50th Anniversary of Landmark Touring Exhibition OBJECTS: USA Commemorated at Racine Art Museum

Wendell Castle
Wendell Castle Desk (Silver Leaf Desk), 1967 Mahogany, cherry, plywood, gesso, and silver leaf 40 x 89 1/2 x 66 inches Racine Art Museum, Gift of SC Johnson in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of RAM’s Wustum Museum of Fine Arts Photography: Jon Bolton, Racine

Racine Art Museum (RAM) is honored to present OBJECTS REDUX: 50 Years After OBJECTS: USA Defined American Craft, a commemoration and exploration of OBJECTS: USAa landmark exhibition that traveled across the country and overseas beginning in 1969. This exhibition is set to open September 21, 2019 and will be on display through January 5, 2020.

This fall, the RAM exhibition series, OBJECTS REDUX—primarily drawn from the museum’s collection—showcases work made between approximately 1960 and 1985 by artists located in the United States. The shows offer a cursory look at how craft was developing in the last part of the twentieth century. The largest exhibition in the series, OBJECTS REDUX: 50 Years After OBJECTS: USA—which utilizes works borrowed from area lenders as well as work from RAM’s collection—focuses directly on OBJECTS: USA. RAM is partnering with the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft to celebrate the anniversary of this landmark project. In addition to collaborating on a gallery guide to commemorate this event, both institutions are concurrently hosting large exhibitions at their respective venues and utilizing work borrowed from local collections.

In the late 1960s, as society was undergoing social upheaval, studio craft—especially as it was being practiced in the United States—slowly began to undergo changes in content and form. Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, many artists who used craft materials were pushing the boundaries of function and practical use—investigating materials and artistic concepts while beginning to overtly question social, political, environmental, and cultural issues. The public face of studio craft—as the focus of exhibitions, theoretical contemplation, and public appreciation—got a boost when SC Johnson endorsed a project to build a collection that would “promote the American object maker.”

Assembled by art dealer Lee Nordness and then Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now Museum of Arts and Design) director Paul Smith, this collection traveled the country as OBJECTS: USA before being distributed, in the way of gifts, to several participating institutions. Accompanied by a substantial book with images and artist biographies, as well as a sales catalogue titled arts/objects: usa and an hour-long movie, this combination of over 300 works made of so-called craft materials traveled to 20 US and 14 international venues on its multi-year tour. The exhibition introduced a broader public to the possibilities of media most often associated with function, not intellectual, aesthetic, or material investigations. OBJECTS: USA also offered a new way for understanding those works and their makers.

OBJECTS REDUX celebrates the 50th anniversary of OBJECTS: USA by combining works from the original touring exhibition with works by many of the same artists produced as part of the accompanying selling program. Not only is this the first time in 50 years that these particular works have been assembled, it is also the first time that these original exhibition works have been back on display in the same gallery. Artists whose works are featured include Wendell Castle, Arline Fisch, Trudy Guermonprez, Sam Maloof, Walter Nottingham, Don Reitz, and Dorian Zachai.

As OBJECTS: USA underscored, artists in the late 1960s were pushing material and conceptual boundaries in craft media. As work became expansive in size, function was questioned, various techniques and traditions gained new relevance, and personal and social content was interjected. Artists with fiber backgrounds, for example, were creating installations and other projects that emphasized labor and a global context as well as new modes for understanding the material. OBJECTS REDUX: 50 Years After OBJECTS: USA features fiber artists, such as Trude Guermonperez and Ed Rossbach, who both understood and challenged the nature of textiles. Similarly, Walter Nottingham, also showcased in this exhibition, sought to use his large abstracted woven, crocheted, and knotted forms to shape his intangible emotions and thoughts, to make the “unseen visible.”  

OBJECTS REDUX: Studio Craft in Context, 1960-1985, one of three related exhibitions in the fall series, showcases craft within the larger spectrum of work being created at the time. For example, Helen Bitar, represented in the original OBJECTS: USA with brightly colored, stitched pillows is represented in RAM’s Studio Craft in Context exhibition with a large quilt from the late 1960s in bold, almost neon, color and intense pattern. Contrasted with the graphic, cartoony, psychedelic imagery in a Karl Wirsum print from five years later, a complex picture of American art and society begins to form.

Another one of the three related exhibitions in the series, OBJECTS REDUX: Small-Scale Studio Craft of the 1950s and 1960s, showcases primarily functional work made in the decades just prior to OBJECTS: USA. While there were artists already challenging ideas about function, the public most likely thought about craft, if they did at all, in terms similar to the vessels, bowls, and “useful” items represented in this exhibition.