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Funky, Funny and Fussy

Reassessing the Pattern and Decoration Movement

Robert Kushner, Pink Leaves (1979). Courtesy Ludwig Museum—Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, donation of Peter and Irene Ludwig. Photo: Ludwig Museum—Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest. © Robert Kushner

BY Jonathan Griffin
writer and critic

Published
In Analysis

An almost forgotten movement is being rediscovered

You don’t “want to be an outlier in your conviction about the relevance of work to the present moment: you want to know that new generations of curators, scholars and artists are seeing something too,” says Anna Katz, an Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

She is organizing a major survey exhibition dedicated to a movement that was mysteriously absent in the art historical discourse of the 1990s and early 2000s. One particular work in MOCA’s collection caught her attention: several strips of cloth hanging down loosely from a horizontal bar, the hand-painted panels resembling bolts of colorful patterned fabric featuring jolly watermelons, ice creams, a smiley face and a baseball player, alongside abstract designs, but painted by hand. “When I first saw it, I thought ‘What the hell is this?’”, Katz says.

Kim MacConnel, Slide Out (1980). The Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of Paula and Allan Rudnick

The work was Slide Out (1980) and the artist was Kim MacConnel, part of a group of artists working in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s called the Pattern and Decoration movement. The forthcoming MOCA exhibition (“With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972–1985”, 27 October, 2019-30 March, 2020) is one of several exhibitions about the movement, which reemerged in 2007 via a modest survey at the Hudson River Museum which was praised by The New York Times critic Holland Cotter as “funky, funny, fussy, perverse, obsessive, riotous, accumulative, awkward, hypnotic”.

Two major surveys have since been mounted in Europe: “Pattern and Decoration: Ornament as Promise”, which opened at the Ludwig Forum, Aachen last September and is currently on show at Mumok, Vienna (until 8 September), and “Pattern, Decoration & Crime”’, which originated at Mamco, Geneva last October and will travel to Le Consortium, Dijon, this May.

So, what the hell is Pattern and Decoration?

Robert Zakanitch, Flash (1978). mumok Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, on loan from the Austrian Ludwig Foundation. Photo: mumok. © Robert Zakanitch

To some, it was a reaction against the hegemony of Minimalist sculpture and painting at the beginning of the 1970s – the “minimalist grey slabs”, as Katz puts it, that were ubiquitous at that time. Yet one of the artists, Robert Kushner, gets impatient when it is described as “a reaction against Minimalism.” In the Ludwig Forum catalogue, he explains: “It was much more an issue of temperament. We all loved things to look at that were full, not reduced to a barely inflected surface… If a newly discovered source had color, movement, association, richness, charm, well, bring it on.”

The group included, amongst others, Kushner, Valerie Jaudon, Tina Girouard, Joyce Kozloff, Kim MacConnel, Miriam Schapiro, Brad Davis and Robert Zakanitch, and was one of the few modern artistic movements to self-designate autonomously. The work produced by these artists, though usually abstract and vibrantly colorful, varied. Jaudon painted geometric patterns influenced both by Frank Stella and Islamic and Celtic ornamentation while Kushner’s paintings developed in tandem with the costumes he made and wore in performances and Kozloff created installations including ceramic tiles and silk-screened fabric wall-hangings referencing Native American, Persian, Berber, Egyptian and Art Nouveau designs.

The artists “wanted to make an art of aesthetic inclusion, which also for them was a political inclusion,” Katz says. “They were saying ‘more is more’.” One of Pattern and Decoration’s most distinctive characteristics was that, rather than adopting a critical, polemical position, it was an unironic—even sentimental—expression of these artists’ personal passions.

Miriam Schapiro, Dormer (1979). Photo: Carl Brunn/Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst Aachen. © Estate of Miriam Schapiro/Bildrecht Wien, 2019

While Pattern and Decoration had roots in the Feminist art of the early 1970s (Schapiro, a senior member, led the Feminist Art Program at CalArts with Judy Chicago), some male members rejected the notion that theirs were primarily Feminist concerns. The reality is more nuanced; after all, this was the time of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam movements, during which there was growing consciousness of non-Western cultures. It was the hippie era, one in which an environmentalist movement encouraging the recycling of discarded materials developed. The questioning of traditional gender roles—by both men and women—was just one aspect of the broad sociopolitical changes taking place.

Regardless of whether the artists themselves saw their motivations as Feminist, “their radical reappraisal of the decorative and their challenge to those hierarchies” are inarguably connected to the issues that arose out of the Feminist movement, Katz argues. 

The approaches and impulses of the Pattern and Decoration movement spread beyond the core group of members. “There is a wide range of artists, well beyond what’s normally considered, who were rethinking decorative objects and patterned surfaces in that period,” says Katz, who is including in her exhibition the work of artists such as Lynda Benglis who identified as Feminist, alongside work by figures including Billy Al Bengston and Al Loving, who were only peripherally associated with P&D.

Why has the reassessment taken so long?

Today, trends in contemporary art, such as what Katz calls the “meteoric rise” of ceramics, have made viewers more receptive to Pattern and Decoration. “Everywhere I look in younger artists’ studios I see color and pattern and an investment in surface,” she says. “I see artists thinking through Matisse, and artists thinking through the global origins of abstraction.” Painters from Sarah Cain to Alex Olson, from Rebecca Morris to Mickalene Thomas, all make work in which we can see the legacy of Pattern and Decoration, while Sanford Biggers and Jeffrey Gibson have both acknowledged the movement as an influence.

Additionally, our current climate is vastly more attentive to historical Feminist art even than it was a decade ago. And, for Esther Boehle, who curated the show at the Ludwig Forum, “the topics dealt with by Pattern and Decoration have become increasingly relevant and perhaps even controversial, in a world that is far more globalized and characterized by asymmetrical power relations than ever before.” 

Why did it vanish?

Valerie Jaudon, Hattiesburg (1979). Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst Aachen. Photo: Carl Brunn/Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst Aachen. © Bildrecht Wien, 2019

The reasons why it so abruptly disappeared in the first place are harder to ascertain though the emergence in the 1980s of Postmodernism in critical discourse was a major factor. While it shared P&D’s affinity for pluralism and the transgressive mixing of high and low, Postmodernism differed in one crucial respect: above all, it was a viewpoint characterized by irony and skepticism. P&D’s unironic embrace of beauty, and its sincere homage of its sources, came to be viewed with suspicion by the academic community. Still today, says Katz, “Critical theory does not really provide a way to think about this love, this sincerity, this embrace.”

The 1970s were also a period in which there were tectonic shifts in the contemporary art market, says Allan Schwartzman, co-founder of AAP. “It was a decade dominated by art of scale, by works situated in the landscape, or by art created in such ephemeral media as performance and video—and consequently the American market in particular had little interest in the work of emerging artists,” he says. Nonetheless, the New York dealer Holly Solomon was the main champion of Pattern and Decoration artists in the early 1970s, and who brought the artists she represented considerable commercial success.

There was interest in the work by European dealers including Bruno Bischofberger and Thomas Ammann, whose “strategy was to buy in depth, begin to develop interest in the work, and sit on the bulk of the inventory as demand grew,” Schwartzman says, adding that “such a practice depends on limiting access and accelerating rises in pricing.” Solomon—whose dealing functioned in a different way, focused more on the long-term growth of the artist’s career—and was cooperative only to a point.

As the market began to accelerate in 1979 and 1980 for successive generations of younger artists, and with the emergence of Annina Nosei-Weber, and Metro Pictures—plus the rise of Mary Boone as a major force in the market—the tide shifted from Solomon to the next generation that would come to define the market of the 1980s, from which today’s market rises. “I always felt that there was less of a delineation between P&D and the next generation that emerged, but there was an attitude that was substantially different between them,” Schwartzman says. “And that attitude ultimately ruled where the market focused and how it evolved.”

Despite recent curatorial attention, we are not seeing an uptick in the market for Pattern and Decoration yet, says Schwartzman: these things don’t necessarily correlate. Meanwhile, the museums have more work to do themselves. Beyond two works by MacConnel, “MOCA’s collection does not yet really tell the Pattern and Decoration story,” Katz says, adding: “Of course, I hope to change that through this show.”

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