ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY – What is art history made of? Everything that happened in a given time, place or style? Or is it just the best of what happened? These questions form an eternal opposition between inclusiveness and quality. They arise – and sometimes openly in conflict – in “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art, 1972-85”, a rich, though imperfect, investigation into the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College.
In the mid-1970s, the irreverent Pattern and Decoration, or P&D, movement was one of the first cracks in minimalism-conceptualism hegemony. The other was “New Image Painting,” a figuration tinged with abstraction from the name of his Whitney exhibition in 1978. But New Image never really came together. In contrast, P&D, at least for a while, has been something of an assault. He favored the appropriate designs from a global array of textiles, ceramics and architecture, but also from previously overlooked Americana such as quilting, embroidery and cake decorating. A self-identified group, it was purposefully formed and nominated by a core of sympathetic artists who quickly expanded to include many like-minded sensibilities.
It offered delightful alternatives to traditional art in New York and Los Angeles (it was bicoastal) and to the general virility of Modernism. He disdained the divisions between Western and non-Western art; up and down and art and crafts. It elevated the work of women and included many female artists. It was laid back and unpretentious, too easy to love perhaps, but also proof that there was art after the death position of the object of Conceptualism.
P&D also had, for a time, its own champion, art historian Amy Goldin (1926-1978), who advocated Islamic art as a source for contemporary artists. While at the University of California, San Diego, Goldin taught two of the movement’s most prominent artists. One was Robert Kushner, who started out in New York City as a performance artist staging fashion shows of friends wearing lavish quilted capes (and not much else) that he carried. then started to hang on the wall; the exhibition sums up his progress in three works. Meanwhile, Kim MacConnel began to dye the sheets with exuberant patterns, achieving a very unpainted fragility. Echoing both Matisse and Hawaiian shirts, MacConnel’s motifs also adorned sofas, side tables and lamps, as his surroundings happily attest here. Another strong proponent of the style was John Perreault (1937-2015), critic for the Village Voice and then the SoHo Weekly News, who organized “Pattern Painting,” the first major P&D preview at the PS 1 Contemporary Art Center in 1977.
The movement also had its own dealer in Holly Solomon, who opened her shopping gallery on West Broadway in 1975, and exhibited many of her artists.
What does P&D look like 40 years later? Less interesting for himself than for the permission he gave to successive generations of artists who weave, quilt, sew and make pottery without a second thought. Just as critic Robert Hughes cruelly called Color Field Painting “giant watercolors,” too much P&D could be called “giant wrapping paper,” motif for motif and lack of scale and punch.
The exhibition was curated by Anna Katz in collaboration with Rebecca Lowery, assistant curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where she made her debut in 2019. They opted for inclusivity over selectivity, without neglecting any detail. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the exhibition represents almost every artist who has participated in any P&D exhibition anywhere. And there were many, according to the show’s catalog list. As you read it, you can hear small museums across the country sigh in relief: here’s something that was accessible, visually pleasing, and easily transportable, after all that minimalist severity, emptiness, and weight.
Goldin and Perrault’s enthusiastic early essays are included in the exhibition’s beautiful catalog, a true P&D handbook with a cover derived from “Embroidered, Beaded Crazy Quilt” (1983-85) by Jane Kaufman, which appears here as the one of the few masterpieces of the movement. Katz tackles her subject from all angles, its relationship to feminism, multiculturalism, and counterculture, as well as its (now questionable) cultural appropriation and even its underlying debt to minimalism (the use of repetition and Grid).
The other six essays include one by Lowery which focuses on a little-known P&D site in Boulder, Colorado, which particularly nurtured ceramic artist Betty Woodman, one of the mainstays of the movement. His deconstructions enamelled with vase-applique combinations have here, like MacConnel’s efforts, an impeccable sense of color and scale.
Other Hessel flagships include wallpaper tributes by Cynthia Carlson and Robert Zakanitch. Carlson recreated his 1981 installation “Tough Shift for MIT” by once again taking a pastry tube to squeeze small, unusually tactile, evenly spaced flowers onto the walls of a gallery here. Wielding a large, loaded brush, Zakanich created opulent enlargements of the more understated wallpaper he remembered from his grandparents’ house. Kozloff’s ambitious riffs on Islamic art using silk and canvas remain too close to their sources; these motifs were intensified by the mosaic in his public works of the late 1970s and 1980s; his current adjacent P&D paintings are perhaps his best.
Miriam Schapiro, who like Kozloff helped formulate some of the basics of P&D, looks great in the catalog but is portrayed by “Heartland,” a gruesome painting from 1985. Something earlier and better should have been be chosen, albeit a souffle- the detail of “Heartland” makes a fabulous cover page in the catalog. The best works include a quilt-like painting done with stamped designs by Susan Michod; “Primavera” by Merion Estes, a fountain of pink brushstrokes; and the lavish paintings of Mary Grigoriadis of giant and archaic architectural details. The Ionic capital of the “Rain Dance” reminds us that when they were created, Greek temples were painted in bright colors.
To add some verve to the debates, relevant works from stars of the 60s art briefly lined up: Lucas Samaras, Frank Stella, Billy Al Bengston, Alan Shields and Lynda Benglis, who is quoted as saying “I have never really part of their gang “.
The show is less predictable and more rewarding as it ventures further, for performers whose efforts were gang related but were generally not gang members because, on the one hand, they weren’t white. While Howardena Pindell’s work has featured on P&D shows almost from the start, other relatively new additions include the efforts of Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, Emma Amos and most importantly Faith Ringgold. In 1974, Ringgold painted light geometries inspired by African Kuba fabric on narrow canvases, then, turning to Tibetan thangka, extended them up and down with – apparently – ersatz pieces of tourist blankets, sewn together. and applied by his mother. These have to be the most assertive scroll paintings you will ever see.
With configurations like this, a more refined and less diluted “With Pleasure” emerges. Ours is a period of vital rediscovery of artists from the recent and distant past, but not all of them deserve to be saved from the trash of history.
The motif and decoration were pushed aside by the 1980s onslaught of neo-expressionism and pictorial art. Yet the example he set is more alive than ever, especially with so many non-Western artists tapping into their own craft traditions. A study of P&D reverberations is now too large to fit into a single exhibit.
With pleasure: pattern and decoration in American art 1972-1985
Until November 28 at the Hessel Museum of Art at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY (845) 758-7598, ccs.bard.edu.