Museum Exhibitions

Surface, flourish, complexity at the Hessel Museum

Sylvia Sleigh, The Turkish Bath, 1973, Oil on canvas, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Purchase, Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions, 2000.104

Contributed by Anne Swartz / Since its origins in the 1970s, practitioners and advocators of the Pattern and Decoration movement have countered claims that ‘decorative’ art lacked seriousness. In America at the time, critical arguments focused on the exhaustion of painting, positioning it as an outmoded visual form. Several artists resisted this affront. Instead, they embraced images for their pleasure, opposing the notion of immediacy often considered synonymous with other mediums such as photography. They extended many tenets of Minimalism, relying on its scale and grid while also sourcing from the wider world of art and craft. Handicrafts proved viable despite being routinely disparaged as ‘women’s work’. Surface, flourish, complexity, aesthetic variation and mutating patterns provided analogies for countercultural revolutions, as well as a path away from the ideological fervor of Modern art’s transcendence. The survey exhibition “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985” explores the visual spectrum of the movement, challenging the sobriety of modernist art history.[1] 

First shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the exhibition is curated by Anna Katz with the museum’s Assistant Curator Rebecca Lowery. It is Katz’s first foray as curator of a major museum exhibition and demonstrates the breadth of her ambitions as well as the depth of her convictions: it features forty-five artists including some who explored similar sources, issues, and images yet did not connect to P&D proper. Perhaps most compellingly, Katz transmits her mettle in the scope of a 328-page catalogue, which includes primary sources in artist statements and critical writings, alongside new essays and extensive biographical and bibliographic material. In its second iteration at the Hessel Museum of Art, the exhibition occupies several galleries with paintings, sculptures, collages, ceramics, textiles, installation art, performance documentation and text statements, in a mostly faithful repetition of the show in Los Angeles.[2] 

Jane Kaufman, Embroidered, Beaded Crazy Quilt, 1983–85, embroidered thread and beads on quilted fabric, 94 by 82 inches

With Pleasure is one of several exhibitions in recent years focusing on Pattern and Decoration.[3] In contrast, this exhibition adopts a more scholarly approach in its expansive approach to the movement, and the curators broadly focus on how decoration fits into recent American artists, with the inclusion of several surprises and outliers. Notably, it centers the second-wave feminist movement in understanding Pattern and Decoration, locating artists such as Mary Grigoriadis (born 1942), Pat Lasch (born 1944), Ree Morton (1936-77), Sylvia Sleigh (1916–2010) and Barbara Zucker (born 1940) as main figures, in contrast to their traditionally tangential status. A particularly inspired inclusion is Sleigh’s Turkish Bath, a large-scale painting in which the artist recasts the female characters of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Turkish Bath (1862; Louvre, Paris) as a group of contemporary male art critics, including her husband Lawrence Alloway. The scene is indicative of her concerns: an underscored romanticism and sentimentality in the revision of historical sources, as well as a love of patterning and how she employed it. The exhibition also features a number of artists working with quilting traditions, such as Al Loving (1935–2005), Sam Gilliam (born 1933), Faith Ringgold (born 1930), Miriam Schapiro (1923–2015) and Emma Amos (1937–2020). In her excellent catalogue essay, ‘Lessons in promiscuity: patterning and the new decorativeness in art of the 1970s and the 1980s’, Katz notes quilting as a way out of ‘hard-edge[d] geometric abstraction’ (page 31). For Schapiro, it added to the sentimental feeling she wanted in her work; for Loving, such objective forms dissected uniformity and conformity. The inclusion of Embroidered, Beaded Crazy Quilt by Jane Kaufman is a stunning tribute to the historical significance of quilts, and the intricate work recalls the labour of anonymous women. Although quilts became fashionable with the rise of feminism, it took events such as the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts to signal a recognition of craft practices. 

Valerie Jaudon, Bellfontaine, 1976, metallic pigment and oil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches, McNay Art Museum, Museum purchase

Many Pattern and Decoration artists relied on abstracted or simplified geometric patterns to achieve non-hierarchical, non-elitist and non-transcendental art. Their use of the modernist grid evokes the past while simultaneously suggesting futurity; it revealed a gap between decoration and formalism, offering range, abstraction and representation. In her work Bellfontaine , Valerie Jaudon (born 1945) rotates the grid, resulting in forms that appear multifaceted and almost kaleidoscopic. Complexity is also a hallmark of Tony Robbin’s (born 1943) paintings. In the Japanese Footbridge of 1972, colored washes, overlapping elements and patterned forms decorate the surface. It summons Claude Monet’s meditations at Giverny, while the palette captures the subtleties of Japanese kimono textile patterns. 

Robert Kushner, Fairies, 1980, acrylic on cotton, 99 × 135 inches, Image courtesy of the Marieluise Hessel Collection, Hessel Museum of Art, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

Robert Kushner (born 1949) paints using the vocabulary of the beautiful. This exhibition incorporates video documentation of his fashion shows and floating drapes with painted fabric, a standard material, based on chadors he saw in Iran and Afghanistan. Fairies showcases a series of feminized faces each rendered in saturated primary colors, peering out from lush foilage, the three cotton panels, hung adjacent and then adorned with fabric tassels in pink at the top and pink and white at the bottom, accentuating the decorative aspects of the art.  It’s an image reminding the viewer of a theatrical scene with nymphs peeking out as in an operatic, balletic, or cabaret performance. Joyce Kozloff’s Striped Cathedral is a horizontal, rectangular format painting that depicts ornaments from Mexican cathedral facades, using spatial progression as a signifier of travel. The exhibition also features components from her renowned installation An Interior Decorated (1978–80), in which she probed intriguing decorative motifs in a room-size environment, including a large floor tile, vertical tile pilasters and silk hangings. She actively discussed openly appropriating her sources in encyclopedic fashion from every place she visited and all books she read.

Joyce Kozloff, Striped Cathedral, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 180 inches, Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York

Indeed, appropriation is a key obstacle in the interpretation of this exhibition.[4] Katz rightly calls artists to task for eliding institutional critique on race and ethnicity while at the same time campaigning for a reassessment of ‘pejorative genderbased associations with decoration’ (page 47).  Katz’s questioning begins a necessary conversation, as does her useful revision with artists usually considered independent of P&D, such as Sam Gilliam, Frank Stella, Betty Woodman, among others.  Yet, a clear auguring exists in what the artists did.  Many young artists, including artists of color and artists identifying as queer–claim P&D as a significant influence bespeaking the value–and welcomed complications–the movement brought to an (arguably) exhausted avant-garde.

Pattern and Decoration artists made art in an ecosystem – in an art world that rebuked them for eschewing labels of high and low culture and embracing a plethora of visual material outside of their immediate experience. This exhibition spotlights contemporary art addressing issues, themes, and forms still crucial and compelling. The large scale of the exhibition and the catalogue focus attention on art still prompting conversation and questions. Pattern and Decoration sought to level the field by erasing the distinction between low and high values and incorporating widely divergent motifs, leading to new visual thrills.

With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985,” curated by Anna Katz with Rebecca Lowery. Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, New York. Through November 28, 2021.

Artists include:
Neda Alhilali (b. 1938, Cheb, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic); lives in Los Angeles)
Emma Amos (b. 1938, Atlanta; d. 2020, Bedford, New Hampshire)
Ralph Bacerra (b. 1938, Garden Grove, California; d. 2008, Los Angeles)
Tony Bechara (b. 1942, San Juan, Puerto Rico; lives in New York)
Lynda Benglis (b. 1941, Lake Charles, Louisiana; lives in New York; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Ahmedabad, India)
Billy Al Bengston (b. 1934, Dodge City, Kansas; lives in Venice, California, and Honolulu)
Cynthia Carlson (b. 1942, Chicago; lives in New York)
Lia Cook (b. 1942, Ventura, California; lives in Berkeley, California)
Brad Davis (b. 1942, Duluth, Minnesota; lives in New York)
Merion Estes (b. 1938, Salt Lake City; lives in Los Angeles)
Sam Gilliam (b. 1933, Tupelo, Mississippi; lives in Washington, DC)
Tina Girouard (b. 1946, DeQuincy, Louisiana; d. 2020, Cecilia, Louisiana)
Nancy Graves (b. 1939, Pittsfield, Massachusetts; d. 1995, New York)
Mary Grigoriadis (b. 1942, Jersey City, New Jersey; lives in New York)
Diane Itter (b. 1946, Summit, New Jersey; d. 1989, Bloomington, Indiana)
Valerie Jaudon (b. 1945, Greenville, Mississippi; lives in New York and East Hampton, New York)
Jane Kaufman (b. 1938, New York; d. 2021, Andes, New York)
Joyce Kozloff (b. 1942, Somerville, New Jersey; lives in New York)
Robert Kushner (b. 1949, Pasadena, California; lives in New York)
Pat Lasch (b. 1944, New York; lives in New York and Palm Desert, California)
Al Loving (b. 1935, Detroit; d. 2005, New York)
Kim MacConnel (b. 1946, Oklahoma City; lives in Encinitas, California)
Constance Mallinson (b. 1948, Washington, DC; lives in Los Angeles)
Susan Michod (b. 1945, Toledo, Ohio; lives in Chicago)
Ree Morton (b. 1936, Ossining, New York; d. 1977, Chicago)
Judy Pfaff (b. 1946, London; lives in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York)
Howardena Pindell (b. 1943, Philadelphia; lives in New York)
Faith Ringgold (b. 1930, New York; lives in Englewood, New Jersey)
Tony Robbin (b. 1943, Washington, DC; lives in New York and Gilboa, New York)
Sandra Sallin (b. 1940, Los Angeles; lives in Los Angeles)
Lucas Samaras (b. 1936, Kastoria, Greece; lives in New York)
Miriam Schapiro (b. 1923, Toronto; d. 2015, Hampton Bays, New York)
Dee Shapiro (b. 1936, New York; lives in Great Neck, New York)
Kendall Shaw (b. 1924, New Orleans; d. 2019, Brooklyn, New York)
Alan Shields (b. 1944, Herrington, Kansas; d. 2005, Shelter Island, New York)
Arlene Slavin (b. 1942, New York; lives in New York)
Sylvia Sleigh (b. 1916, Llandudno, Wales; d. 2010, New York)
Ned Smyth (b. 1948, New York; lives in Shelter Island, New York)
Frank Stella (b. 1936, Malden, Massachusetts; lives in New York)
Franklin Williams (b. 1940, Ogden, Utah;lives in Petaluma, California)
William T. Williams (b. 1942, Cross Creek, North Carolina; lives in New York and Woodbridge, Connecticut)
Betty Woodman (b. 1930, Norwalk, Connecticut; d. 2018, New York)
Takako Yamaguchi (b. 1952, Okayama, Japan; lives in Santa Monica, California)
Robert Zakanitch (b. 1935, Elizabeth, New Jersey; lives in Yonkers, New York)
Barbara Zucker (b. 1940, Philadelphia; lives in New York and Burlington, Vermont)

NOTES

[1] Catalogue: With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985. Edited by Anna Katz, with contributions by Elissa Auther, Anna Katz, Alex Kitnick, Rebecca Skafsgaard Lowery, Kayleigh Perkov, Sarah-Neel Smith and Hamza Walker. (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2019). $65 (Hardback). ISBN: 978–0–30023–994–2.

[2] The Los Angeles venue had ten galleries and the New York location has 14 galleries.  The two exhibitions occupy almost the same square footage.  A difference in the facilities involves the windows and natural light in the New York site.

[3] For example, Surface/Depth: The Decorative After Miriam Schapiro, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, (March 22 – September 9, 2018); The Neo-Victorians: Contemporary Artists Revive Gilded-Age Glamour, Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York (February 10 – May 13, 2018); and Revival: Contemporary Pattern & Decoration, Longwood Art Gallery, Bronx (April 4 – June 6, 2018).  Two traveling exhibitions in Europe explored the movement from a scholarly perspective, yet neither employed as comprehensive an approach: Pattern and Decoration: Ornament as Promise opened at Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst Aachen in September 2018 went to Vienna and Budapest subsequently; and Pattern, Decoration and Crime, originated by MAMCO, Genève (October 10, 2018 –March 2, 2019) moved to Le Consortium, Dijon. Other exhibitions exploring related themes include Less Is a Bore: Maximalist Art & Design (June 26 –September 22, 2019) and the touring Arts Council exhibition Criminal Ornamentation curated by Yinka Shonibare, which opened at Attenborough Arts Centre, Leicester in September 2018.

[4] For more detail on appropriation in the Pictures Generation, a movement that did directly engage with appropriation, and the overlap with Pattern and Decoration Art, see J. Sorkin: ‘Patterns and pictures: strategies of appropriation 1975–85’, Burlington Contemporary issue 1 (May 2019), doi.org./10.31452/bcj1.patterns.sorkin.  The limitation of this discourse about appropriation stems from its incompleteness. A decolonial reading of a movement such as P&D would counter its essentialist version of feminism and require deconstructing how the utilization of non-western and indigenous cultural material relied on exoticization and Ethnocentrism, typical of the avant-garde artists in that era.

About the author: Anne Swartz is Professor of Art History at Savannah College of Art and Design.

Related posts:
How Pattern and Decoration broadened the artworld’s horizon
Catalogue essay: Elisabeth Condon’s flowers and the visionary impulse
Jaudon: Greater incident and interest
More Pattern & Decoration in Hartford


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