Wide Angle

Bursting The Bauble

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

We all know what important contemporary art is supposed to do: move us into untested waters of experience and thought.

Jewelry has always been one form of art. So why is it that a good 99.99 percent of what is made today doesn't come close to passing that test? Make that 99.999. Considering the bulging display cases at Zales and Kay, you might even have to add another bunch of nines.

This story is about the fraction-of-a-fraction left.

It's about necklaces made of sliced books, shards of Coca-Cola bottles or colored fishing line. They categorically refuse to help their owners show off precious-metal wealth.

And it's about a chunky bracelet made of black rubber that conceals a ball of gold. It caters to its owner's urge to ostentation while mocking it as well.

Or how about a golden ring that sports a little mirror with a tiny coral death's-head staring into it? Every time you look down at your hand you're rudely reminded that, unlike the gold you're gazing at, you're destined to decay.

"Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry From the Helen Williams Drutt Collection," a landmark show now at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, includes these and almost 300 other objects equally designed to stir things up. From 1973 to 2002, Drutt, who's now 78, owned a gallery in Philadelphia that was this country's most important and ambitious venue for "wearable art," as this work is sometimes known. (Another term is "body sculpture." I prefer "excellent jewelry.") After the dealer had wound down her business, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, acquired more than 800 items from Drutt's personal holdings. It then organized this show around them.

In the tiny world she worked in, Drutt built a collection that surveys the field as few private collections of fine art ever could. It covers almost all the angles on the last 40 years of radical jewelry. That means it has the goods on an era that is possibly the first in a century or more when jewelers have made work that stands up as important art.

In the 1960s, jewelers experimented with the most radically modern forms and materials, as the minimalist sculptors did. In the 1970s, many pushed away from slick modernity toward funk and mess -- further from Donald Judd and closer to Keith Haring, that is. In the 1980s, others used images pulled from pop culture to touch on gender, race and sex, as fine artists were also doing around them. And in the 1990s, some of the best jewelers took the same high-concept tack that many artists did, concentrating on ideas more than on a signature look. They also touched on global politics and the environment.

There's one crucial difference between contemporary artists and their jeweler cousins: The artists make the kind of trouble everyone expects of them; the jewelers push against a norm that still assumes that they'll use gold and gems to decorate the status quo.

Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry From the Helen Williams Drutt Collection runs through July 6 at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW. Call 202-633-2850 or visit http://americanart.si.edu.

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