Curator’s Eye: Neckpiece by Art Smith

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THERE ARE FEW JEWELERS WHO HAVE USED THE HUMAN body as effectively in creating three-dimensional wearable forms as Art Smith. When the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts and Design) gave him a one-man show in 1969, he said in the catalogue: “[the question is] not how do bracelets go, but what can be done with an arm?” “A piece of jewelry,” he wrote, “is in a sense an object that is not complete in itself. Jewelry is a ‘what is it?’ until you relate it to the body. The body is a component in design just as air and space are. Like line, form, and color, the body is a material to work with. It is one of the basic inspirations in creating form.”

Smith grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, at a time when it was even more challenging than it is today for African Americans aspiring to be artists. After graduating from the Cooper Union in 1940, Smith eventually opened his own jewelry store on West 4th Street and built a strong and loyal clientele among other artists and also performers, such as Duke Ellington and dancers and choreographers Talley Beatty, Claude Marchant, and Pearl Primus.

This piece typifies the elements often observed in Smith’s work. Made of brass, a beautiful yet democratic material, the design makes use of positive and negative space with wide solid forms as well as thin sinuous lines. The irregularity of the shape suggests its place on the body, while also conveying the elegant movements of dance.

Barbara Paris Gifford
Assistant curator
Museum of Arts and Design
New York