At the height of the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project Work-Relief Program sent four hundred illustrators across the United States to document the nation’s decorative arts heritage in search of a “useable past”. All of the documentation was to be rendered in watercolor. Each image was to depict an object that was distinctly American in design and ornamentation.
It was easier said than done. Finding skilled watercolorists was straightforward enough given the dearth of commercial work, but the American vernacular proved elusive. Many of the 18,257 illustrations in the Index of American Design – portraying objects ranging from patchwork quilts to painted chests – show glimpses of influence from Europe, Asia, and Africa.
In retrospect, the failure of the Index of American Design to support isolationist fantasies of the 1930s was anything but tragic. As a thrilling new exhibition at the Drawing Center shows, the cultural promiscuity of ornamentation is its primary source of vitality. Exuberantly eclectic, The Clamor of Ornament is a welcome antidote to provincial claims of exceptionalism and domineering hierarchies of style.
The exhibition takes its name from a book that was dedicated to classification and ranking even more stringent than the Federal Art Project’s Index. Published in 1856, The Grammar of Ornament documented ornamentation from around the world, showing examples from ancient times to the 19th century in one hundred spectacular color plates meticulously rendered by the British architect Owen Jones. More than just a sourcebook, the Grammar sought to show ornamentation as a universal human phenomenon. According to Jones, some cultures were more aesthetically accomplished than others. (His book set Islamic design at the apex while disparaging the achievements of China.) More convincingly, he argued that every act of ornamentation drew from natural sources, elaborated through geometry.
The association with nature was deepened by the 20th century American architect Louis Sullivan, who perceived the process of ornamentation as organic, occurring within a rigid geometric framework. Sullivan gave full expression to these ideas in “A System of Architectural Ornament”, in which he wrote that ornament originated like the “seed-germ” of a plant and culminated in “foliate and efflorescent forms”.
This metaphor is appropriate not only as tacit recognition of botanical tendencies in ornamentation but also because ornamental motifs take root as easily as dandelions. The hybridized objects in the Index of American Design are evidence of this. In fact, as the Drawing Center curators point out, influences emerge even where traces of contact are scant. For instance, Protestant immigrant communities living in the American Midwest in the late 18th century embellished documents with imagery of birds and flowering trees that appear to have been inspired by Persian and Mughal textiles.
The image that emerges from the Drawing Center show is one of ceaseless intermixture resulting in endless variation of form. This will not come as a surprise to anyone who has observed the ubiquity of motifs such as the arabesque, found in Islamic mosques, Art Nouveau candlesticks, and wildstyle graffiti on subway trains. Nonetheless, the exhibition provides enthralling elaboration, as well as a reminder of the generative role played by drawing, which translates three-dimensional designs into two-dimensional form for easy transport to distant climes where they can unfurl in novel ways.
Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, high culture has not had high esteem for ornamentation. Modernist architects and designers were particularly scornful, presenting ornamentation of all kinds as degenerate because it does not appear to serve a purpose. Seeing so much ornamentation in one place, as one can at the Drawing Center, one might simply balk at Modernist strictures in the name of aesthetic enjoyment. However there is a more significant discovery to be made in the jungle of foliate and efflorescent forms on Wooster Street. Ornamentation is a creative commons for cultural interaction. In a time of separatism and xenophobia, what higher purpose could there be than cultural connection?