From the Village to Vogue
 The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith

A review by Fran Schreiber

The exhibition, From the Village to Vogue: The Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until May 17, 2009. This small and intimate exhibit includes 21 pieces that were in the artist’s possession when he died.  Initially left to his sister, the collection passed to Charles Russell, Smith’s partner, who has donated the collection to the Brooklyn Museum. 

Galaxy” Necklace and Earrings, circa 1962

All 21 pieces are in sterling silver (with the exception of one gold pin) and are on a grand scale – several of these highly sculptural pieces could just as easily hang on a wall as be worn.  Several of these designs are better known in copper and brass as Smith primarily only worked in silver on commissions.  All of the pieces on view were made on more than one occasion with the exception of “Stone-in-Cuff” (pictured) which according to Charles Russell is a unique piece.

Stone in Cuff” Necklace, circa 1969

What makes the exhibit intimate are the annotated drawings accompanying many of the pieces, the original shop sign from his West 4th Street gallery, his tools, receipt book and several unfinished pieces of jewelry.

Born in Cuba to Jamaican parents, Smith grew up in Brooklyn and majored in sculpture at Cooper Union. He subsequently trained with jewelry designer Winifred Mason and worked in her studio in the Village before opening his own studio. Though his jewelry was clearly not mainstream, he did have business relationships with several other stores including Bloomingdales and his work was featured in Vogue, Harpers and the New Yorker. Considering that Smith was a gay, black man designing avant-garde jewelry in the 1950s, it’s a testament to his skills as a designer and artisan that his work was admired and commissioned outside of the downtown, bohemian world in which he lived and worked.

Metallic Boa Necklace, circa 1964

Smith also designed jewelry for many black dance companies and as Barry Harwood, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Brooklyn Museum comments,  “These commissions encouraged him to design on a grander scale than he might otherwise  have done, and the theatricality of many of his larger pieces may well reflect this experience.”

The exhibited jewelry spans the years 1948-1979 (Smith died in 1982) but there is a consistency throughout; unlike many artists, his style did not change over the years and as Harwood notes in the catalog it was therefore difficult to be precise about dating some of the pieces.

The work is breathtaking – but given their large scale it was hard for me to imagine how some of these could be worn (if only I could have tried them on….) But there are several photographs of models wearing these pieces and you can also see from the drawings and his notes that he thought about how these would lie on the body.

Model wearing Art Smith’s “Patina” Necklace

Art Smith wrote in the 1969 catalog of his one man exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Craft: “A piece of jewelry is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a ‘what is it?’ until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are.  Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with.  It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.”  

As part of the exhibition the museum is also displaying several other pieces of modernist jewelry from their archives including work by Ed Wiener, Elsa Freund, Frank Rebajes and many others. It’s a fitting accompaniment but most of the pieces are literally dwarfed by the spectacular Art Smith jewelry.


Below is slide show of the additional pieces included in the exhibit From the Village to Vogue, the Modernist Jewelry of Art Smith.


Back to the top

All photographs are courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Gifts of Charles L. Russell unless otherwise captioned.

Review by Fran Schreiber
Ornaments and Objects

Web design by Marbeth Schon

 Copyright © 2008 MODERN SILVER magazine
  Your comments are invited.
  Feedback Form