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50 years is an aeon in the art world, and a powerful increment of time by which to mark change in contemporary ideas. The book Objects: USA 2020 (The Monacelli Press, 2020) seeks just such a reckoning, by first revisiting and recapping the influential exhibition, Objects: USA, presented in 1969 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and then supplementing it with a modern installment that visits a new cohort of contemporary makers to examine their relationship with craft.
The publication functions as an expansive history lesson, a time capsule, and a future vision — one where, hearteningly, there seems to be much less need to distinguish between artists and craftspeople as there was when the first iteration of Objects hit the scene. Indeed, some of the “makers” profiled in the 1970 exhibition — such as Michele Oka Doner and Ron Nagle — continue to practice and present work without facing any question of its status as art. Likewise, many of the artists presented in the 2020 edition simply identify and present work as artists, rather than being relegated to craftspeople or makers identified only by their media choices.
Both halves of the book readily demonstrate the ways in which materials facilitate aesthetic choices but also serve as vehicles for ideas. Many of the featured artists present work in diverse modalities, with varying degrees of scale and functionality — functionality often being the divisive factor between art object and use object that seems to complicate acceptance of craft-based makers as artists. Though the introductory interview with Paul J. Smith, co-curator of the original Objects: USA necessarily acknowledges many of these challenges faced by previous generations of makers-cum-artists, the process discussions within each of the current-day artist profiles are refreshingly free of self-doubt or justification.
Central to both epochs of Objects: USA is an emphasis on capturing the artists in the studio, and discussion of their studio practice. Perhaps it is a meaningful distinction to say that craft-art is generally made by its maker, rather than farmed out to helper hands within the studio. Craft in the context of Objects: USA 2020 emerges as a type of art that is informed by its own making, rather than an idea inflicted upon or forced through a particular medium. Where previous generations may have hesitated to reach for quotidian materials, the artists on display in the 2020 section have an unhampered “anything-goes” attitude toward their art, able to bend their skills as makers around whatever ideas they care to present as artists. It is a heartening and heartfelt display, building bridges of influence and inspiration across generations of artists, including those whose work was done at a much earlier point in human history, when art and craft were indistinguishable from life, let alone each other.