Moderne Gallery’s Robert Aibel rejects the historical art/craft divide while celebrating the legacy of artist-maker Paul Hultberg
[The] situation in American art and American crafts today does not lend itself to conventional categories or limiting themes. The creative minds of our time are breaking down the old fences and opening new paths for us to follow. One of the oldest and strongest of these fences has been the one dividing the “fine arts” (painting and sculpture) from the “minor arts” (everything else). Today this division is becoming blurred. —Gervais Reed in Adventures in Art, 1962
One topic remains: why is Paul Hultberg not much better-known today? Given the evident seriousness and quality of his work, and the privileged position he had at the beating heart of the American avant-garde, it is difficult to understand his relative obscurity. The most obvious explanation is medium: for all his intelligent engagement with contemporaneous painting, his chosen discipline of enamel seemed to occupy a space apart. Like many other artists associated with the postwar craft movement... he found himself categorized within a “minor art” genre. —Glenn Adamson in Chance Operator: Paul Hultberg’s Aleatory Aesthetics, 2021
Rediscovering Paul Hultberg (1926-2019): Abstract Expressionism in Enamel, on view now at Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, is the first wide-ranging survey of the multidisciplinary American artist’s work since his death in 2019. Trained as a painter, Hultberg was a master of his preferred medium, enamel, and became a significant figure of the postwar Studio Craft movement. Between the 1950s and 1980s, he received numerous public art commissions while also developing a more intimately scaled body of work, most notably abstract expressionist enamelled metal wall pieces. Prolific and well respected as he was, it’s reasonable to ask: why does Hultberg need to be rediscovered?
One answer lies in how the status of craftwork suffered in the wake of early 20th-century modernist theories. Fine art became defined by the “art for art’s sake” code, which elevated painting and sculpture above other media because they were seen to be free from all functional, decorative, and commercial aims. Meanwhile, design in the modernist era became defined by machine production, standardization, and functionalism, leaving the handmade in an untheorized, in-between zone that impacted its perceived cultural value. Even the dynamic energy that arose in the 1960s around the Studio Craft movement—which explicitly critiqued the idea that craft was something different and lesser than fine art—did little to thwart the lasting effects of modernism’s hierarchy of the arts.
As a specialist in 20th-century masterworks that exist between art and design, Robert Aibel of Moderne Gallery has a fascinating perspective on the arbitrary nature of these categories, which have endured despite the 60-year-long backlash against modernism. As we scan the current creative landscape, at a moment when craft is experiencing a revival and contemporary designers are talking about modernism again, we asked Aibel to share his insights on the art/craft divide.
Why are so many 20th century artist-craftspeople like Paul Hultberg being rediscovered and revalued now?
The really simple answer is that the figures who made up the very active craft world of the 1960s and ’70s are now dying or moving into assisted living facilities, leaving their families with large bodies of work. In fact, this is true. However, the background is much more complex.
There is a growing recognition that the work of craftspeople has rarely received the respect that’s been reserved for art; instead it’s been viewed as separate because of the choice of medium and the relatively low prices. Until recently, there hasn't been widespread study and understanding of the creative aspects of what we call craft.
Still, the distinction between art and craft has been questioned for a long time among scholars, artists, craftspeople, and their clients. And currently, we’re seeing a growing trend to blur the lines between art and craft—or maybe more pointedly, to see the art in craft.
In practice, we now see textiles, ceramics, and other “craft” work being shown at Art Basel, not just at Design Miami. This blurring of the distinction between art and craft has been propelled by economic factors even more than artistic ones. Simply put, when the prices of craftwork of a particular type or by a particular artist go up significantly, fine art galleries have no problem recategorizing these pieces as “art” and raising the prices further.
At present, galleries of all types are searching for craftspeople whose work can be recontextualized and revalued. So as families look to sell works and to promote the legacy of their parents, they approach craft galleries and art galleries to represent the work. Art galleries have become more willing to “rediscover” a craftsperson.
Another major factor that has led museums and galleries to rediscover and revalue craftspeople is the recent surge in attention finally being paid to broadening diversity. Women, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, for example, often weren't able to secure places to train or find representation and were consequently deprived of the recognition that they might have received under better circumstances. Those who continued to make things and develop a body of work—despite being marginalized due to their identity—are being “rediscovered” now as well.
Would you agree that the modernist movement of the 20th century played a key role in separating art and design into two totally distinct creative fields, where once they were entwined together along with craft?
Sadly, as I see it, the separation is not about aesthetics or process—it's about money. Art galleries and auction houses have advocated the view that craft and design have little to do with art. And treating craft and design as separate and inferior, as “just objects,” has allowed dealers to justify higher prices for “fine” art.
Just look at what's been happening at Art Basel and art galleries over the past 5 years or so. As soon as galleries noted that the prices were rising on design and craft, they began to adopt these works and treated them as art, thereby establishing much higher price points. As I'm sure you've seen, Art Basel galleries now show historic ceramics by Price, Nagel, Arneson, Voulkos, etc.; fiberart by Tawney, Hicks, Abakanowicz, etc.; and contemporary ceramicists like Ruby, Herman, Sherman, Lugo, etc. They financially capitalized on an opportunity to present and sell these works as “true" art. In a sense, most craft and design works are not treated as art in order to maintain the arbitrary financial hierarchy.
In your view, how did craft processes fit into the modernist movement?
Most pioneers of the modernist design movement wanted to make design available to everyone by harnessing mass production. In reality, this rarely came to fruition. Instead, most everything was made by hand in small quantities in small studios. Craft processes were the heart and soul of the modernist movement.
Without craft processes, no one could have explored modernism in the way that they did. It would have been impossible to mass produce things without first creating hand-made prototypes. The Bauhaus wanted to make modern design widely available and inexpensive, but rarely produced much beyond prototypes. Craft was the very basis of developing the modernist movement.
Was the modernist movement an accelerator or decelerator of craft production in the 20th century?
The modernist movement was clearly an accelerator of 20th-century craft production. It freed and stimulated makers and designers to break from the past; to develop new, modern designs in various mediums rather than reproducing historical motifs.
One of the primary centers of early 20th century modernism was France. We now refer to the work in France and other countries from 1900-1940 as Art Nouveau or Art Deco based on the style of the work. Those names reify the style, but don't offer any insight into the manner of making.
In fact, one could have referred to the designers and makers of these works as craftspeople and called it the French Studio Craft Movement, for example. Almost everything “modern” was being made by hand in small numbers in small studios. The manner of European production—their reverence for wood, exploration of innovative approaches, and future-facing forms in all mediums—was quite similar to what we now call the American Studio Craft Movement.
The modernist movement encouraged a break from the past in almost every way. In particular, it opened a new world to American designer-craftspeople who would be encouraged to explore and innovate radically and with boundaries.
How would you define Hultberg’s legacy today?
First, his willingness to explore a craft medium with the attitude of an adventurer. He provides a model for unabashedly embracing “craft” materials without concern for categories. In a 1966 film, Hultberg gave viewers an opportunity to see him experiment with enamel, and he talks revealingly about his process. He explains how different media can be used to communicate. His legacy is how he modeled a free attitude toward his work, while clearly demonstrating that enamel isn't confined to jewelry, plates, and other small objects. He pioneered the use of enamel to make large, powerful art works.
Second, his contributions to the history of art, design, and craft are yet to be fully understood. Until now, no one considered his importance to and influence on those with whom he regularly lived and worked during the 1950s and '60s—John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards, John Chamberlain, Jasper Johns, and many others. Hultberg, like John Cage, raised the role of chance in art to a new level. While Cage received most of the attention, Hultberg and Cage travelled this path together.
In a letter sent to me, his wife Ethel “Sky" Hultberg revealed a great deal about the many cross influences that were forged around them:
“This period of American Art was seminal, and I think we were quite conscious of the dynamic influence across Europe, because artists traveled back and forth. Jean Dubuffet stayed in Paul’s old studio on Bond Street while in New York. Pierre Boulez stayed with us when visiting John Cage. Karel Appel was a joyful companion whenever in New York.”
“The drama of that period, before the money came between them, was that all the arts in New York City were involved with each other. The first Living Theater production was in Robert Motherwell’s studio. Both my brother and I were in that play Ubu Roi by Randell Jarry. John and I did the music together. Bob Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol both did sets for Merce Cunningham dance performances. The whole era was a fluid collaboration. Typical was the group Fluxus. Most critics failed to grasp the dynamics of that period. They tried hard to dominate and influence, but were basically narrow minded and egotistical.”
Lastly, I’d like to share Glenn Adamson’s words about Hultberg’s legacy:
“It is all too easy to look at his major works, like Johnson Together, and misunderstand them as just latter-day Abstract Expressionism, apparently disconnected with the conceptual tendencies that were emerging in the late 1960s. In fact, though Hultberg was drawing on the action paintings of the previous generation, he was also engaging with the pressing issues of the moment: aleatory aesthetics, the primacy of process, and an interrogation of artistic subjectivity.” ◆
Rediscovering Paul Hultberg Abstract Expressionism in Enamel is on view at Moderne Gallery through September 24, 2021.