Artists and Designers Tell New Stories of Old Silver

The difference between two high-profile silver collections now on view is that Tiffany’s tips its hat to Pop Art with a Warholian inflection, while New York Silver: Then and Now mines history to produce something totally original.

Myra Mimlitsch-Gray “Magnification: Engraving” (2017) (image courtesy of the artist and the Museum of the City of New York)

Silver took a star turn late last year, as Tiffany & Company’s collection “Everyday Objects,” designed by the firm’s chief artistic officer Reed Krakoff, made headlines. Some of them have been choice: the New York Daily News offers commentary on “6 Ridiculous ‘Everyday’ Items from Tiffany & Co.” Fortune notes, with implied humor, that “Tiffany & Co. Is Selling a $1,000 Tin Can.” According to People Magazine, “Tiffany & Co. Just Released a Home Line That Includes a $9,000 Ball of Yarn.” And my personal favorite, oddly, comes courtesy of Fox News: “Tiffany & Co’s ‘Everyday Objects’ line confuses people with $9,000 ball of yarn” — as succinct a description of contemporary art as I’ve read in a good while. Nearly every headline about this series I’ve come across offers a short description of an object for sale and its retail price, letting the comic absurdity of the pairing do all the heavy lifting. A sterling silver tin can for £945? How ridiculous! The Fox headline inadvertently captures the meta-ness of Krakoff’s project: it is meant, whether you view it favorably or critically, to be vexing. The objects are not “everyday,” nor are they exactly precious — except their material is, but their designs are too quotidian to merit real “heirloom silver” status. No one has ever needed a sterling silver Chinese takeout container. (In its defense, it functions as a pill box.)

Tiffany and Co., “Sterling Silver Ball of Yarn” (2017) from the “Everyday Objects” collection (courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York)

In contrast to the Tiffany & Co. collection, the exhibition New York Silver, Then and Now currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York, offers a rare opportunity to reconsider both silver’s historical meaning, and what it means today. New York Silver curated by Jeannine Falino, pairs exceptional pieces from the museum’s permanent collection with works that were created for the show by twenty-five prominent New York artists and designers. Falino devised the exhibition when the Museum’s former director, Susan Henshaw Jones, approached her with an idea for a silver show drawn from the collection. Falino suggested adding a twist. She told Hyperallergic:

In order to make the show more fun for today’s audiences, and to bring attention to the museum’s collection, while shining a light on major talent in the New York area, I proposed a show with a “then and now” approach.”

This strategy is quite current. Artists and designers are invited regularly to stage “interventions” in museum period rooms with their own work. In these pairings and interventions, where historic examples of decorative arts play the straight man, and works of contemporary art riff on the old material, success tends to be defined as the ability to draw the attention of museum visitors, particularly younger ones, into exhibitions that might otherwise suffer from a perception of “fustiness.” For Falino, this is a supply-side concern as much as one of audience engagement, which is partly why she wanted to work with contemporary makers on this show. While MFA programs in metals today are still teaching students to raise vessels (“raising” is the term for fabricating a bowl or cup from a flat sheet of metal), making hollowware is time consuming and challenging, and, Falino says, “few are willing to make it without committed buyers.”

Installation view of New York Silver, Then and Now at the Museum of the City of New York

Metalsmithing is almost always an expensive endeavor because precious metals are costly. MFA programs are tending to focus a bit more on the making of jewelry, which, in addition to requiring less metal to fabricate — depending on the piece — has a practically limitless market. Added to this is the fact that households have changed, and sterling silver has struggled to find a comfortable place in the postwar American home. “American domestic life has undergone major social changes over the last forty to fifty years,” says Falino, “such that more people eat on the run, and fewer put the energy into hosting dinners with the ‘best’ dishes and the ‘good’ silver.” The phrase Falino uses to characterize this dynamic is a gender-specific variation on a classic Oldsmobile tagline: “My goal for the exhibition was to reanimate the conversation about ‘grandmother’s silver’ and demonstrate that silversmiths today are engaged in making vital and exciting forms using a medium that is as lustrous and versatile as ever.”

Installation view of New York Silver, Then and Now at the Museum of the City of New York

It’s not an accident that silver makes us think of grandma, whether or not our own personal grandmas actually collected, used, or displayed silver — most of them may not have. But grandmothers are culturally coded as the keepers of domestic tradition. “Grandmother’s silver” may actually be silver-plate rather than sterling, but the phrase still sounds rather refined. The works in Falino’s exhibition are designed to upend this idea, but they largely do so with a posh accent. The contemporary works range from subtle to campy, which makes them good analogs to silver from different time periods — colonial silver looks positively minimalist when compared with the flamboyant spectacle of a Victorian presentation vase. There are some witty takes on forms of hollowware that have long fallen out of regular use.

Constantin Boym and Kaminer Haislip, “Pillinger,” (2017) (image courtesy of the artist and the Museum of the City of New York)

In response to John Hastier’s lovely 1750 silver porringer (a small bowl with a decorative handle), the industrial designer Constantin Boym and silversmith Kaminer Haislip created the “Pillinger,” a small dish whose handle is decorated with a design of round and oblong pills. In an ode to the material, the artist Myra Mimlitsch-Gray created a sculptural work called “Magnification: Engraving,” (2017) that looks like a of a block of linoleum (or an exceptionally smooth container of ice cream) with scoops of material gouged from its gleaming surface. An unintelligible but clear design is left in their wake. We learn from the gallery notes that the “magnified engraving” referred to in the title is that of an early 18th-century tankard by Benjamin Wynkoop, which is displayed right next to Mimlitsch-Gray’s piece. “Magnification: Engraving” invites us to appreciate how sumptuous and rich the material of silver is, and how intensely, even violently, it’s manipulated in the process of silversmithing.

For me, the most moving and thoughtful pairing is a dialogue between two silver spoons. A memorial spoon by the silversmith Cornelius Vander Burch is delicately engraved in memory of Nicholas van Rensselaer, a prominent Dutch Reformed clergyman. Van Rensselaer’s father was an Amsterdam diamond and pearl merchant who was instrumental in the founding of New Netherland in 1630, and was a co-founder of the Dutch West India Company. The spoon bears the year of van Rensselaer death, 1678. In response to the spoon (and perhaps to all that colonial silver represents) the designer Sheila Bridges created a spoon entitled “Tarnished” (2017), in recognition and memory of the enslaved people of the Americas. The spoon’s handle is engraved with a dense geometric pattern that occupies the entire surface. On close inspection, the engraving is revealed as an aerial view of a slave ship, showing scores of enslaved people shackled, one after another, in tight quarters. The spoon’s bowl features an image of an enslaved man which was first used by Quaker abolitionists in 1780s London, with the text “Am I not a man and a brother?” (This design was used in a famous anti-slavery medallion made by Wedgwood in 1787.)

“Tarnish” by Sheila Bridges, fabricated by Susan Kay Walker, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and the Museum of the City of New York)

In “Tarnish,” the silver spoon is a rich metaphor, and a twist on the concept of inherited wealth: inherited exploitation. There are numerous contemporary artists, particularly Fred Wilson, whose “Mining the Museum” work explores the literal and metaphorical connections between colonial wealth and material culture, and the human labor and suffering that undergirded it all. What makes Bridges’ project especially fascinating is that unlike Wilson, she’s not a contemporary artist, but a well-known interior designer. She designed Bill Clinton’s harlem offices, has published a best-selling memoir, and her fabric pattern Harlem Toile has been used not only to line walls and upholster furniture, but also has been fashioned into into dresses and skirts. In a sense, the gesture of a designer creating a work of political art in a decorative tradition captures the way in which the slave trade informed design and interiors while it was active: it didn’t stand apart, but was woven into the experience of daily life, as design often is, and was thus more insidious.

Having viewed the works in New York Silver, Tiffany’s everyday objects aren’t all that confusing, after all. (Sorry, Fox News.) The objects’ collective punchline lies in the mismatch of materials: the silver ball of yarn which — for $9000 — cannot be “used,” except aesthetically, or the silver “tin can” that gives its source object a luxury makeover but would be totally impractical for food storage. The joke is to assign an heirloom metal to throwaway culture, glorifying its wasted preciousness like a movie villain lighting his cigar with a hundred dollar bill.

Ulysses Grant Dietz, Chief Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts Emeritus at the the Newark Museum tells Hyperallergic that “Everyday Objects” fits a familiar pattern of Tiffany seeking the attention of customers who covet the company’s “blue bag” cachet rather than the timeless quality of the objects manufactured in its Gilded Age heyday. Tiffany’s peak of creative innovation and artistry began in the 1870s with Edward C. Moore’s jewelry and vessels designed in the “Japanese taste,” and carried through to World War I, says Dietz. When the world wars, the Depression, and the advent of the income tax reshaped American lifestyles, silver objects that required endless polishing suddenly seemed less attractive for those who could no longer afford household staff, or for whose who preferred a modern interior.

Ubaldo Vitali for Bulgari, “Dixie Cup” (ca. 1980) sterling silver mug (photo by Gene Young, courtesy Newark Museum)

Tiffany’s attempts at modernism tended to flop, says Dietz: “Nobody wanted their great modernist designs of the 1930s, [like] the great candelabra from the 1939 World’s Fair.” Since that period, Tiffany has largely focused on stationery and flatware, and it has never approached the level of originality and style it achieved a century ago. So, why balls of yarn, of all things? Dietz notes that there is actually a rather avant-garde precedent for this: in the 1970s, the Italian luxury firm Bulgari hired the Macarthur Fellowship-winning silversmith Ubaldo Vitali, who had grown up with the the Bulgari family in Rome in the 1950s, to create a series of pop art-inspired silver objects for them. He designed a silver Coke glass, a silver tennis ball can, and a silver Dixie cup with folding handles. “Everyday Objects” is likewise “an attempt to be ironic, and sly, and hip,” adds Dietz, clearly aiming for a customer who views flatware and stationery as the stuff of “grandma” territory.

Writing in Frieze, former director of the Museum of Arts and Design, Glenn Adamson argues that:

Tiffany’s whole raison d’être is to sell people things they don’t really need, for the purposes of old-fashioned class distinction. From this point of view, the “Everyday Objects” are quite traditional, harkening back to the days when gilt asparagus tongs were hallmarks of good breeding.

The difference between these two high-profile silver endeavors is that while Tiffany’s tips its hat to Pop Art with a Warholian copy-and-paste premise, New York Silver: Then and Now mines history to produce something totally original. The artists and designers in the Museum of the City of New York show have explored the silver objects of another world — that of New York of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and thoughtfully interpreted their forms to speak to contemporary concerns. Doing so in a precious metal, the material of heirlooms and presentation vases, gives the effort the respect it’s due. Sheila Bridges’s “Tarnish,” in particular, tells us that knowledge and understanding of a generational trauma like the transatlantic slave trade is, rather than a throwaway consumer object, more akin to an heirloom that we cannot and should not be able to ignore, or throw away.

New York Silver, Then and Now is on view at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through June 2018.

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