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THE TRIUMPH
OF THE BIG D

by Alexandra Anderson-Spivy
 
"Pattern and Decoration, An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975-1985," Oct. 27, 2007-Jan. 20, 2008, at the Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Avenue, Yonkers, N.Y. 10701

"PostDec: Beyond Pattern and Decoration," Nov. 9-Dec. 23, 2007, at the Joseloff Gallery, Hartford Art School, University of Hartford, 200 Bloomfield Avenue, West Hartford, Conn. 06117

Is it time for a reassessment of Pattern and Decoration, the painting movement from the 1970s known informally as "P&D"? Though a prime opportunity for a savvy major museum survey still exists for the taking, we do have two recent shows at regional museums that provide a good start.

It was over 30 years ago that the polemical passions and youthful energy of a new generation of artists propelled the goals of P&D into the limelight. Forming what turned out to be a transitory coalition, this group of disparate artists rebelled against the authority of Minimalismís dour austerities and the chilly rigors of Conceptual Art. Instead, these iconoclasts served up laces, African and Indian fabrics, fur, feathers, sequins and glitter, Orientalist arabesques and floral patterns from 1950s wallpapers.

Like generations of artists before them, they aimed to shake up a Eurocentric, male-dominated art establishment. With unfettered enthusiasm, the P&D artists took both high and low images from global cultures, and made a special point of incorporating into their work traditionally feminine materials and techniques, notably needlework and appliquť. These artists aggressively rejected the prevailing hierarchy of materials and styles and embraced what was then considered "bad taste." They adored the ironic riches of kitsch and asked, "Who says what is good taste anyway?"

This dynamic energizes "Pattern and Decoration, An Ideal Vision" at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers. Cynthia Carlson, Brad Davis, Valerie Jaudon, Jane Kaufman, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Kim MacConnel, Tony Robbin, Miriam Schapiro, Ned Smyth and Bob Zakanitch made the curatorial cut. Selecting only 35 works by those 11 artists, curator Anne Swartz focuses on a core group that, between 1975 and the early 1980s, energetically attacked any barriers between fine and decorative art. While the catalogue -- whose contributors include Arthur Danto and John Perreault -- stresses shared theoretical and ideological concerns, the exhibition accentuates the stylistic differences among the artists that existed from the start.

Today, one of the more interesting components of P&D was its challenge to male domination of the art world, which certainly motivated Miriam Schapiro. In the late 1960s when she was teaching at UC San Diego, Schapiro organized an art program that pioneered an aggressively feminist approach to overlooked materials and art practices. But feminist concerns were only one of the various engines of P&D.

The late critic Amy Golden, whose death in 1978 would deprive the artists of their most dynamic critical advocate, played a key role in providing a wide-ranging philosophical underpinning for the movement. As a visiting critic at UC San Diego, she brilliantly expanded the boundaries of art history and introduced to her students the marvels of non-western ornament. Both Kushner and MacConnel took her class. Encouraging them to "think outside the box," she got them fired up over Islamic textiles and architecture, not to mention the cultural and esthetic importance of patterning in Islamic culture.

By the end of 1974, the ideas that had begun in California found fertile ground in New York. Kushner, just back from an influential Silk Road sojourn with Golden, met Joyce Kozloff early in the fall of 1974, who introduced him to Valerie Jaudon and Miriam Schapiro. With Robert Zakanitch, who had recently started adding lavish floral patterns to his gridded abstractions, Schapiro organized a meeting (at Zakanitchís loft) of several artists interested in using alternative materials and decorative sources in their work. Later that fall, Kushner, Jaudon, Schapiro, Zakanitch, Kozloff and Tony Robbin all met at Goldenís Brooklyn apartment to continue the discussion.

P&D coalesced as a movement in what was then a freewheeling, resourceful and increasingly pluralist SoHo art scene. Lofts were still cheap, and often illegal for living. Collaborations among artists, poets, dancers, musicians and performers were commonplace, and multimedia experimentation was everywhere in the air. Like wildflowers, entrepreneurial yet idealistic alternative spaces sprang up in vacated commercial buildings.

The now-forgotten performance artist Stephen Varble, an early AIDS victim, would parade on SoHo streets in the early Ď70s wearing insanely glamorous outfits he had concocted from fabrics, sticks, soda cans, and paper he found on the SoHo streets. Dapper SoHo Weekly News critic and art gossip columnist Gregory Battcock held daft bohemian dinner parties that were videoed by Jaime Davidovitch for his public-access Artistsí Television Network. LaMonte Youngís hypnotic (some said killer boring) piano concerts went on for hours, as did Robert Wilsonís theatrical extravaganzas. For underground rock, the scene had Maxís Kansas City and, beginning in 1978, the Mudd Club on White Street in Tribeca. And a young artist barely out of SVA, Keith Haring, peppered subway stations and construction-site hoardings with his images of radiant babies and barking dogs.

The P&D artists were an integral part of all this. Kushner produced his own antic performances, such as "Kushner and Friends Eat Their Clothes," a show in which naked models wore outfits made only of fruits and vegetables. Still out west, Kim McConnell painted wild compositions cribbed from cheap Chinese clip books on collaged backgrounds he stitched up out of vintage fabrics and printed Ď50s textiles. Sometimes he covered sofas with them. I wish one of these had been in the exhibition!†

In New York, the art dealer Holly Solomon provided a commercial venue for many of the artists. In 1975 the flamboyant former actress -- Andy Warhol had painted her portrait -- and her patient husband, Horace, opened their ground floor gallery on West Broadway. Like Dorothy melting the Wicked Witch of the West with a bucket of water, Kushner, MacConnel, Davis, Smyth, Zakanitch and others who showed with Holly helped dissolve late modernismís dictatorial power and jump-start post-modernist pluralism.

Their rapid success with the public had paradoxical results, leading some critics to hurl accusations of frivolity and superficiality at the work. A few brave souls like John Perreault championed P&D, but other prominent critics were horrified. The movement got little attention either in the spartan offices of the New Criterion or in October magazineís deconstructionist enclave. The more inclusive creative vocabulary of P&D wasnít acceptable to the intellectual art establishment. †

While I was on my way to Yonkers, memories of those giddy SoHo days made me apprehensive about what Iíd find. Would the works in the show hold up? Had these former peacocks of painting faded into eccentric period pieces? The installation, which occupied two levels of the recently partly renovated Hudson River Museum, was spacious and almost too respectful, as if to tame the original radical spirit of the art. The good news is that a lot of the work has withstood the passage of time.

The fierce gender politics Miriam Schapiro embedded in her "femmages," while historically important and largely successful, by now have been sufficiently absorbed into the mainstream so that the works included here hardly seem confrontational. Nevertheless, works like Gates of Paradise (1980) and her large Heartland (1985), a heart-shaped fabric and acrylic collage made with fabric flowers scattered over cascades of interlocking painted polygons adapted from Islamic decoration, have considerable visual impact. We can see now how Schapiro used a formalist vocabulary to make woman-associated materials and motifs serve an expanded visual cause.

Valerie Jaudon is represented by three beautiful rotated grid paintings from the mid-70s that are standouts in the show, pristinely elegant in their puzzle-like complexity. Two are glowingly monochromatic and essentially graphic. The third, Yoomsuba (1973), an intricate and kaleidoscopic tour de force of interwoven multicolored grids and circles, could hold its own in any Chelsea Gallery today. These works demonstrate Jaudonís grounding in strict visual systems. Such systems of recurring forms across an allover field are both an evolution from the Minimalist grid and at the heart of operative decorative principles.

The grid makes an appearance in works by several other artists in the show, including Carlson, Kozloff and Zakanitch, who sought to adorn the grid with flowery schemes adapted from memories of his familyís old-fashioned decor. His large-scale, luscious floral and leafy grid paintings have juicy, energized brushstrokes that animate a palette of kitschy pastels, producing pictures which are still surprisingly seductive.

Joyce Kozloff, also disciple of decorative systems, was a key P&D player. Since the 1980s she has excelled in creating major decorative projects for public spaces. Her fascination with the systems of the intricate geometric patterning found in Mexican tile work, in Islamic architectural ornament and in quilts can be seen in The Wainscotting (1979-81), installed rather awkwardly in the show. Composed of 20 geometrically patterned, glazed ceramic tiles, the rectangles fit together to form a waist-high wall. Her painting, Hidden Chambers (1975-78) hangs above the tile border, echoing the star-shaped patterns in the tiles.

Unfortunately this small slice of Kozloffís work doesnít adequately convey the stunning impact of her larger public projects. The photographs of her commission at the Amtrak French Street Station in Wilmington, Del., fail to do justice to what is a complex and stunning banquet of tiled geometric forms and patterns. The tiles cover interior walls, ceiling and floors in homage to 19th-century Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, who designed the 1908 station building. Maybe a video would have done a better job?

While in Yonkers, take a side trip to Glenview, the magnificent Victorian mansion thatís part of the Hudson River Museum. Its interiors have a serendipitous connection to everything that interests Kozloff. The vast front hall, formal parlors and dining room, all restored in 1999, are an organized riot of Aesthetic Movement interior decoration, tiling and stenciling that makes a potent historical argument for the importance of the decorative systems embraced by Kozloff (and so rejected by modernism).

Robert Kushner has always aimed to overturn esthetic hierarchies, elevate the principles of decoration and integrate the wealth of non-western traditions into high art. His vivid, wide-ranging early work deserves a more diversified representation than it gets at the Hudson River Museum. The curator did include three chador-based painted fabric pieces composed of diaphanous panels awash with bold lightning and cloud patterns, and Kushnerís huge, asymmetrical Auroraís Chador (1976) is an important work. It successfully dominates an entire gallery wall.

Abandoning the rectangle and the stretcher, Auroraís Chador both mocks macho art affectations and celebrates the visual and sculptural possibilities of costume as painting and painting as costume. At Holly Solomonís 1976 exhibition of Kushnerís work, the pieces were taken off the wall and worn in the two gallery performances of the artistís "Persian Line, Part II." (NB: The current politicized association of the chador with the suppression of women gives to "Auroraís Chador" a whiff of irony that its maker, who has always sympathized with feminist causes, never intended).

Like Kushner, Brad Davis was strongly influenced by Asian and Indian art. His brightly colored, loosely brushed 1979-1981 paintings of animals, birds and fish surrounded by decorative borders was inspired by Indian folk art and textiles. Davis also studied Chinese painting and Persian miniatures and carpets. His paintings retain a certain charm but now look overly simplistic and oddly rushed. At the end of the 1970s Davis sometimes collaborated with Ned Smyth, whose pair of kitschy mosaic-inlaid columns on view here are crudely patterned with gold and black and white mosaic. These sculptures and his Leap of Faith, a stylized 1985 wall mosaic panel of a bucking horse in a landscape, are too minor to give an accurate idea of just how lavish and ambitious are his large-scale architectural installations.

Kim MacConnel has continued to be an expert in visually exploiting cross-cultural slippage, gleefully pillaging all cultures that interest him and making crazy-quilt collages out of every kind of fabric, then layering them with his zany ideograms. His work happily abolishes any surface unity and his pieces in the show have lost none of their enticingly bold spirit. I wish there was more work here by MacConnel and Kushner. Instead, we have too many paintings by Tony Robbin. I canít figure out why these fill a whole gallery.†Robbin, influenced by his years of living in Iran, explored and adapted Islamic patterning to his painting, but today his systems are more interesting to think about than to see. Meticulously executed, they now look prescriptive and repetitious. For me, at least, the thrill is gone and the paintings have retreated into a sort of tame neo-constructivist corner of art history.

Cynthia Carlson loved really thick paint but time has not made her obsessively competent paintings more compelling. The examples of her impastoed systems of repetitive brushstrokes also donít give an idea of the breadth of her work, which was essentially peripheral to, though influenced by, decorative concerns. A pioneer of site-specific installations in the 1970's, she subsequently became fascinated with insects and how they are traditionally presented in natural history museums. Neither Cynthia Carlson nor Jane Kauffman were at the core of P&D. Kauffmanís very intricate beaded and embroidered crazy quilt is intriguing. But itís little more than a really beautiful version of a 19th-century quilt. Her other work in the show, a fantastic folding screen of scintillating black and blue iridescent feathers, is a highly decorative object that Murray Moss would adore.

The artists in the Hudson River Museum show didnít seek to obliterate distinctions between art and decoration. Their goal was to revitalize art through the inclusion of decorative principles excluded by puritanical modernism. They struggled to create the ideological, intellectual and visual wedge that opened up multiple pathways in contemporary art, thus making possible the positively baroque pluralism of current approaches, materials, subjects and techniques we now take for granted. As artists continued to explore pluralistic approaches and global attitudes, Pattern and Decoration became less a separate movement than a model reinforcing the importance of decoration as an inherent aspect of how to make art.

What they fought for in the 1970s has borne amazing fruit. "PostDec: Beyond Pattern and Decoration," which was organized by Zina Davis and recently closed at the Joseloff Gallery of the Hartford College of Art, proved that P&D has morphed in a thousand ways and direction. Multicultural and multinational in reach, this exuberant exhibition has some of the irrepressible spirit that the Hudson River Museum show never manages to fully capture. The Hartford show playfully nailed the fact that legions of contemporary artists owe a huge debt to those pioneering artists of P&D. Its main emphasis was on artists from America and abroad who have embraced the concerns of the first generation and expanded the boundaries of P&D.

In "PostDec," the work by Kozloff, Kushner, MacConnel, Zakanitch and Schapiro looked absolutely fabulous. In refreshingly inventive ways, the younger artists in the show demonstrated that they no longer worry about the status of art versus design or whatever influence they choose to incorporate into their works. Their works obliterate most remaining boundaries between high and low, craft and industrial production, textile and fashion design and the decorative arts. These ideas were broadly represented and expanded upon with great vigor and imagination in works by Polly Apfelbaum, Jim Isermann, Jesse Lambert, Dinh Q. Le, Jean Lowe, Virgil Marti, Suzanne McClelland, Beatriz Milhazes, Renee Petropoulos, Lari Pittman, Eduardo Sarabia, Beverly Semmes, Yinka Shonibare, Fred Tomaselli and Hanza Turgul.

Apfelbaumís blazing pink floral floor piece is somewhere between a carpet and a painting. Jesse Lambert, not yet 30, channels Kim McConnel. His dense patterns of animal shapes, florals and vegetables in Day-Glo hues dance across spattered fields loosely derived from textile design. Shonibare cleverly satirizes cultural authenticity and blurs the lines separating art, ethnology and fashion design with life-sized figures wearing period costumes slyly made of colonialist fabrics.

Marti, a man in love with the poetry of dťcor, says, "a lamp could still be interesting, even if itís not categorized as art." He exhibited one of his signature acrylic deer-antler chandeliers and some oversized, unabashedly romantic flowery glass sconces that exploit the excess of kitsch. Eduardo Sarabia contributed a satirical installation of decorated ceramic vases painted with images of the border demimonde, while Jim Isermann has turned gallery walls into a super-graphic worthy of Danish designer Verner Panton.

Jean Lowe contributed a baroquely trailer-trash setup that included a faux carpet, elaborately pretentious chairs and a photomural of a shopping mall. The Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes is represented by one of her paintings of whirling, intertwining shapes that are like abstract colored bouquets. The Joseloff galleries crackle with high-energy color, energy and wit as the works from older and younger artists collide and interact.†††

Critic and curator Michael Duncan pointed out that †"whenever you use the D-word -- decoration -- people break into a cold sweat. Itís a radical movement that relates to Ď60s notions of breaking away from the sanctity of high art . . . . Itís incredibly celebratory. The underlying premises of the movement [was] that ornamentation is an affirmation of life. Itís getting back to an instinct that high Modernism tried to suppress or weed out of us from some puritanical reason."

The Hartford show makes clear that everything the original P&D artists championed has exuberantly leached into the mainstream. Now you can clearly see just how they built the transition from the end game of abstraction to a more inclusive view that embraces and appropriates ornament, pattern, kitsch and craft in the service of bringing new energies to art. The movement, the artists, their celebratory spirit and their inclusive attitudes, can now be acknowledged as a potent force that propelled the multi-faceted, pluralist development of late-20th-century and early-21st-century art.


ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a New York art critic who is writing the biography of the Baron de Meyer.