2017-04-06 18:02:03
Art Review: Unnamed, Art Deco Steps Out With Plenty of Company in ‘The Jazz Age’

The names Cartier, Lalique, Ruhlmann and Puiforcat flit among the labels at the Cooper Hewitt. Streamlined curves alternate with chunky geometries. Skyscraper motifs abound. New overtakes old in furniture, jewelry, ironwork, bead-encrusted evening gowns and opera capes, tapestries and lacquered folding screens, silver tea services and cigarette cases.

During the heady, blinkered years known as the Roaring Twenties, modernization was in the air, as was a pervasive sense of instability. In that brief recovery from World War I, before the slide into the economic and political upheavals that led to World War II, Art Deco was born — the best known of all modern art movements.

However, in the Cooper Hewitt show “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” which opens on Friday, Art Deco is the movement that dares not speak its name. The curators have dispensed with the phrase — deleting it from both wall texts and catalog — taking a more audacious, encompassing tack. Given Art Deco’s popularity, it may have seemed best to skip it all together — and offer a meaty substitute.

Which “The Jazz Age” surely does, if in a flawed, unbalanced way. It sets out to survey the amazing plethora of progressive European trends that helped jump-start American design in the 1920s: the more austere styles emerging from the German Bauhaus, the Dutch de Stijl movement and Scandinavia, as well as those from Vienna, where European modern design coalesced, opulently, at the turn of the century.

These influences were absorbed by Americans traveling abroad, especially to the immense international design exhibition staged in Paris in 1925, the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (whence Art Deco distilled its name). They were fomented at home by museum exhibitions, department stores, collectors, designers and the shops of the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna and Cartier in Paris that opened in New York.

Against Europe’s embarrassment of design riches, this exhibition posits an American achievement of equal importance: jazz and — less prominently — the blues, the African-American musical forms that are our first truly viral contribution to international modernism. Jazz, especially, provided the decade’s soundtrack, helped speed up its metabolism and relax its social mores. The show includes black artists who aided or reflected jazz’s popularity, including the ingenious Josephine Baker, queen of Paris, seen in film, photography and the work of the illustrator Paul Colin, and the painter Archibald J. Motley Jr., who excelled at depicting people dancing, with new intimacy, to the new music.

Less visible than jazz, but equally important, is the role played by foreign designers. Some worked from Europe, like the Russian polymath Léon Bakst, who created a black fabric gridded with flower garlands for the Robinson Silk Company in New York. But most relocated to the United States after World War I, influencing American taste and talent and, more specifically, providing American companies with designs to produce: among them were Paul T. Frankl, William Hunt Diederich, Kem Weber and Elsa Tennhardt.

While refreshing in approach, the show doesn’t quite prove its point because so much of its material is, well, Art Deco. And most of it connotes a wealthy, fashion-forward lifestyle in Paris or New York — great fun for the privileged few.

Both “The Jazz Age” and its catalog were overseen by Sarah D. Coffin, a curator at the Cooper Hewitt, and Stephen Harrison, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, the collaborating institution on the show, with assistance from Emily M. Orr. It brings together the two museums’ deep holdings in American design for the first time, providing plenty to look at, much of it visually and historically fascinating.

The exhibition, which opens on the museum’s third floor and spills over onto the second, starts quietly, almost in reverse. “The Persistence of Good Taste,” the first of its six sections, features a handful of 20th-century reproductions of bygone styles, including a handsome Regency-style tea service and a painted blanket chest by Max Kuehne that once belonged to the wife of the American collector Albert C. Barnes.

From here the extravagance and craftsmanship of high-end Art Deco, and its accompanying social obliviousness, is prominent. In “A New Look for Familiar Forms” we encounter the exquisite custom-made cabinetry of Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann and a majestic gondola sofa by Marcel Coard, its cradling curve of base and arms made from rosewood carved to simulate rattan and edged in brass.

A section “Bending the Rules” features the gleaming fripperies of an exciting if quite expensive night life. A French brooch shaped like a bow-tie is made of carved lapis, onyx, coral and jade. A pair of cuff bracelets in diamonds and platinum were once worn daily by Gloria Swanson. Bejeweled cigarette cases and holders remind us that women not only got the right to vote in the 1920s, they also began to smoke in public. Donald Deskey’s “Party Ashtray” is a lively pastel study for wallpaper strewn with lighted cigarettes that evokes paintings by Katherine Bernhardt.

That African-American culture, while appreciated, was also caricatured, is evident in the dancing figures on glass vases by the Italian designer Guido Maria Balsamo Stella and a Paul Colin drawing of a sprightly couple in which the male partner might be in blackface. As if on cue, a cigarette case once owned by Al Jolson — the American exemplar of the genre — mimics a letter, with his name and address scrawled on its lid.

“A Smaller World,” which continues on the second floor, strikes a less harmonious chord. The skyscraper motif dominates, by turn lumbering, in the heavy wood furniture forms of Frankl; amateurish, in a silver folding screen by Deskey; and jokey, in a cut-metal chair designed for Macy’s by the eminent lamp designer Walter von Nessen. The city’s energy is most acute in a tiny mural study by the German-born American artist Winold Reiss that could be the work of Pop Art’s Roy Lichtenstein.

The third floor finally turns to furniture (and paintings) of a decidedly non-Deco ilk, in “Abstraction and Invention.” A Mondrian abstraction is paired with Gerrit Rietveld’s “Red, Yellow and Blue Chair” — both classics, and an excellent Eiffel Tower painting by Robert Delaunay pits its wheeling space against the rigid verticality of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Peacock” chair.

The sixth section, awkwardly titled “Towards a Machine Age and Looking Forward,” is given over to the sleek styling of the essentialist International Style. It features the pioneering chrome-tube furniture by the European Bauhaus modernists Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe as well as Le Corbusier, as well as its less imposing repercussions among American designers. Within view of a photograph of the Spirit of St. Louis approaching Paris in 1927, a bed with built-in cabinets in honey-colored wood by the Austrian émigré Frederick Kiesler suggests an airliner’s first-class cabin. Above it hangs Aaron Douglas’s imposing “Go Down Death,” a painting of a ghostly horse and winged rider tearing through star-shaped clouds. Based on one of Douglas’s illustrations for James Weldon Johnson’s 1927 book of poetry, “God’s Trombones,” it was made in 1934. The Depression had come; Hitler was in power. Things were headed every which way but up.

But the 1920s and the style that must not be named have one last, lavish hurrah in Part 2 of “A Smaller World” on the museum’s second floor. That style’s brilliance, hauteur and occasional kitsch return in force, in sparkling European objects and garments shown at the Paris exposition in 1925 or elsewhere on the Continent. Arguably the best part of the show, this array suggests that America rarely mustered an Art Deco worthy of the name — making it invaluable to remind us of the other influences shaping the country’s design ethos. Also invigorating is the idea that stylistic definitions are always profoundly porous when looked at in the light of day. Still, it is fair to wager that Art Deco’s three little syllables will probably remain in use.