AMERICAN MUSEUMS have been--and continue to be--slow to acknowledge the power and importance of contemporary crafts in the world of art. Although the expressive potential of clay, glass, wood, metal and the textile arts has been revealed more and more by American creative artists in the past 30 years, museums other than those devoted to craft and folk art have hardly given the craft media a nod of recognition. Even in the face of the immensely popular craft exhibition of objects from Tutankhamen's tomb it has been difficult to make art historians see that modern crafts can be as vital visually as those of ancient Egypt.
Contemporary artists first discovered American folk sculpture and painting early in this century, and in the 1930s the WPA programs focused attention on folk crafts. But because artists in the craft media have had trouble getting recognition for their work, publishers have, until recently, done little to make these artists and the objects they create better known. In fact, of all the media from which art is made, those associated with the traditional crafts have been given shortest shrift in the world of books. Except for expanded treatises on macram,e, quilting, dollmaking and other crafts practiced part-time or at home by hobbyists, the craft media have been scarcely represented on America's bookshelves. Yes, there have been interesting, and sometimes scholarly, publications dealing with ceramics, or tapestries, or armor, from other times and places, but only now are we beginning to see books that deal with the seriousness of the 20th-century contemporary crafts movement in America.
Those of us in museums or universities who attempt to show and discuss expressive objects made today from materials usually relegated to consideration with the "decorative arts" have had few sourcebooks to rely on. Instead, information on the object-makers and their movement in this century has been available only piecemeal from assorted exhibition catalogs and biographical treatises on or by movement leaders (Maria Martinez, Peter Voulkos, Harvey Littleton, for example). Now there is more--not just glossier, more colorful coffeetable books glorifying the appearance of these often- revolutionary new creative objects, but books with facts, analyses, interpretations!
The first major book on the subject was probably Objects: USA published by Viking soon after the opening at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art, and the Renwick Gallery's parent museum) of the exhibition with the same name--a monumental survey of art in craft media that was more clearly art than decorative art. That book, now out of print, continues to be a major reference work, illustrating more than 300 objects, and providing biographies of their makers. The first major book focusing on the American manifestation of the English Arts and Crafts Movement came along in 1972, and provided historical perspective on the origins of the movement so revitalized today. It was The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1876-1916, edited by Robert J. Clark (Princeton University Press, $35; paperback, $12.95), and, like Objects: USA, accompanied a major exhibition. It is still in demand in the Museum Shop of the Renwick Gallery, host of its Washington showing. It also provides clear biographical information, but unlike Objects: USA, it has major essays on the developments that contributed to the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Since then, exhibitions on American crafts have proliferated along with the numbers of artists shown in them. Publications of some seriousness, like Sharon S. Darling's informative books accompanying exhibitions at the Chicago Historical Society, Chicago Metalsmiths, coauthored by Gail F. Casterline (University of Chicago Press, $15, 1977), and Chicago Ceramics and Glass: An Illustrated History From 1871 to 1933 (University of Chicago Press, $25, 1979) are significant contributions to both the historical and contemporary literature.
Other museums, notably the Renwick and the American Craft Museum in New York, often prepare catalogs which are useful after their exhibitions have closed, but they are rarely available beyond their museum bookstores. Two exceptions are American Porcelain: New Expressions in an Ancient Art (Timber Press. P.O. Box 1631, Beaverton, Oregon 97075, $14.95, 1981) which I prepared in conjunction with the Renwick exhibition just closed, and New Glass: A Worldwide Survey, produced by The Corning Museum of Glass (Dover, $25, 1981) to accompany the international survey of contemporary glass now traveling abroad. Each includes a photograph of virtually every piece in the exhibitions, providing a review of contemporary work in a single medium, along with information on the artists. The sales of these books attest to the attention that a burgeoning number of serious collectors are giving to these lively arts.
The now defunct magazine, Craft Horizons, which Rose Slivka edited for the American Craft Council, stood virtually alone through the 1960s and '70s in bringing serious art in craft media, its origins and meanings, into print. Unfortunately, magazine articles are often difficult to find again when you want to read them. A partial solution to that problem is the collection of critical essays, such as that Garth Clark edited, Ceramic Art: Comment and Review 1882-1977 (Dutton, $18.95; paperback, $9.95, 1978). That effort was followed by Clark and coauthor Margie Hughto in A Century of Ceramics in the United States 1878-1978 (Dutton, $19.95; paperback, $12.95, 1979), a factually flawed but nonetheless useful anthology on the esthetics of ceramic art in this country.
Magazines also spawn their own publications. The Taunton Press, after publishing its bimonthly Fine Woodworking for several years, has produced Fine Woodworking Biennial Design Book (1977) and Fine Woodworking Design Book 2 (1978) (Scribners; paperback, $7.95 and $12, respectively) which are largely pictorial surveys of contemporary functional and artistic work in wood.
New on the bookshelves this year are two volumes that should become useful references to contemporary artists and collectors in fiber and porcelain media. Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen, who wrote Beyond Crafts: The Art Fabric (Van Nostrand Reinhold, $35, 1972) which dealt with the origins in the 20th century of the fiber arts movement, have followed its format of large pages and color illustrations in The Art Fabric: Mainstream (Van Nostrand Reinhold, $39.95, 1981). Beautiful as it is, The Art Fabric is useful, too, in that the artists' esthetics and viewpoints are discussed along with technical descriptions of their work. Karen McCready and Jan Axel collaborated on Porcelain: Traditions and New Visions (Watson-Guptill, $30, 1981), which contains useful information and stunning pictures. Their book deals with the origins of porcelain and the regard in which it has been held over several centuries, and discusses esthetic and social attitudes toward it, and the role of the porcelain collector.
Other new books on the shelves this year include a paperback version of Susan Peterson's 1974 book, Shoji Hamada, a Potter's Way and Work (Kodansha International, $26; paperback, $12.95, 1981). Hamada was one of Japan's great national treasures in this century, the potter whose life and work inspired the modern movement in American ceramics after his visit here in the 1950s. Peterson's 23-year association with Hamada, her insight as a potter, and her powers of observation give authority to this record of his way of life and work. It is anecdotal and warm, but there are insufficient photographs of HamMetalsmitada's work to be very satisfying to a collector, and those that are included are unprofessional.
George Nakashima, the American architect and furniture craftsman, is admirable for the fierce independence from stylistic influences in his work, and for the reverence for wood he shows in the furniture he designs and makes. His The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker's Reflections (Kodansha International, $42, 1981.) is a book of high quality. It deals with Nakashima's life and influences, and includes a rather long dissertation on trees, and an excellent section called "The Making of an Object." Both drawings and photographs illustrate the book, showing Nakashima in and around his New Hope, Pennsylvania, studio and home, and showing the tables, desks, chairs and other furniture for which he is widely known.
Not all of the new books are good ones, unfortunately. In looking at American Indian Pottery by John Barry (Books Americana/Crown, $27.50, 1981) "an identification and value guide," I was distressed at the poor photographs of the pots, the mixed quality of the objects represented and shown with their prices (which undoubtedly are already out of date), and the focus on collecting without showing the finest examples and discussing their merits. For example, the section on San Ildefonso Pueblo mentions the work of Barbara Gonzales and Tony Da, who descend from the most famous native potter, Maria Martinez, but illustrates only one piece by Gonzales and none by Da. Other examples by Martinez are shown, and provide examples of various periods of her career with information on her signature, but do not seem to be of the quality we were able to select for the Renwick's exhibition, Maria Martinez: Five Generations of Potters, in 1978. Such a book geared to collectors should provide the best examples and explain why they are the best.