"Masterpieces in Wood: American Folk Marquetry from the Hirschhorn Collection," Oct. 3, 1998-Jan. 10, 1999 at the Museum of American Folk Art, Two Lincoln Square, New York, N.Y. 10023.
"Virtuosity" is the word that comes to mind upon viewing "Masterpieces in Wood: American Folk Marquetry from the Hirschhorn Collection." Now at the Museum of American Folk Art, the exhibition surveys the exquisite art of pieced wood veneers, a fairly new subject in the study of folk art. On view is a dazzling array of delicately marquetried small picture frames, shelf clocks, game boards and boxes, as well as larger tables and chairs, a secretary, tall case clocks and a bed with enough marquetry to make your eyes cross.
European woodworkers (many of them German) brought the tradition to the U.S. in the 19th century, just as industrialization began to marginalize labor-intensive crafts. Marquetry was so time-consuming that it could never be a commercial product. Many emigrant craftsmen became carpenters or farmers, and continued making marquetry only in their spare time.The post-Civil War Gilded Age was the heyday of marquetry objects in the U.S., and ornamentation was popular up until the 1950s.
Many craftsmen, like John Bump of Stilesville, Ind., worked in marquetry as a means to show off their skills at expositions and fairs. Using parquetry (wood veneers in geometric patterns with straight lines) and ivory inlay, Bump made sure to note that he had used 2,399 pieces of wood for his checkerboard. Each dark square is a mini-checkerboard and each light one is quartered into triangles. The geometric border of the game board is surrounded by a wider border with inlaid ivory leaves and four columns, resulting in a very unusual home furnishing.
The most impressive item in the show is a secretary by a sixth-generation Yankee from Massachusetts, Frederick Hazen. He spent seven years (1862 to 1869) assembling the 21,378 pieces from over 300 kinds of wood in his spare time, while working in the Boston and Albany Railroad car shops.
The ongoing progress of Hazen's project was detailed in a local Abolitionist newspaper. Learning of the task, people sent him pieces of wood with historical significance to incorporate into his magnum opus. One bit of wood was taken from the steeple of Independence Hall; another from the USS Constitution.
The shape of the Hazen secretary is simple, while the surface decoration is wild. One of four cabinet doors shows a pear in an arch. A star surrounded by a kind of crazy-quilt pattern is on the other. Below those doors is a panel with a cupid in a chariot pulled by swans and two leaping horses before a shield. Beneath that panel is another showing a guitar. A cut-out eagle with American flags beneath its feet tops the piece. As eclectic as it is, it all goes together. If it looks familiar, its because the piece was once on loan at the Metropolitan Museum.
Around every corner there is another unusual item composed of hundreds or thousands of bits. And the ante just keeps going up! Take the stunning suite of four chairs, a card table and a master's chair from around 1930 by the Quebec-born Anthyme Leveque. This French Canadian eventually settled in Lead, S. D. He worked for Homestake Mining's Black Hills and Pierre Railroad as a laborer, millwright, then carpenter.
Leveque's bridge chairs and table (and now-missing tabouret, or backless stool) used 257,703 pieces of wood of more than 161 varieties. Their spare, stylish forms and sophisticated rhythms of light and dark patterns recall Art Deco, yet their imaginative marquetry and inlay make them spectacularly unique. All the visible screws are plated in gold from local mines, and even the undersides of the table and four chairs are covered in marquetry.
Esthetics and cultural history mingle in works throughout "Masterpieces in Wood." A violin case completely covered with abstract designs, for example, displays how important music was around 1930.
A huge tilt-top table is decorated with a Tuscan villa that could have come straight from Andrew Jackson Downing's influential book Cottage Residences, if it weren't for the fish, ducks, birds, horses, trees, shrubs and people pictured.
A puzzle box with a black cat may have been inspired by an offshoot group from a Masonic lodge, or may be a spoof on the Masons. It is one of several notable items with Masonic imagery in the show. A sideboard with turned-work, parquetry and inlay by an inmate of the Missouri State Penitentiary recalls another element of American history -- woodworking shops in prisons during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The pieces in the Hirschhorn Collection tend to be more closely related to mainstream furniture trends, more refined in execution and better preserved than many of the funkier folk pieces on the market. That said, this flamboyant assemblage makes up a lively part of the story of folk marquetry.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.