“Pattern and Decoration” (P&D) is the name of an art movement that had its moment of visibility in the post-modern pluralism of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Its practitioners include Valerie JaudonMiriam Schapiro, Joyce Kozloff, Kim MacConnel, Tony Robbin, Robert KushnerRobert Zakanitch, and many others. P&D often serves as an unheralded theoretical base for the quilted arts that I am familiar with.

Robert Zakanitch, Red Watercolor, 34 x 36, 2007

Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975 –1985 is the printed catalogue of an exhibit held at the Hudson River Museum in 2007 -2008. The catalogue has excellent essays by Anne Swartz, Arthur Danto, Temma Balducci, and John Perreault, as well as including short biographies of the artists and plates of the exhibited art. Most of the words which follow come from the catalogue.

The P&D catalogue gives a textual underpinning to formats and surfaces that we enjoy but have come to think of as “mere” decoration. Arthur Danto, for example, says that decoration fell somewhere between figuration and abstraction and “encompassed almost the entire visual culture of many non-Western traditions…. The impulse to decorate was the impulse to humanize.”

Miriam Schapiro, The Kimono, 1976, 60 x 50, acrylic and collage on canvas

According to Danto,  the P&D artists were already using decoration before the movement was created, and what naming it did was to “enable its members to recognize what they had in common.”

Joyce Kozloff, Tile Mural for Harvard Square Subway, 1985 -86

Danto is the eternal optimist, claiming that P&D is easily a third mode of art making, and that “formalism ought easily to apply across the boundaries to all three categories of art, had it not been weighted down with prejudices that had little to do with its essential practice….. It is not difficult to suppose that there are three modes of embodiment:” i.e. figuration, abstraction, and decoration.

The P&D movement is obscure, but the impulse, to make pattern, to decorate the environment with beauty,  seems universal, perhaps too common to be seen as on a par with the usual high-art suspects in western art history. Moreover, P&D often lacks irony, a form of expression that dominates almost all art these days. [I’m thinking of D. and the whole LA scene right now….]

Tony Robbin, Coll: the Artist, 2007–4, 56 x 70″

Critics of P&D had to come up with convoluted reasons for rejecting it, although some of the rejections (too pretty, too feminine, too serious) weren’t too hard to come by. But Donald Kuspit in a 1979 article “Betraying the Feminist Intention: the Case Against Feminist Decorative Art” in Arts Magazine felt that “art based on decoration betrayed the critical potential and intention of feminist art.” It apparently was too close to formalism in its theory and therefore, “too authoritarian.” But what is most fascinating is Kuspit’s later “confession:” He felt, he said, that he needed to “rationalize my enjoyment of Rober Kushner’s art  … compelled to apologize intellectually for the deep pleasure I take in it…”

Robert Kushner, Night Garden, Acrylic,Oil,glitter, gold and silver leaf, 60 x 60, 2000

Anne Swartz, the chief contributor to the essays in the catalogue as well as the curator of the exhibit, says “I suspect that until recently, a certain Puritanism surrounded the view of feminist art that prevented it from being seen as acceptable when it was sexually exciting and provocative. So when P&D art utilized some of the mechanisms of feminist art (provocation, pleasure, softness, etc) it challenged the intellectual systems that were supposed to be uppermost in the viewer’s mind, prompting a critic like Kuspit to repudiate the intentions of P&D as not supporting the utopian notion of feminist art as a sterile ideology.”

Swartz also speaks of the “bombastic approach of the new-expressionists…. It [P&D] wasn’t self-referential…and [had] an overall treatment of the surface.” Kim MacConnel said to Swartz, “P&D is nonhierarchical in the sense that it is not refining itself to an end point and time…. It is much more chaotic. It is open to different voices, it accepts different voices, it’s making different voices.”

Kim MacConnel,Tri-Rotating, Acrylic on canvas, 95 x 126, 1980

I’m fascinated by the theoretical underpinnings of this artistic movment,especially the constructs of “non-self-referential” and “non-hierarchical.” aAlthough I’ve moved far away from Pattern and Decoration in my own work, I still love it and so, perhaps, am looking for the verbal language which would allow me to speak more “authoritatively” about it.  But reading and looking at these materials also makes me think I could incorporate P&D into my own vision. One artist, Leslie Gabrielese, serves me as an example:

Leslie Gabrielse, Dancing on Top of the Mountain, 60 x 130, 2001, fabric and acrylic paint

I am a bit bemused at how enthralling I found the textual materials in this catalogue. There’s nothing like having one’s prejudices confirmed, I guess. Aside from the art and perception in this post, when you examine your work history, have you found at one time or another  some verbal explanation that seemed to capture something about a visual that you had but couldn’t explain? Something that enabled you to recognize what you had in common with other workers in the same modes?

The catalogue, by the way, is Pattern and Decoration, and is online as a Google book. The Google pdf version cannot be printed, but you can order a hard copy from the Hudson River Museum, Elizabeth A. Sol, Manager of Administration & Visitor Services, The Hudson River Museum, 511 Warburton Ave. Yonkers, NY 10701 Phone – (914) 963-4550, ext. 239 Fax – (914) 963-8558. The museum doesn’t seem to have a secure online server, so I ordered my copy by phone. A good slide show of the works (many of which couldn’t be included in the Google online version) can be seen in the NY Times Here is the accompanying Times review.

I apologize for the slightly formal tone of this blog entry — I’m still assimilating the language appropriate to P&D and so find myself less easy about explaining it. But here’s one last image that I found, all on my own, to continue the dialogue:

Yinka Shonibare, Here