MWPAI exhibit shows how New York led decorative arts movement of early 20th century

Jul 15, 2017

New York State led the country in a decorative arts movement in the early 20th century and an exhibition at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute in Utica showcases those products and objects. The country lacked a modern art identity in the mid-1920s, but the revolutionary time period changed everything.

In 1925, Paris was the epicenter of modernism, an art movement that expressed the changes of society at that time. Guest curator Lori Zabar worked with the museum for two years to gather objects, all made in New York, that reflected a new aesthetic, influenced by the time period and inspired by the 1925 Paris exhibition.

“By 1935, New York had become the epicenter, and what this exhibition is trying to show is how that happened,” Zabar said.

There is a towering wooden bookcase by Paul Frankl from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Paul Frankl's "Skyscraper" bookcase.
Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO News

“And he literally translated the skyscraper into a functional object,” Zabar said.

There is a silver cocktail set and martini glasses, made during prohibition, with zig-zag stems and a triangular base.

“To me it almost looks like its dancing to jazz,” Zabar said.

Zabar said it was a time when women flappers became independent, started working, won the right to vote, and changed their fashion style abruptly.

Cocktail set and martini glasses.
Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO News

“They had short bobbed hair,” Zabar said. "They wore dresses without waists. They had short dresses which really made everyone focus on shoes.”

A close-fitting hat made in Buffalo and peep-toe shoes made in Rochester shows upstate New York was a big manufacturer of these products at the time. Companies were hiring artists and sculptors, many from New York City, to design or advertise their products. Arrow brand collars and shirts in Troy, New York hired J. C. Leyendecker as an illustrator for one of the most popular advertising campaigns in  the country.

J. C. Leyendecker's Arrow collar man.
Credit Tom Magnarelli / WRVO News

“Leyendecker was gay and his partner was the model for Arrow collar man and women and men fell in love with him,” Zabar said.

Greek and Roman revivals can be seen in a clear vase by Steuben Glass in Corning featuring antelopes.

“They’re going across the vase very similarly to a Greek urn,” Zabar said.

A green colored radio made in Brooklyn has ribbed decoration representing speed, the streamlining process and new technologies of the Machine Age.

“It’s got the skyscraper shape, Egyptian revival plague, and it’s made out of plastic,” Zabar said.

And from those radios came Jazz music, a product of the Harlem renaissance, and what was known as a “New Negro” movement to combat stereotypes and Jim Crow laws.

Zabar said what all the objects in the exhibition have in common is that they were new and different.

“You have to realize that all these artists and designers are saying to themselves, how can I create something that is truly American?" Zabar said.

That identity borrowed from the past to create an explosive future. “Roaring into the Future: New York 1925-35,” runs until October.