In the late 1960s, a New York art dealer named Lee Nordness came to S.C. Johnson & Son with an idea: He would organize a show on American craft, and the company, which had a history of sponsoring showcases for American art, would pay for it. As a sweetener, part of the sponsorship entailed S.C. Johnson buying every object in the exhibition, which it could then donate to museums of its choosing.
The company agreed, and in 1969, Objects: USA opened at the Smithsonian Institution with pieces crafted by about 250 people.
“Not every artist in that show became famous in their field, and not every person who was famous at the time was included in the show,” says Bruce Pepich, the executive director and curator of collections at the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin. “But you can say that [the show’s] curators hit 90% of the key figures working in their fields at the time, and 90% of the people [in the show] became well-known as teachers or exhibiting artists.”
The show includes works by 50 makers from the original exhibition and 50 contemporary craftspeople. The latter group was chosen by a group that includes Glenn Adamson, the former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; Abby Bangser, the founder of the art and design fair Object & Thing; and Evan Snyderman, a co-founder of R & Company.
“We were looking for specific relationships between the new 50 and the old 50,” Adamson says. Organizers tried to find parallels among mediums (wood, ceramic, textile, and so forth), a range of ages and geographic locations, and ethnic diversity.
“The original show was, for its time, strikingly diverse and also gender balanced,” Adamson says, “but we were also very aware that craft survey exhibitions, up until very recently, have been overwhelmingly White. So we wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case for this show.”
Most of all, organizers say, the exhibition is an effort to pass the proverbial torch and anoint a new group of American design stars. “The opportunity here is to identify and document and to build on this idea of American studio craft,” says R & Company’s Snyderman.
Passing the Torch
Every dealer worth any salt is always trying to do the same thing: make artists famous.
But the imprimatur of the first Objects: USA, combined with the number of contributors to this exhibition and its accompanying coffee table book (multiple galleries, artists, collectors and estates lent art for the historical section, and 14 galleries consigned art for the show), means that R & Company’s exhibition, which will run through July, has a better-than average likelihood of making that fame a reality.
“It’s a good kind of king- and queen-making opportunity,” says Pepich, whose museum held an exhibition in 2019, Objects Redux, which included pieces from the original show.
Adamson, who was the only non-commercial participant in the show’s organization, agrees. “Ours is more explicitly connected to the market than the first one,” he says. “But I don’t think [R & Company] saw it as a selling show, it’s more of a positioning show. What you could say is it’s a bit of a longer game than most [selling exhibitions].”
The original Objects: USA was both product of, and response to, the dominant themes of craft and design in the 1960s. America was experiencing a boom in what is now called DIY, fueled in large part by the hippie movement and a backlash against 1950s conservatism.
It was a “broad report of work produced in the 1960s—an important reference and documentation made in a significant decade,” said Paul Smith, one of the original show’s curators, in a 2019 interview on the occasion of Objects Redux. “That era was moved by young people, communal living, and the arts—many new ideas were generated.”
The dominant design trends at that time were coming from Europe, or from industrial designers like Charles and Ray Eames who created objects meant to be mass-produced.
“The big dealers were all French, and all anyone sold was French,” says Snyderman. “Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand—but no one was looking at American design.” The exhibition was an attempt by Nordness and others to reassert the relevance and market for American makers. “It really did kick off a couple of decades of serious work on the part of artists, and serious collecting on the part of collectors and philanthropists,” says Pepich.
Similarly, Objects: USA 2020 has been organized at a time when, broadly speaking, the very top of the design and craft market is dominated by Europeans. (The distinction between “craft,” which usually entailed a one-off object, and “design,” which could be mass-produced, has been a gray area for decades.)
“Over the course of the last 50 years, a lot of traditional craft artists have fallen to the wayside and have been forgotten about,” Snyderman says. “It’s only in the last five to 10 years galleries have started paying attention to them again.”
Even though artists such as Sheila Hicks and designers like George Nakashima now command incredibly high prices, there’s a younger generation, Snyderman continues, that has yet to break out. “No one has identified this as a movement,” he says.
Many of the contemporary artists in the show already have international profiles: Daniel Arsham, The Haas Brothers, and Monique Péan could hardly be considered discoveries. Others will be new to all but the most die-hard insiders; more important, they could point toward the future of American craft.
The youngest person in the exhibition is a designer named Joyce Lin, who has a dual degree in furniture design from Rhode Island School of Design and geology-biology from Brown.
“She’s an extraordinary, visionary young talent,” Snyderman says, noting that Lin’s initial forays into the market have been met with success. When R & Company exhibited one of her “exploded chairs” (about $3,000) in a group show, the entire edition of eight sold out. “Her market is growing,” he says, “but it hasn’t been a very public growth.”
Not everyone is so little-known.
Woody de Othello, a San Francisco-based artist who’s best known as a ceramicist, has had a series of solo exhibitions and been in dozens of group shows around the country. “He’s had a very successful five or six years; it’s a market that’s really on the upswing,” Snyderman says. “But his work is still very affordable—under $10,000, or between $10,000 and $15,000 for a major piece.”
While the show ostensibly treads a fine line between commercial imperatives and historical import, Adamson, the curator, says the two things can go hand-in-hand. “I have a less strategic and more bemused attitude” about the market, he says, but adds that “you don’t end up in a conflict or contradiction as a curator, because you want to give those 50 spots to people who deserve them.”
If, he concludes, “you think that turns into market success, well, great.”