From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith
From the Village to Vogue celebrates the recent gift to the Brooklyn Museum of a collection of twenty-one examples of the work of one of America’s foremost modernist jewelers of the twentieth century, Arthur George Smith. Presented together with this gift are thirty pieces of modernist jewelry by other artists from the Museum’s permanent collection. All of these jewelers were deeply indebted to the famous American sculptor Alexander Calder and his kinetic, abstract, biomorphic designs. Like Calder, they eschewed traditional materials such as gold, platinum, and precious stones in favor of lesser materials such as copper, brass, aluminum, silver, ceramics, glass, and hard stones. They championed the handmade, and because few of them were formally trained, they tended to develop their techniques by trial and error. Their jewelry was an ornamental interpretation of contemporary art that integrated an awareness of the human form and the notion of wearability.
Smith’s jewelry in particular is characterized by asymmetry, biomorphicism, compelling linearity, and, above all, a keen awareness of female anatomy. He had a sculptor’s sensitivity to the human form and the power of negative space. Born to Jamaican parents in Cuba in 1917 and raised in Brooklyn, Smith showed artistic talent at an early age. Encouraged to apply to art school, he received a scholarship to Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. There he was one of only a handful of black students, and his advisors tried to steer him into architecture, suggesting he might readily find a job in the civil sector of that profession. He abandoned this path, however, and turned to commercial art and a major in sculpture, training that would prove invaluable when he became a jeweler. In 1947 he opened his first store, on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, then the bohemian center of New York City and a hotbed of modern art in general. Soon after, he moved to 140 West Fourth Street. By the mid-1950s Smith’s career was flourishing and he received feature pictorial coverage in both Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.
The jewelry by Smith on view here spans his entire career. Twenty pieces are made of silver, and one rare brooch is of gold. Because the artist usually worked in these relatively expensive materials only on commission, these designs are more widely known in copper and brass. Stylistically, they present a unified aesthetic; once Smith found his artistic voice, he exercised it with great imagination. As Smith had all of these pieces in his possession at the time of his death in 1982, they represent presumably the best and certainly the most costly examples of his work. The Museum is deeply indebted to Charles Russell, an intimate of the artist, for this generous donation.
Barry R. Harwood, Curator of Decorative Arts