The Met Breuer’s exhibition makes the case that it wasn’t just an aesthetic Sottsass unleashed on the world, but a particular way of interpreting the past and imagining the future.Read More
As published in Hyperallergic on April 21, 2017
It’s not often that a fashion exhibition in New York City presents vintage garments against a backdrop of faux-wood laminate paneling, or accessorizes select pieces with clusters of hanging plants in macramé holders. But Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture, now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, takes aim at the contested territory that separates DIY practice from luxury craftsmanship. The stretch of time between the late 1960s and early 1970s is a rich moment in which to examine this theme. Though steeped in protest, the fashions and fads of this era were also frilly and decadent, luxuriant in materials and elaborate in construction — a sartorial mode that deftly underscores the exhibition’s “queerness,” both in the broad, countercultural sense, and in the more specific sense of sexual identity.
Some of the works on view could have been runway looks, had the powers-that-be at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture decided on a whim that studded denim was suddenly an acceptable medium. The broad message of the exhibition seems to be that do-it-yourself doesn’t have to mean making something sloppy or shoddy. Contrary to the punk aesthetic, which valorizes a certain duct-taped, improvised nonchalance, many of the garments and accessories displayed in Counter-Couture are exquisite, even obsessive in their design and fabrication, like the embroidered ensemble that Mary Ann Schildknecht created while serving time in an Italian prison, where skilled nuns taught her to stitch. These pieces may be labors of love, but they don’t say “amateur hour.”
Counter-Couture premiered at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington in the fall of 2015. It was organized by guest curator Michael Cepress, a Seattle-based fashion designer who specializes in menswear. Quoted in the exhibit’s press release, Cepress points to his discovery at age 15 of Alexandra Jacopetti Hart’s 1974 book Native Funk & Flash, which captured his imagination and inspired him to launch what would become a 15-year process of researching counterculture fashion. Since the late 1990s, Cepress has personally reached out to scores of makers across the United States and painstakingly assembled the garments and collateral material on view in Counter-Couture.
The exhibition, displayed on two floors of the museum, is divided into five sections: “Funk & Flash,” “The 1974 Levi’s Denim Art Contest,” “Couture,” “Performance,” and “Psychedelic Style.” Each section exudes what Cepress characterizes as a “vital stream of passion, ideas, and artist activists who chose fashion to help create a better world for us all” — a sentiment that rings as true in 2017 as it did in 1967. The visual language of protest appears here in overt forms, like Michael Fajans’s frenetically colorful and aggressively stitched “Hand Embroidered and Applique Army Coat” from 1967, which I read as symbolic of the countless battlefield injuries occurring in Vietnam. Other pieces are subtler, like the bright red dashiki dress from 1970, a symbol of Black pride, which is displayed next to one of the exhibition’s priceless finds: a Simplicity pattern for dashiki shirts from 1972, with an illustration that shows a young black couple in the foreground and a white couple in the background.
The counterculture-ness on display here is ultimately about fighting conformity, which comes across most powerfully in terms of gender and sexuality. The artists and designers who made these garments were, for the most part, raised in the 1950s, on a steady diet of postwar suburban etiquette and ideals. In one of the exhibition’s displays of printed ephemera, a 1967 photograph of Hibiscus (born George Edgerly Harris II), founder of The Cockettes, shows a relatively clean-cut young man with blond hair wearing a turtleneck sweater, gently placing a flower in the barrel of a military police officer’s gun. As associate curator Barbara Paris Gifford notes, Hibiscus was almost “preppy” in his youth. It’s bittersweet to note that just a few years later, in full hair and makeup, he would radiate androgynous, psychedelic splendor — which is captured in the magnetic films that are projected in a continuous loop on the opposite gallery wall — and a few years after that, in May 1982, he would die of AIDS. Hibiscus has long held cult status among fashion cognoscenti, and a 2003 profile in T Magazine by Horacio Silva counts Viktor & Rolf and John Galliano among the contemporary designers who revere his creativity and talent. (The article was published prior to the 2011 anti-semitic tirade that cost Galliano his post at Christian Dior.) And this is far from the only connection between the hippie commune and the runway: Another example is Yvonne Porcella’s patchwork gowns from 1972, which appear to presage the peasant silhouettes in Yves St. Laurent’s much-beloved 1976 “Russian” collection.
Most of the works in Counter-Couture are visually of a piece. Fur collars, body jewelry, a faintly Biblical ensemble worn by Father Yod from the Source Family, and the album cover from the original cast recording of Hair all set the scene in a cohesive way, along with some smart atmospheric touches from MAD’s team, like walls of hanging beads and a lush classic-rock soundtrack. Gifford also added works from MAD’s permanent collection that predate those in the show, which adds visual and temporal layers to the installation. One particular work that seems ahead of its time is Mildred Fischer’s linen wall piece “Daydream,” from 1965.
For me, though, the highlight of the exhibition is the work of San Francisco designer Kaisik Wong (1950–90). Wong’s aesthetic, which could best be described as “outer space/regal,” stands apart from the hippie coats and peasant dresses on view, and it easily passes the test of time as a thoroughly original body of work. Try to imagine that someone crossed highly structured examples of Elizabethan court dress with costumes from the movie Xanadu, and you’re almost there. Indeed, Wong’s creations read as cinematic costumes more than fashion: They’d look right at home in Logan’s Run, Labyrinth, or, if you squint a bit, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Like Hibiscus, Wong died of AIDS at a tragically young age, and although his clients included the likes of Tina Turner, Elton John, and Salvador Dalí (who commissioned his 1974 “Ray” series), his work didn’t enter the mainstream fashion world during his lifetime. This could well be for practical reasons: His 1974 “Yellow and Green Ray Dress and Headdress” from the “Seven Ray” series, a Paul Poiret–like garment that resembles a glittering peapod, seems more likely to influence moviemakers and stylists than merchandisers looking for the next workaday, wearable look. (Although one of Wong’s jackets was notoriously plagiarized by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga in 2010.)
From Wong’s work, to the wild, androgynous jewelry of partners in love and life Alex and Lee, to Billy Shire’s studded “Welfare” jacket (winner of the Levi’s Denim Art Contest) — it all reads a bit like the left-behind artifacts of a final Summer of Love, just before AIDS destroyed a generation of gay men. This isn’t explicitly referenced in the exhibition, as its chronology stops just short of the end of the disco era. But Counter-Couture offers a new way to think about the lasting legacy of the counterculture movement. To be sure, there were plenty of middle-class American teens for whom long hair, casual sex, drugs, concerts, and macramé were understood in the context of pleasure, suburban rebellion, and cool-kid trends. But the ’60s and ’70s also set the stage for a genuinely radical transformation in the way we read and understand the visual cues of gender and sexuality, many of which are, in part, fashion choices. Only an exhibition that considers vernacular material could do this: It wouldn’t make sense at a Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute show about the ’60s and ’70s that featured Pucci shifts, space-age Courreges hats, or Halston ultrasuede wrap dresses. Fashion’s queering during the counterculture is an overlooked preamble to so much of what we think and talk about with regard to gender and culture today. Men with long hair may have been sporting a visual rejection of “square” society, but they were also (perhaps unwittingly) paving the road for queer identities to be seen, recognized, and even celebrated in fashion and society at large.
Leave it to a former professional studio potter to organize a wide-ranging exhibition of postwar ceramics that’s relatively free of hangups about form and function. The Ceramic Presence in Modern Art: Selections from the Linda Leonard Schlenger Collection, currently on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, demonstrates connections of various sorts between works in clay and paintings, drawings, and other forms of sculpture from the period. The exhibition’s core material, and its initial inspiration, is the collection of Linda Leonard Schlenger, one of the world’s foremost collectors of post–World War II American ceramics. Works from the Schlenger collection are juxtaposed with paintings, sculpture, and other ceramics from Yale’s own collection. For the most part, pottery in its most traditional form plays the role of the genre that wasn’t there, while sculptural works explore volume and the vessel form in various media. The exhibition was curated by Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II director of the gallery, and Sequoia Miller, a doctoral candidate in art history at Yale. Before returning to graduate school, Miller was a full-time studio potter — a pedigree that gives him rich material insight into the subject at hand. The exhibition comprises 233 objects, ranging from small, exquisite ceramic vessels by George Ohr to a towering bronze by Martin Puryear. It occupies two floors in Yale’s elegant galleries (housed, appropriately enough, in a 1953 Brutalist building by Louis Kahn, who taught in the Architecture school) and offers visitors an unpretentious banquet for the eyes.Read More
On or off stage, dancers always seem to hold their bodies in that instantly recognizably trained posture: heads held high, backs straight, no trace of a slouch. They look as though they’re being pulled gently upward by an invisible force, even when doing the most quotidian tasks. That hard-to-emulate quality — the very antithesis of the hunched-over pose we adopt while squinting into our smartphones — is probably best defined as “grace.”Read More
Remember when an evening at a Broadway musical required scurrying past seedy, adults-only shops and all manner of colorful entrepreneurs on the way to the theater? If your impression of Times Square dances with Disney characters and shiny retail meccas, you probably don’t remember. But Michael Riedel’s new book, “Razzle Dazzle,” brings this gritty world back to life. His history of Broadway in the 1970s and ’80s paints a candid and thoroughly entertaining portrait of the period just after New York theater’s golden age. Money for artistic endeavors was scarce, and the city seemed adrift in economic and social turmoil. Broadway, Riedel argues, was both a beneficiary of and a critical factor in the city’s astonishing transformation in the following decades.Read More
It’s an illuminating mental exercise to ponder: what if Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the pharmaceutical tycoon and physician who assembled an unmatched collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings in Philadelphia, was actually an installation artist before his time? This is the central conceit that inspired The Order of Things, now in its final days at the Barnes Foundation. Curated by Drexel University art history professor Martha Lucy, the exhibition comprises three distinct installations by Mark Dion, Judy Pfaff, and Fred Wilson. It also includes a re-creation (with original objects) of the “Dutch Room” from the original Barnes site in Lower Merion as it looked from its inception, in 1925, until it was dismantled to make way for an ADA-mandated elevator in the 1990s.Read More
Chances are, you’re more familiar with Eve Arnold’s photographs than you are with the photographer herself, who died at the age of 99 in 2012. Arnold’s images, published in an array of legendary periodicals including Life and London’s Sunday Times, captured the big personalities of her day in moments of reflection and unguarded repose. Joan Crawford receives spa treatments and gets fitted for a new dress; Malcolm X reclines with his hands cradling the back of his head; Marilyn Monroe applies makeup in a bathroom mirror; Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton relax at a pub in Shepperton, England, enjoying a respite from Burton’s work on the set of “Becket.” Arnold traveled on assignment to China, Russia, South Africa and Afghanistan, photographing weddings, hospitals, picnics, schools and street scenes. Over the course of her career, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire, named a master photographer by the International Center of Photography in New York, and given a lifetime achievement award by the American Society of Magazine Photographers. You’ve seen many of Arnold’s images before, but you might not know that the woman who shot them was a Long Island housewife until she took her first photography class at the age of 38 in 1950.Read More
New Yorkers could be forgiven this month for confusing their museum itineraries with the schedule of a vintage film festival, or an Anna May Wong-inspired Netflix binge. Two exhibitions, China: Through the Looking Glass at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men at the Museum of the Museum of the Moving Image each make manifest (if not exactly “real”) cultural phenomena that are likely to be more familiar to visitors from something they’ve seen on TV or in the movies than from something they’ve encountered in a museum or a gallery. Aesthetically, conceptually, and in terms of their scope and scale, these two exhibitions could not be more different. But in their own ways, each one is a zeitgeist-tapping synthesis of the layered artistic and cultural influences that inspire screenwriters, and fashion designers, to evoke semi-fictional times and places in their creations.Read More
NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial is the closest thing you’ll find to a crowd-sourced exhibition on view in New York right now — perhaps anywhere. Conceived during his first weeks on the job last fall by the Museum of Arts and Design’s (MAD) new director, Glenn Adamson, the show was organized at lightning speed, by museum standards: eight months. A brain trust of 300 leaders from New York’s cultural community nominated a pool of artists, designers, and fabricators of various sorts, which was then winnowed to about 100 participants by a jury that included Adamson, the exhibition’s curator, Jake Yuzna, and MAD Chief Curator Lowery Stokes Sims. About 80% of the participants are new to MAD, which lends this show a sense of possibility about the talent that lies just beyond this museum’s doorstep.Read More
There are two public works on view in the Northeast right now by the Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse. One, in Philadelphia, zips past as you ride a moving train; the other, in Brooklyn, inspires you to stand still and look closely. Both works introduce unexpected bursts of saturated color into ordinary, even dreary urban settings.Read More
The first thing you see when you enter Collective design fair at the Moynihan Station Skylight space is a mini-exhibition of work by Hella Jongerius, organized by Murray Moss and Franklin Getchell of design think tank Moss Bureau. The presentation includes a group of stuffed “Quilted Vases” (2006) by the Berlin-based Dutch designer. These rather cozy versions of Jongerius’s famed “Red White Vase” from 1997 tell you that this is not a deadly serious presentation for expert eyes only. The pair of well-behaved live chickens at the center of Dienst + Dotter’s booth confirms this hunch.Read More
On the afternoon that I visited the 2014 Whitney Biennial, I caught sight of a high school group being led through the exhibition by an engaging young arts educator. I slowed down as our paths converged on three large ceramic sculptures by the Los Angeles–based artist Sterling Ruby. Each one is roughly the size of a major appliance, hand-built, and covered with bold, exaggerated finger marks. Every square inch is uneven, almost obsessively so. The color palette of the glazes ranges from brilliant copper red to soft black and army green. Forms that faintly resemble tools and pieces of wood, garage or workshop detritus, appear at the center of each vessel, as though partly submerged in mud and left to set. The group stared, intrigued, brows furrowed with puzzlement. “This is an artist who uses his mistakes,” the docent gamely suggested. I was so tempted to interrupt and ask the students what they thought about the pieces that I had to redirect myself towards the nearby Sheila Hicks installation before things got really awkward.Read More