February 2008) was a celebration of feminist artists active from the 1970s.
4 Print Collectors Newsletter (March/April 1978).
5 Heresies IV (Winter 1978).
6 See Robert Jensen and Patricia Conway, Ornamentalism: The New Decorativeness in Architecture and Design (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982), pp. 154 ff.
7 See Christopher Miles, “Tracking Patterns: A recent septet of Pattern and Decoration exhibitions at Bergamot Station [Santa Monica] prompts a reconsideration of that once burgeoning but lately little discussed movement,” Art in America (February 2004), pp. 77–81.
8 “Ornament and Crime,” written in Vienna c. 1904. Loos was not against ornamentation, but rather the “fetish of ornament” on objects of use, including architecture, as Janik and Toulmin point out in Wittgenstein’s Vienna (New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1973), pp. 98–99.
9 See Anne Swartz’s essay in the catalogue Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975–1985 (Yonkers: Hudson River Museum), p. 15.
10 Addressing his art history seminar at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in an educational film, Art City(c. 2000).
11 Hayden Herrera, “A Conversation with the Artist,” in the catalogue Joyce Kozloff: Visionary Ornament (Boston University Art Gallery, 1985), p. 29. The exhibition ran February 20– April 6, 1986.
12 At Von Lintel Gallery, 555 West 25th Street, New York, March 6–April 12, 2008. These latest paintings have evolved into a subtle counterpoint of fragmented elements within an implicit grid. A tension evolves in the course of looking, as overall pattern transgresses each cross section, resulting in a dance between organic and geometric.
13 See his Portal Gates, installed at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C., in 1974. They are of forged, fabricated and inlaid mild steel, brass, bronze and copper. Further descriptions of his work are in Ornamentalism by Jensen and Conway, pp. 182–85.
14 “Leading Edge: New Frontiers in Crafts,” Glass Art Society Journal, 1984–85 (Corning, New York, 1985), p. 158 [reprinted from ARTSPACE (Fall 1983)]. Sharpe joined the American Crafts Council in 1982 and became its executive director. Prior to that, he was Dean of the School of Art & Design at Pratt Institute, 1974–82.
15 Tanya Harrod, “House-trained Objects: Notes Toward Writing an Alternative History of Modern Art,” Contemporary Art and the Home, edited by Colin Painter (Oxford: Berg, 2002), pp. 61, 63.
16 Introduction by Linda Nochlin (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990).
17 New York Times (March 30, 2005), p. 8.
18 Hayden Herrera, “A Conversation with the Artist,” in Joyce Kozloff: Visionary Ornament, by Patricia Johnston (Boston University Art Gallery, 1986), pp. 31–32.
19 See Thalia Gouma-Peterson, “Decorated Walls for Public Spaces: Joyce Kozloff’s Architectural Installations,” op. cit., pp. 55–56. These feminist artists share an “intentional de-mystification of art and the creative act…. [Kozloff], like other feminists, rejects the concept of the artist as a creative genius….” The author here denies early criticisms of Clifford Still, who claimed they aspired to “self-righteous heroism,” and of Donald Kuspit, who charged that “they ignore the reality of the ‘life-world.’” For the latter, see Donald B. Kuspit, “Betraying the Feminist Intention: The Case Against Feminist Decorative Art,” Arts Magazine 54 (1979), pp. 124–26.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2008, Volume 25, Number 3