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History Be the Judge

May 16, 2010

Jewelers who attended SOFA/NY last year may have been aware of a brewing controversy: Ruudt Peters’ new “Anima” series bears an unmistakable resemblance to some of Stanley Lechtzin’s poured-wax-in-water/electroformed jewelry from about 1970 to 1980. I first saw the new Peters work in the “Schmuck 2010” catalogue, and I was shocked. I didn’t understand how an experienced professional like Peters could have produced a body of work that was so blatantly unoriginal.

 

A week or so later, I heard a report that Lechtzin was deeply upset. I was told he used the word “plagiarism” to characterize the situation. In such circumstances, lawyers sometimes get involved, and I did not wish to see any of the interested parties - Lechtzin, Stefan Friedemann (co- owner of Ornamentum Gallery, which showed Peters’ work at SOFA) or Peters - get caught up in litigation. So I emailed Friedemann to apprise him of the controversy. Over the next two weeks, I read some of the feedback that Friedemann was getting, and looked into some of the assertions that were being made in support of Peters’ jewelry.

 

Friedemann contacted Lechtzin, but I was not privy to their discussion. Ultimately, Lechtzin sent me an email just before SOFA opened, saying, “Let history be the judge.” Since I know Lechtzin’s work in modest detail – I was one of his grad students at Tyler from 1975 to 1977, and I saw his retrospective here in Philadelphia last year – and since I saw the “Anima” show first hand, I figure I’ll make a contribution to history’s judgment.

 

To start, Peters says he was not aware of Lechtzin’s poured-wax electroforms. I find his claim credible. Lechtzin was known in Europe for his large torques in the 1970s, not for the poured-wax work. There were two books that reproduced a few examples of Lechtzin’s poured-wax jewelry that Peters might have seen, but in both cases the pictures were small and well in the back of the books. (The two books were Barbara Cartlidge’s 1985 Twentieth Century Jewelry and the more recent Cindy Strauss book on the Helen Williams Drutt Collection published by the Houston MFA.) Peters could easily have overlooked the images. In the end, I think it highly unlikely that Peters plagiarized Lechtzin’s work. As far as I can tell, it was a case of accidentally re-inventing the wheel.

 

At SOFA, Peters gave a charming, disarming lecture about his jewelry, including the “Anima” series. He credited Lechtzin’s work, and offered a history of pouring wax into water as a form of divination. (Peters didn’t mention it, but pouring wax into water is also a Surrealist technique, called coulage.) Nobody in the audience questioned Peters about the resemblance to Lechtzin’s jewelry. Everything seemed fine. All the worrying was just momentary hysteria, right?

 

I’m not so inclined to look the other way and pretend everything’s copasetic. There are several problems with the “Anima” series, and the jewelry community might want to think them through.

 

The most obvious problem is that the “Anima” series is not original, at least as far as form is concerned. While I doubt Peters plagiarized, and he probably arrived at the poured-wax-in-water technique independently, it’s also true that Stanley Lechtzin is the originator. Lechtzin brought those forms to jewelry 40 years ago. And Peters’ forms are ridiculously close to Lechtzin’s.

 

Originality is one of the bedrock criteria Westerners employ when they evaluate artworks. Art is regarded as an ongoing discourse, and each original artwork adds something to the story. While most observers discarded the idea that there is only one narrative thread (from Impressionism through Cubism to non-objective art, for instance), we still look for a discernable difference. We don’t ask of art: What’s the same? We always ask: What’s new? What did this artist contribute?

 

To be fair, not all art traditions value originality. In traditional Chinese painting, it was commonplace for an ambitious artist to work in the style of a master. The test of success was how convincing the homage was: if the copy was indistinguishable from the source, it was a good thing. In Western painting, young artists used to set up their easels in museums and assiduously copy great paintings as a learning exercise. And there are traditions in which historical prototypes set a performative standard, which contemporary artists can interpret (or copy) freely. In theater, dance and music, this is called repertory. Observers take great pleasure in noting the fidelity of the reproduction – this is the entire logic for performing classical music on period instruments, for instance. It’s also the logic for rock n’ roll tribute bands.

 

Then there was the heyday of appropriation in the early 1980s, when Sherrie Levine re-photographed famous photographs and claimed her work as original art. In context the tactic made some sense, given that various philosophers were nattering on about the absolute impossibility of new thoughts given the impenetrable “prison-house of language,” etc. etc. Those ideas are now more than 40 years old, and no longer have the capacity to provoke. If anything, pure appropriation is now snooze-inducing. The art world has moved on, and originality has reclaimed some of its glamour.

 

So what are we to think of a notable jewelry artist producing forms that have already been created by another jeweler? You will never convince me that Ruudt Peters is concerned with appropriation or repertory. Nor, given his record, is there any likelihood that he’s questioning the legitimacy of originality as a criterion of value. My conclusion is that Peters thought he was being original. He wasn’t. Basically, he blew it.

 

Stefan Friedemann suggested that Peters followed an entirely different thought process to get to his poured-wax forms, and therefore the “Anima” series must be regarded as an original body of work. According to this logic, a difference in thinking trumps sameness of form. Concept is more important than appearance. To me, this smacks of bad art-school philosophy. Are we really prepared to declare that concept counts for everything, and it doesn’t matter what an artwork looks like? It’s all a matter of the spiel?

 

For the sake of argument, let’s accept Freidemann’s assertion. OK, then, what was Peters’ thought process? In his lecture, Peters told us about his “Lingam” project: a compendium of phalluses he solicited from a large number of artists. Peters then recounted how he wanted to re-connect with his feminine side after all that maleness. To that end, he drew blindfolded for a while. He responded favorably to his blindfold drawings, finding the lack of control appealing. So he embarked on a search for a process to generate wearable forms in a way that similarly removed the artist from control. More or less by accident, he stumbled on pouring melted wax into water. Viola! While he might set up conditions for a certain kind of form – the temperature of the wax, the kind of wax, the amount of wax he poured into the water - the actual form is strictly accidental and beyond the reach of human control. Like Duchamp’s “Three Standard Stoppages,” the visual form is aleatory, more-or-less random. It was this process of semi-controlled accident that led to the “Anima” series.

 

The term “anima” is from Carl Jung. He defines it as “the female element in every male.” (“Approaching the Unconscious” in Man and His Symbols, New York, Doubleday, 1964: 31). According to Jung, dreams allow access to the unconscious, which in turn allows access to archetypes: the great human collective of symbols and wisdom. Among this wisdom is the presence of the anima in males and the animus in females. For a man to accept his anima is to embrace psychological wholeness. But it’s not simple. In Jungian psychology there is a progression within the anima that goes through four stages from self-delusion to self-awareness.

 

In his talk, Peters did not explore the implications of Jung’s anima. Instead, he simply equated the feminine with a loss of conscious control. This is an old sexist connection between femininity and nature – that is, brutish animality. The woman is presumed to be a receptacle of animal instinct, particularly sexual appetite, eager to lead the man of higher intellect into the slough of desire. Needless to say, feminists found this connection offensive. To equate the female with nature/unconscious is to privilege men and demean women. Haven’t we had enough of that nonsense?

 

The feminist protest against equating femininity with the unconscious didn’t stop Peters. Not for one second. Never mind that Jung’s view of the anima is far more nuanced. Never mind that Jung viewed the unconscious as a route to wisdom, not a vehicle for random uncontrol. And although Jung insists there can be a negative aspect of the anima, he never equates the female principle with the unconscious or the primitive.

 

Recent research in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology strongly suggests that there are essential differences between male and female, but these differences are sited in brain structure, child-rearing strategies, social bonding and other phenomena at the intersection of culture and biology. Instead of grounding his thinking in science, Peters blithely resurrected a demeaning old stereotype.

 

Oddly, in aspiring to a lack of control, Peters may have echoed Lechtzin’s own thinking. I recall a graduate seminar in 1976 in which Lechtzin railed against the idea that an artistic act could be unpremeditated. Lechtzin argued that intention and control remains as long as the artist is an active agent in the process. It seemed a strange argument at the time, but I now realize Lechtzin was criticizing the rhetoric surrounding Abstract-Expressionist painting. In the 40s and 50s, many painters claimed that they could paint in an unpremeditated manner, and thus generate unexpected (and presumably inspired) forms. (For a summary of the painterly attitudes towards spontaneous action, see Irving Sandler’s The Triumph of American Painting, 92-100.) Lechtzin’s critique of unpremeditated action, it turns out, explains his interest in pouring wax into water. Here was a way to develop form without direct human intervention. In effect, Lechtzin’s electroforms of the early 70s were a repudiation of a cherished myth of “heroic” American painting. Lechtzin was just as interested in uncontrol as Peters – but for a much more sophisticated reason.

 

Peters made another suspect assertion when he discussed his installation. All his brooches were mounted on circular mirrors, which were suspended from overhead tracks. The mirrors moved and jiggled slightly, so in turn their reflections shimmered on the floors and walls of the Ornamentum booth. To walk through the display was to get slightly disoriented in a thicket of objects and their reflections, in light and shadow. It was a delightful experience.

 

But Peters’ explanation? He said that he came upon the idea of using the mirrors when he remembered that the mirror is an attribute of Venus. That’s nice and all, and classical mythology can sometimes say useful things about human nature. But equating mirrors with the feminine? What a dumb idea. It’s another sexist rap against women: that they are inevitably vain, absorbed in self-regard. But anybody who has walked past a workout gym will see that mirrors and overweening vanity are every bit as masculine as feminine. I loved the installation, but I wish Peters had never mentioned his thought process.

 

I launched this examination of the ideas that support Ruudt Peters’ “Anima” series because it was claimed that his thinking justified the lack of visual originality. A close look at his thinking shows Peters to be naïve at best, and demeaning to women at worst. I’m pretty sure Peters didn’t intend to insult women, but artists must take responsibility for the ideas they put out in the world. And if we are to believe that good jewelry has a conceptual underpinning, then we are obliged to examine the logic that supports the work. If the logic fails, then to some degree the work fails too.

 

Some might disagree. After all, any number of artists have made great work based on bad thinking. In the May 2010 issue of Art in America, Pepe Karmel notes that most of Yves Klein’s thinking was “complete bunkum,” but goes on the observe that “many of the masters of modern art based their work on silly theories, and there’s often something to be learned from an artist’s relation to those theories.” (“Yves Klein: Art and Alchemy,” p. 117) But I believe that one legacy of conceptual art is that we must demand careful thinking. If art flirts with philosophy – which it does – then observers have every right to demand that the thought process be sound.

 

In the end, the “Anima” series is not a good body of work. It is compromised by a lack of originality in visual terms, and by fuzzy sexist thinking. This was not Ruudt Peters’ shining moment. He’ll move on, I’m sure. In the meantime, the whole “Anima” series should be quietly relegated to a shoebox. But that won’t happen, will it?

 

If some good emerges from the situation, maybe people will reevaluate Stanley Lechtzin’s electroforms from the 1970s and early 80s. I think some of his jewelry from that period was brilliant. The poured-wax electroforms were intelligent, subtle, beautiful – and great jewelry.

 

No doubt, some people will think I’m splitting hairs here. (Or they’ll think I’ve got it in for Ruudt Peters. I don’t. I like the guy, and I bought one of his “Azoth” series of brooches.) In art, the consequences of bad ideas are not as urgent as, say, setting off a cherry bomb inside a moving car.  But I don’t think all ideas are equally sensible. The thought process that informs art (or jewelry) must be open to critique. And nobody should get a free pass. Nobody.

 

 

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