Fine Art's Stepchild Moves Into Limelight

A T-SHIRT worn by a visitor to the American Craft Museum says it all: ``Rage against the Machine.''

The current exhibition, ``The Ideal Home: 1900-1920,'' documents a renewed interest in handcrafts during an era when the machine clattered at full throttle.

Actually, the 200 objects on display spring from an ethic promoting an ideal society as well as an ideal home. In reaction to the dehumanizing effects of industrialism, handcrafts were touted as a means to restore dignity to the worker, beauty to the domestic environment, and quality to life.

The exhibition kicks off an ambitious effort spearheaded by Janet Kardon, director of the American Craft Museum, to document the history of 20th-century American craft.

A total of eight displays will explore major achievements in ceramics, textiles, glass, metal, jewelry, furniture, and architecture.

By the year 2000, a collection of essays by noted experts in the craft field will be cataloged in a series of volumes published by Harry N. Abrams and edited by Kardon. The first of the volumes was timed to the exhibition opening. Roots in Utopian Theory

The first installment of these shows depicts the roots of American craft in the British Arts and Crafts movement about which John Ruskin wrote, ``Industry without art is brutality.'' The crusade's godfather, Utopian theorist William Morris, saw handcrafts as a way to make beauty ``a practicable, realizable dream.''

The American version of the movement hewed to the principle of respect for natural materials. Frank Lloyd Wright's sleek oak chair, for instance, is unadorned with paint or elaborate carving. Visible woodgrain is the main surface embellishment, as in two spectacular cypress tables by John Scott Bradstreet, where a serpentine grain pattern enriches organic motifs.

The lines of most of the furniture are blocky and rectilinear, as in a settle by Gustav Stickley. One New World departure from the purist position of Morris involved compromise with the machine. To make Mission furniture affordable to the middle class - a democratic mercantile attitude - it was machine-made but handfinished.

American craft always provided a forum for the individual seer. The insistence on personal vision, regardless of how eccentric, is nowhere so evident as in George Ohr's ceramics. Once called the ``mad potter of Biloxi'' for his idiosyncratic style, Ohr twisted the thin clay walls of his vessels, as is obvious in a slightly squashed gravy boat.

Another craftswoman who took charge of her ceramics from concept to execution was Adelaide Alsop Robineau. On one porcelain ginger jar, she carved for a thousand hours, incising an overall design with a crochet hook. Hugh Robertson combined chemistry with art in four years of research to create a unique oxblood glaze, which he termed ``Robertson's blood'' for all the pain it cost him. Four vases, the color of cordovan leather, are displayed.

The heterogeneity of American culture produced diverse ornamental motifs. The flood of immigration in the early 20th century flowered in non-indigenous imagery, like waterlilies from Asian art. Rookwood Pottery vases by Kataro Shirayamadani recall both Japan and Monet's Givery.

American craft dallied with medieval exotica, based on Morris's belief that craft guilds in the Middle Ages represented the last gasp of egalitarian brotherhood. A marvelous wooden crib by Frank Jeck, as elaborately carved as a choir stall in a Gothic cathedral, shows this antiquarian tendency.

For the most part, however, the works are clean, straightforward, and geometrical. In contrast to the Victorians' ``horror vacuii'' in which frills and furbelows adorned every square inch, simplicity replaced multiplicity. Where surface embellishment existed, it was inspired by nature.

As the people left the land for cities, interior furnishings usurped the role of nature by incorporating botanical motifs. An Adirondack desk by Ernest Stowe looks as if it were assembled directly from a woodpile. Veneered with birchbark, its legs are cedar trunks with the bark intact. One almost expects a woodpecker to pop out of a drawer. On Jacques Sicard's Kafkaesque vase, painted beetles swarm over a leafy gold design. Tiffany opalescence

By far the most nature-oriented objects are the glass, ceramics, and metalwork of Louis Comfort Tiffany. His lampshade is a net of dragonfly wings. Vessels are in the form of fiddlehead ferns, lily pads, and peacock tails.

Tiffany's painterly landscapes in stained glass glow with the opalescent glass he pioneered.

Ever since the Renaissance, crafts have been considered a poor stepchild to the fine arts. Only recently has contemporary studio craft been revered as an art form. This exhibition demonstrates that nearly a century ago stylistically innovative objects could be as much art as craft.

* `The Ideal Home' closes in New York on Feb. 27, 1994. A condensed version of the exhibition later travels to the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., (Nov. 8, 1994 to Jan. 8, 1995), Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Ind., (Feb. 25 to May 21, 1995), and the Whitney Museum of American Art in Stamford, Conn., (June 20 to Sept. 13, 1995).

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