In his 1913 polemical essay “Ornament and Crime”, the architect Adolf Loos inveighed against decoration as wasteful, self-indulgent and imminently obsolete. He was correct on the last point: modernist architects and designers, fired by his righteousness, spent decades methodically ridding their work of excess, leaving cities full of joyless glass and blank concrete.
Ornament flourished nevertheless because there are always vacant patches that need filling in. Satisfying a universal desire, humans festoon themselves and the surfaces around them with jewellery, keepsakes, snapshots, patterned fabrics, religious figurines and other misdemeanours.
The Clamor of Ornament, an exhibition at the Drawing Center in Manhattan that does its best to shake off the Loos curse, bursts with decorative exuberance. In their search for opulent surfaces, the curators turned up tattoos, wallpaper, designer knock-offs peddled by Canal Street vendors, scrimshaw carvings on whalebone and much, much, much more. The title thumbs its nose at Owen Jones’s 1856 triumph of rational classification, The Grammar of Ornament. Offended by what he saw as tawdry mid-Victorian taste, Jones appointed himself an aesthetic enforcer, enumerating rules for every design task, according to elaborate codes and hierarchies.
Curators Emily King, Margaret-Anne Logan and Duncan Tomlin see ornament not as a defined catalog of references to be deployed with professionalism and restraint but as a worldwide need for profusion and complexity. The show ambles across cultures and centuries, searching for resonances and lines of communication. It’s rigorous, after a fashion, tracing the way a geometric motif common in (sadly absent) Ottoman metalwork and textiles pops up in a late 15th-century drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, is reproduced in unattributed engravings and reappears a couple of decades later in the fine tracery of a Dürer woodcut. The trail doesn’t go cold quite yet: Dürer’s lacework disk reappears on Bob Dylan’s forehead in a 1968 poster by Martin Sharp, staring out of the thicket of the singer’s explosive hair like an all-seeing eye boosted by psychedelic drugs.
Ornament has long been held up as the apex of refinement and also dismissed as primitive. Jones believed that all societies treasure patterns and that their desire for them “grows and increases with all in the ratio of their progress in civilization”. By 1925, Le Corbusier decreed the opposite: “Decoration: baubles, charming entertainment for a savage.” The Drawing Center show treads a middle ground, glorying in the pleasures of too-muchness but also trying to make museum-worthy sense of an urge that knows few bounds.
That balancing act points the curators toward quixotic efforts of the past to categorize the uncategorisable. During the Depression, the US government dispatched 400 illustrators all over the country to discover and document a uniquely American approach to craft and its manifestation in ornament. This army of seasoned watercolourists rendered their finds in punctilious paintings, some featured here, of saddle blankets, painted chests and patchwork quilts. The resulting images were collected in The Index of American Designa reference work that aspired to define national character and a modern aesthetic.
Sober reporting was sometimes nudged aside by a combination of imagination and indolence. Perkins Harnly, in the guise of recording the contents of a Typical American Boudoir, in fact painted a room in the boarding house where he lived, which he claimed had once been the home of actress Lillian Russell. The concoction he came up with was half real and half invented, a Victorian vision of posh abundance, chock-a-block with carpets, drapes, books and an impressive array of bibelots. Every surface teems with faithfully rendered objects, a meticulousness that simultaneously fulfilled his federally issued brief and indulged his riotous fantasy.
The Index did a fine job of compiling American tastes for the products and influences of Europe, Asia and Africa. It had less success in ferreting out a genuine national vernacular. But if it failed, it failed grandly, accumulating 18,257 images of idiosyncratic and sometimes eloquent objects. Perhaps the most revealing editorial move was the decision to ignore Native American design completely, treating the continent’s rich traditions of carpets, beadwork, stitching, jewelery and body art as if they had never existed.
This curatorial team is not about to repeat such a mistake. They are more interested in the ways to ornament travels along routes blazed by trade, tourism, slavery and migration, and motifs that jump cultures without announcing their origins. The colorful amoeboid pattern we call paisley is named for a Scottish town that specialized in machine-made versions of designs that originated in Kashmir. We are duly presented with two pieces of evidence: an intricate 1880 design for a shawl that would have been handwoven in what is now Pakistan and a cruder English watercolor intended for industrial production.
Here, the curators pause for a nod to fashionable concepts of authenticity and appropriation. Colonial designers and engineers, they suggest, stole cultural products from around the empire, bowdlerised them for profit and deprived skilled artisans of their age-old livelihood. This is true, but there are a couple of missing pieces to the story. The British empire created an immense market for Kashmir shawls in the first place; India’s artisans fell victim to the same forces of mechanisation that afflicted weavers in Britain. All ornament starts local but is not immune to the global forces of technology and economics.
For a show about noise, Cry is curiously muted, with works on paper substituting for the three-dimensional experiences of buildings, homes, and custom. Architects once trained by drawing classical ornaments; a Louis Sullivan garland and several Piranesi sketches for a mantlepiece reminding us that the hand that signed a paper sometimes raised a city.
For an investigation of sensuality, moreover, the show is downright uncomfortable. The designers, London-based Studio Frith, seem to have forgotten current viewers, forcing us to bend, crane or squint to read a text and distributing objects and wall panels so confusingly that it can be hard to tell which belongs with which.
Still, the exhibition does clarify just how indispensable Loos’s supposed superfluities really are. Our brains perceive the symmetries in nature’s apparent randomness and we look for patterns to situate ourselves and lower anxiety. In a way, the theorists who debated whether ornament is advanced or atavistic were both right: we decorate to soar and to survive.
To September 18, drawingcenter.org
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