The Clamor of Ornament, Drawing Center — Unnecessary Desires

In his polemical essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ of 1913, the architect Adolf Loos objected to decoration as wasteful, self-indulgent and threateningly obsolete. On the last point, he was right: modernist architects and designers, energized by his rectitude, spent decades methodically stripping their work of redundancy, leaving cities full of joyless glass and empty concrete.

Jewelery thrived nonetheless because there are always blanks that need to be filled. To satisfy a universal desire, people decorate themselves and the surfaces around them with jewelry, souvenirs, snapshots, patterned fabrics, religious figurines, and other crimes.

The Scream of Ornament, an exhibition at the Drawing Center in Manhattan that does its best to shake off the Loos curse, is bursting with decorative exuberance. In their search for opulent surfaces, the curators found tattoos, wallpaper, designer knock-offs from Canal Street vendors, scrimshaw carvings on whalebones and much, much, much more. The title is a tribute to Owen Jones’ triumph of rational classification in 1856, 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 used with professionalism and restraint, but as a global need for abundance and complexity. The show wanders through cultures and ages, looking for resonances and lines of communication. It is rigorous, after a fashion, examining the way in which a geometric motif common in (sadly absent) Ottoman metalwork and textiles shows up in a late 15th-century drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, is reproduced in unattributed engravings and reappears a few decades later in the fine tracery of a Dürer woodcut. The trail doesn’t quite get cold just yet: Dürer’s lace-work disc 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.

Black and white symmetrical image of repeating patterns in a central circle

Albrecht Dürer’s ‘The First Knot’, (before 1521) after Leonardo da Vinci © Metropolitan Museum of Art

Orange and black statue of Bob Dylan with sunglasses and concentric circles in front of her

Martin Sharp, ‘Blowing in the Mind/Mr Tambourine Man’ (1968) © Smithsonian Design Museum

Jewelery has long been held up as the pinnacle of sophistication and also dismissed as primitive. Jones believed that all societies foster patterns and that their desire for them “grows and increases with everyone in the proportion of their progress in civilization”. By 1925, Le Corbusier decreed the opposite: “Decoration: baubles, charming amusement for a savage.” The Drawing Center show treads a middle ground, boasting in the joys of too much, but also trying to give museum-worthy meaning to an urge that knows few limits.

This balancing act points the curators to the quixotic attempts of the past to categorize the uncategorizable. During the Depression, the US government sent 400 illustrators across the country to discover and document a uniquely American approach to craft and its manifestation in ornament. This army of seasoned watercolorists has depicted their finds in painstaking paintings, some of which can be seen here, of saddle cloths, painted chests and patchwork quilts. The resulting images were collected in The Index of American Designa reference work that sought to define national character and a modern aesthetic.

A messy room with patterned wallpaper, chair, dresser and decorative objects

Perkins Harnly, ‘Boudoir’ (c. 1931) © National Gallery of Art, Washington

The sober reporting was sometimes pushed aside by a combination of imagination and inertia. Perkins Harnly, under the guise of including the contents of a quintessentially American boudoir, actually painted a room in the boarding house he lived in, which he claimed had once been the home of actress Lillian Russell. The concoction he devised was half real and half made up, a Victorian vision of chic abundance, brimming with tapestries, curtains, books, and an impressive array of bibelots. Every surface teems with faithfully rendered objects, a rigor that simultaneously fulfilled its federally issued mandate and gave free rein to its licentious imagination.

The Index did an excellent job of curating the American taste for the products and influences of Europe, Asia and Africa. It had less success in seeking a true national vernacular. But when it failed, it failed miserably, with 18,257 images of peculiar and sometimes eloquent objects. Perhaps the most revealing editorial move was the decision to completely ignore Native American design and treat the continent’s rich traditions of carpets, beadwork, stitching, jewelry, and body art as if they had never existed.

A vintage image of a Native American annotated in red ink explaining his dress and belongings

Wendy Red Star, ‘Peelatchiwaaxpáash / Medicine Crow (Raven)’ (2014) © Brooklyn Museum

This curatorial team has no intention of repeating such a mistake. They are more interested in the way ornaments travel along routes marked by trade, tourism, slavery and migration, and motifs that skip cultures without announcing their origin. The colorful amoeboid pattern we call paisley is named after a Scottish city that specialized in machine versions of designs that originated in Kashmir. We are duly presented with two pieces of evidence: an intricate 1880 design for a scarf allegedly handwoven in what is now Pakistan, and a coarser 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 all over the empire, ridiculed them for profit and robbed skilled artisans of their age-old livelihoods. This is true, but there are a few missing pieces to the story. The British Empire created an immense market for Kashmir scarves in the first place; India’s craftsmen fell victim to the same mechanization forces that plagued weavers in Britain. All ornament starts locally, but is not immune to the global forces of technology and economics.

Left of image has figurative design in outline, right with added color

Pakistani scarf design from Kashmir (ca. 1880) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Intricate flower and leaf patterns in purple, red and blue

George Haité, ‘Design for a Paisley Shawl’ (c. 1850) © Victoria & Albert Museum

For a performance about noise, noise is curiously muted, with works on paper replacing the three-dimensional experiences of buildings, houses and costumes. Architects who were once trained by drawing classical ornaments; a Louis Sullivan pendulum and several Piranesi sketches for a mantelpiece remind us that the hand that signed a paper sometimes raised a city.

For an examination of sensuality, the show is also downright uncomfortable. The designers, London-based Studio Frith, seem to have forgotten the real viewers, forcing us to bend, stretch or squint to read a text and hand out objects and wall panels so confusingly that it’s hard to tell which ones. which belongs to.

Nevertheless, the exhibition makes clear how indispensable Loos’ supposed superfluousness really is. Our brains perceive the symmetries in the seeming randomness of nature and we look for patterns to situate ourselves and reduce anxiety. In a sense, the theorists who debated whether ornament is advanced or atavistic were both right: we decorate to ascend and survive.

until Sept 18.

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