In the Mix
Objects: USA 2020
Glenn Adamson, the busiest man in design today, previews his upcoming exhibition and catalogue for New York's R & Company
This fall sees the publication of Objects: USA 2020, a compendium of one hundred American makers’ work, past and present. Timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Objects: USA catalogue in 1970, this new book from Monacelli Press includes fifty artists from that famous exhibition and fifty from today. It will be followed by an exhibition at R & Company, opening in January. In this Q&A, we hear from lead curator Glenn Adamson about the project and its background.
Tell us about the original Objects: USA.
It was a project of almost insane ambition, easily the most significant event of the postwar studio craft movement. And it also coincided with the crest of that movement, which was fueled by the growth of the counterculture. So it was a high point in every sense.
The genesis of Objects: USA was in the relationship between New York City art dealer Lee Nordness and the Johnson Wax Company of Wisconsin. They had earlier collaborated on a sponsored touring show of paintings in 1962, called Art USA Now. Just after that, Nordness discovered the dynamic world of contemporary craft—initially through the work of Wendell Castle—and pitched Johnson Wax with the idea of a survey project on the topic. When they agreed, he immediately approached Paul J. Smith, director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (predecessor to today’s Museum of Arts and Design, or MAD, where I was myself director from 2013 to 2016). Smith did serious legwork for the show, crisscrossing the country in search of talent. Ultimately, over 250 artists participated, divided into the categories of ceramics, fiber, glass, metals, and wood, as well as a handful in enamels, mosaic, and plastics.
The show had a massive impact, partly because it traveled so widely—it went to 20 cities in the US and 10 in Europe—and also because it was so well documented. The works shown in the exhibition were acquired by museums when the tour finally concluded, with the largest number going to the Museum of Contemporary Crafts—still the core of MAD’s collection today.
During the exhibition’s run, it was well covered by local press across the country and abroad, on television, and of course it generated a tremendous catalogue, which has been the main reference work on postwar studio craft ever since. We pay explicit tribute in our own publication; I love the way that our designer, Phil Kovacevich, cleverly adapted its graphics while giving the book a contemporary feel.
How else does your new project differ from the original?
Strange to say, ours is much smaller! A hundred makers, fifty from then and fifty from now. But still an enormous undertaking, and I give R & Company a lot of credit for making it happen. The experience of organizing it has really helped drive home how much Smith and Nordness were able to accomplish—in an age without emails and websites. Like them, we did it as a team. I worked with James Zemaitis to curate the early selection of work and with Evan Snyderman and Abby Bangser to select the current artists. Michelle Jackson-Beckett and Mina Warchavchik Hugerth edited the book, and Racine Art Museum curator Lena Vigna provided a nice piece of research into the little-known Arts/Objects initiative, a selling program that Nordness organized to run alongside Objects: USA.
So I guess one of the key differences between our project and the original is that we have the benefit of hindsight. Of course, the context today is also completely different. Studio craft feels increasingly like a historical phenomenon; we inhabit a much more disparate situation, in which there may be overlapping concerns and shared strategies, but no clear unified movement or constituency. Some of the people in our show would self-identify as craft makers, some as designers, some as artists. Many would tell you they don’t even worry about such things, which I certainly respect.
Given that wide range, what were your criteria for choosing people for the show?
We wanted our project, like the original, to recognize high levels of achievement in craft—applied to a variety of purposes—while also reflecting the diversity of America. When choosing our fifty artists from the original exhibition, James and I tried to mirror the medium-based categories of Objects: USA, and its geographical range. It also seemed interesting to us to show well-known names, like Sheila Hicks and Peter Voulkos, alongside now-obscure figures like Ka Kwong Hui (best known today as the fabricator of Roy Lichtenstein’s ceramics) and the Indiana weaver Budd Stalnaker.
One of the great pleasures of the original Objects: USA is an endless sense of discovery, and we wanted to capture that in our sequel too. One practical thing is that we wanted to represent all fifty of the historic makers in the exhibition we’re making at the gallery, with work dating to around the time of the original show. We weren’t always able to find something available for loan from that time, which prevented us from including a range of people, from Dale Chihuly to the Inupiaq artist Ronald Senungetuk.
The original Objects: USA, was fairly diverse in terms of gender, because the craft disciplines were open to women in a way that painting, sculpture and architecture simply weren’t at the time. It did include a respectable number of Black, Native, and Asian-American makers too— including luminaries such as Art Smith, Charles Loloma, and Kay Sekimachi. If anything, when it came to the contemporary half of the show, we were even more determined to reflect the diversity of the nation. Also, like the original project, ours features many people who grew up elsewhere but have made their careers in America. And we wanted to reflect different methodologies and contexts for making. Some of the people we’ve included are firmly established in galleries; others are primarily teachers; some have been showing for years, and others are relatively new to the scene. For all these reasons it’s difficult to see our project as expressing a single tendency or viewpoint, generational or otherwise. Maybe in retrospect, historians will be able to pin down the particular zeitgeist of 2020. But what I mostly see is the sheer variety of craft in America today.
Perhaps we could end with a word about Paul J. Smith, who died in April at the age of 88.
No matter how many words I use, it would be hard to summarize the influence of this seemingly unassuming man. He was insatiably curious, with an extraordinary recall for detail and very little ego for a man of his extraordinary achievements. These qualities made him the ideal person to assemble Objects: USA, and more generally a superb chronicler of the craft movement, and in more recent years, an invaluable resource for those of us reconstructing that history. In the book, we were able to include a transcript of an interview about Objects: USA that Paul did last year with the Renwick Gallery’s Gloria Kenyon. And we have also dedicated the project as a whole to his memory. Of all that we were able to achieve together as a team, over the past two years of working on Objects: USA 2020, that’s definitely the thing that makes me most proud. ◆
Glenn Adamson is a curator and writer who works at the intersection of craft, design history, and contemporary art. Currently Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, he has previously been Director of the Museum of Arts and Design; Head of Research at the V&A; and Curator at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. He is the host of Design in Dialogue, an online interview series co-presented with Friedman Benda.
Objects USA 2020 will open at R & Company in January 2020.
Objects: USA 2020 by Glenn Adamson, with an introduction by Evan Snyderman and Zesty Meyers alongside essays by James Zemaitis and Lena Vigna, goes on sale October 27, 2020. It is available for pre-order now.