Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 3, 2022
Glenn Adamson and Jen Padgett Crafting America: Artists and Objects, 1940 to Today Exh. cat. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 2021. 208 pp.; 119 ills. Cloth $49.95 (9781682261521)
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, February 6–May 31, 2021
Crafting America, installation view, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 2021 (photograph by Ironside Photography, provided by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

Crafting America, an expansive exhibition organized by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, explored the role of craft within the broader field of post–World War II creative production in the United States. The first room posed the exhibition’s organizing question: “What is Craft?” In the spaces that followed, the curators answered by means of more than a hundred objects by ninety-eight artists that provided a rich understanding of craft as an array of strategies of making. Some of the works remained comfortably within traditional approaches to the category, while others took a more experimental and politically contentious approach. Many, such as Joe Feddersen’s Tire (2003), did both. Fedderson’s glowing cylinder of translucent glass equated tread patterns with designs used in Native American baskets. This exquisitely made object juxtaposed ancestral modes of making with industrial-scale fabrication and subtly evoked the mass displacement of Indigenous peoples. The impact of this and other contributions by Indigenous artists was amplified by the museum’s proximity to the starting point of the Trail of Tears, the route via which the Cherokee Nation was forcibly relocated in the early nineteenth century to present-day Oklahoma. (Crystal Bridges is located on unceded Caddo, Quapaw, and Osage territory.)

Each of the three sections that comprised the main body of Crafting America were announced by prominent wall texts quoting the Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty, and The Pursuit of Happiness. Many of the artists included in each section did not simply celebrate these values as accomplished facts of life in the United States, but instead questioned the selective implementation of the civil liberties promised by the nation’s founding document. 

“Life” emphasized the connection between practice and lived experience, and featured makers belonging to displaced or marginalized communities. This section included furniture by Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa and George Nakashima, both of whom were incarcerated in Japanese internment camps. Gina Adams’s quilt, Treaty with the Yankton Sioux 1837 (2014), used a familiar, homespun medium to articulate the ongoing injustice of white settlers’ broken commitments and illegal seizure of Native territory. Anya Montiel’s catalog essay provided historical context for these and other works by Indigenous producers by tracing the role of the market and US social policy in the development of craft industries within Native American communities. She also noted the pursuit of a mythical cultural “authenticity” by curators, scholars, and collectors in their attempts to frame Indigenous culture in institutional settings. Complicating such essentializing approaches, she argued for the centering of “Indigenous knowledge systems embodied in identity and place” (25).

“Liberty” grouped works exemplifying the expression of individual sensibility by artists such as Ruth Asawa, Wendell Castle, and Sheila Hicks. It also included Arlene Shechet’s stunning All in All (2016), which confronted visitors with a vaguely humanoid pile of rectangular volumes of raw and painted wood, steel, and glazed ceramic cubes covered in knobby protrusions. This precarious assemblage boldly inserted the ceramicist’s art into the vocabulary of modernist sculpture. Playfully alternating between parts and wholes, the visual and the tactile, Schechet aligned herself with an aesthetic lineage reaching back to Constantin Brancusi. By contrast, Sabrina Gschwandtner’s contribution asked how craft might function in an era of digital dematerialization. In Hands at Work the artist sewed pieces of 16-mm film stock sourced from craft-related documentaries into a geometric quilt pattern, enacting a modernist trope of self-referentiality. In a companion piece, Hands at Work Video, Gschwandtner expanded on this strategy. Repeating the diamond quilt format, she montaged triangular fields of color with video segments of women engaged in textile work.

Arriving at “The Pursuit of Happiness,” visitors found themselves surrounded by a gratifying mix of objects ranging from Prince’s “Cloud Guitar,” to one of Nick Cave’s soundsuits. Glenn Adamson’s catalog text identified the contents of this portion of the exhibition as “extreme craft,” arguing that the works pushed the category to its limits by combining imagination and virtuosic execution (149). Although one can question whether this might not be said of many works included in Crafting America, one cannot deny the shared joy manifested by the charismatic objects included in this last section. Yet the way in which the exhibition framed their joyful pursuit should give us pause. Adamson, who defines craft as “skilled making on a human scale,” links the “pursuit of happiness” to the British Arts and Crafts movement, whose founder, William Morris, “proclaimed the value of ‘joy in labor’” and “criticized industry for robbing workers of their dignity” (4, 149). With Morris in mind, Adamson proceeds to remind the reader of the necessity in our contemporary moment of seeking “alternatives to sweatshop exploitation on the one hand and dehumanized automation on the other” (149). One might agree with these virtuous sentiments while also recognizing that the exhibition’s emphasis on production remained largely silent on related issues of consumption and labor politics. The conceit of using the Declaration of Independence as a framework, coupled with claims to the “inherently democratic nature of craft,” threatened to congeal into the ideological absolutes that the works themselves questioned (6). A more sustained engagement with the historical development of the economics of craft would have productively complicated such overly optimistic statements. One wonders just whose freedom is at stake here, and if it is possible to divorce financial from aesthetic autonomy.

If the curators had wanted to examine urgent questions of consumption and commerce, they need not have looked far. Myra Mimlitsch-Gray’s stunning melted silver teapots, for example, collapse container and contents while delicately alluding to the devastating effects of the colonial craving for coffee and tea. Likewise, Katherine Vetne’s Selling the Dream (2017) presented three liquefied lead-crystal pitchers coated in metallic lacquer, suggesting the addictive lure of precious metals. The reflective surfaces of these luxury objects implicated their viewers in the reification wrought by the rampant consumption that sets them adrift on flows of global capital. Although the catalog entry for Vetne’s work acknowledged her addressing themes of “domestic consumption and middle-class aspiration” (139), this issue warranted more rigorous development. Without fully acknowledging craft’s particular ability to engage with the environmental and social costs of overconsumption, the curators ran the risk of using it as a fig leaf to obscure the damage done to local artisans by outsourced mass production. This issue becomes particularly problematic when one notes that Crystal Bridges is primarily funded by the Walton Foundation. One can hardly imagine a better vision of “unskilled making at an inhuman scale” than a Walmart warehouse. One fears that a repurposed rhetoric of purity, now understood as the individual freedom to consume ourselves into a mass-extinction event, might lead to craft being deployed as a form of soft diplomacy for late capitalism. In her introduction, Jen Padgett alluded to such fetishization when she noted that, as Pinterest and Etsy demonstrate, it appears that craft “can be applied as a marketing strategy to seemingly any consumer product” (4). Extending this kind of economic insight as a leitmotif for the exhibition itself would have expanded its critical discourse beyond one rooted primarily in identity politics.

As noted in the catalog’s introductory essay, Crafting America overlapped with Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (November 22, 2019–February 20, 2022), which included many of the same artists whose works were on display at Crystal Bridges. Both exhibitions juxtaposed works commonly associated with the category of craft with more unconventional choices. Visitors to the Whitney, for example, could see Betty Woodman’s exuberant ceramics shown in proximity to a delicate latex installation by Eva Hesse. In many ways, that elegant and focused exhibition provided a striking counterpoint to the ambitious, sprawling display in Fayetteville. Taken together, these two engaging shows demonstrate the centrality of craft to post–World War II art in the United States as well as its current vibrancy.

Allan Doyle
Assistant Professor, School of Art & Design History & Theory, Parsons School of Design