April 11, 2013
“We knew that nostalgia goes hand in hand with style as the driving force behind all these decisions. What art succeeds or gets remembered and functions again? What has shelf life? What makes it? It’s all nostalgia. We knew we were engaging in that. History is always as close as the person you’re talking to and what they’re talking about.”
—Art Club 2000, Art Forum, February 2013
In 1993, seven students from Cooper Union formed an artists’ collective called Art Club 2000 with the help of Colin de Land, who gave them an exhibition at his gallery, American Fine Arts. There, they showed “Commingle,” a series of staged photographs shot around New York City in which all the members of the collective wore clothing purchased at the Gap (and returned shortly thereafter because of the store’s lenient return policy).
Twenty years ago, the Gap, which had been around since 1969, was on an upswing, rapidly opening stores all over the country. It was also determined to create a more upscale image with aspirational ad campaigns. The late 1980s’ “Individuals of Style” campaign, for example, was a series of black-and-white photographs of actors, writers, musicians and cultural influencers posing, very seriously, in Gap clothes. Following that, in the early ’90s, it launched the “Who Wore Khakis” campaign, a collection of archival images of famous historical figures sporting khaki pants, turning an otherwise ordinary garment into a must-have.
A selection of Art Club 2000′s (AC2K) images is included in the New Museum’s current exhibition, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star,” a collection of works from artists including Alex Bag, Rachel Harrison and Felix Gonzalez-Torres who represent what the art world looked like 20 years ago. Patterson Beckwith, a member of the now-defunct group, spoke with Threaded about the role of the Gap in AC2K’s “Commingle” series and what it’s like to look at those Gap-filled images years later.
The Gap in the early and mid 1990s positioned itself as aspirational through the sale of very basic clothes. The brand tried hard to convey a certain lifestyle that AC2K responded to with sardonic criticality in the “Commingle” series. What did the Gap represent in 1993 to AC2K?
The early ’90s were a time in New York City when we were first starting to see Starbucks on every corner. The Gap had recently opened on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco and on St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue near Cooper Union. They’d just opened 20 locations in Manhattan and there were loads of ads in bus shelters—it was kind of in your face and we were responding to that.
How did that overabundance of the Gap translate to your art practice?
We wanted to create an art show focused on the idea of institutional critique. We were studying with Hans Haacke at Cooper Union who was using research, reportage and photography in his work. We decided we wanted “Commingle” to be a critique of institutional critique. We had to select an institution, and we chose the Gap. Normally, an institutional critique might examine a museum or gallery that the work is actually in. We were doing something a little different, but we were looking to how Hans Haacke’s journalistic style and research had informed his work.
How did you research the Gap? What did you find?
This was pre-Internet so we started in the library and found a few business magazine articles and interviews. We applied for jobs at the Gap, we hung around the stores, we took pictures inside the stores – but we needed more information. We went through the trash at Gap stores and all their corporate culture was getting thrown in the garbage—sales manuals, employee handbooks, flashcards, handwritten notes from one shift manager to the next.
Nostalgia seeps into these AC2K photos now, 20 years later, as we remember, rather sheepishly, the styles we once wore. Because the Gap’s look at that time was so ubiquitous and so distinctively Gap, how did the relate-ability and familiarity of the garments play into your work?
We were dressing up as people who shopped at the Gap. We would pick the most ridiculous, brightly colored Gap fashions of the summer of 1993 and put them together as we saw people wearing them. Because there were seven of us in the group, it could be difficult to agree on anything, but we all thought it was fun to dress up. Even if we weren’t into fashion, we could all put on costumes and take pictures.
It calls to mind the work of photographer, Cindy Sherman, who uses ordinary clothing and makeup to transform herself, rather powerfully, into very specific characters in her photographs.
Yeah, what we wore were clothes you’d see in the stores at the time, relatively normal stuff. We might not have actually been wearing the clothes ourselves, but it was being worn—as strange and horrible as some of that stuff looks 20 years later. The photo in Times Square where we’re wearing sunglasses, and dressed in denim and bandanas and boots—we’re really playing a character. We’re playing a whole variety of characters throughout the series.
Gap clothes in the early ’90s were androgynous. As is apparent from the New Museum show, discussions about identity politics, gender roles and sexuality were present in art, and in culture in general, at that time. How did the unisex look of the Gap clothes in the “Commingle” series reference those conversations?
We were 19- or 20-year-old art school students studying with Hans Haacke, Laura Cottingham, Doug Ashford and that’s what we were learning about. It was on their minds and so it was on our minds.
In the cycles of fashion, the androgyny thing was kind of hip at that moment. And we were fine with people looking at the photos and not being able to tell the gender of some of the people. I think the Gap clothes definitely helped with that, especially in creating a kind of uniform. We enjoyed playing around with androgyny and gender roles and not shying away from the idea that your identity is wrapped up in how you present yourself and what you choose to wear.
The locations in which the photos are taken—a coffee shop, library, movie theater, furniture store – have a generic feel to them, just as the clothing does. Together they create very ambivalent tableaux. What were you trying to achieve?
We were introduced to the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the idea of constructed reality photography that had been gaining popularity at the time—photography that is based on cinema. The idea that every photo is really constructed influenced our thinking.
How did the shoots come together?
We operated like a fashion editorial shoot. There was a division of labor—makeup, scouting locations, styling, selecting clothes. We wouldn’t necessarily go shopping together. Like a fashion editorial, a change of location would mean a change of clothing. Even though we’d never done fashion shoots before, somehow we knew that was something we were supposed to do and so that’s what we did.
This interview was edited and condensed.
NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star is open through May 26, 2013, at the New Museum in New York City.
April 5, 2013
Have a look at the paintings of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger and other Cubist painters whose work included hard, geometric forms and visible lines. As these artists were working in their studios, fashion designers, particularly those in France, were taking cues from their paintings. With la garçonne (the flapper, in French) in mind, the designers created fashions with the clean lines and angular forms we now associate with the 1920s-and with Cubism.
The styles we’ve come to connect with Louise Brooks, Norma Talmadge, Colleen Moore and other American actresses on the silver screen in the Jazz Age can be traced back to Europe, and more specifically, a few important designers.
- Jean Patou, known for inventing knit swimwear and women’s tennis clothes, and for promoting sportswear in general (as well as creating the first suntan oil), helped shape the 1920s silhouette. Later in the decade, he revolutionized hemlines once again by dropping them from the knee to the ankle.
- Elsa Schiaparelli’s career built momentum in the ’20s with a focus mostly on knitwear and sportswear (her Surrealism-influenced garments like the lobster dress and shoe hat came later, in the 1930s).
- Coco Chanel and her jersey knits, little back dress and smart suits, all with clean, no-nonsense lines, arrived stateside along with Chanel No. 5 perfume and a desire for a sun-kissed complexion in the early 1920s.
- Madeleine Vionnet made an impression with the bias-cut garment, or a garment made using fabric cut against the grain so that it skimmed the wearer’s body in a way that showed her shape more naturally. Vionnet’s asymmetrical handkerchief dress also became a classic look from that time.
- Jeanne Lanvin, who started off making children’s clothing, made a name for herself when her wealthy patrons began requesting their own versions. Detailed beading and intricate trim became signatures of her designs.
As these designers were breaking new ground (and for some, that began in the 1910s), their looks slowly permeated mainstream culture and made their way across the pond. One of the best ways to see how these couturiers’ pieces translated into clothing with mass appeal is to look at a Sears catalog from the 1920s, which was distributed to millions of families across the United States. As Stella Blum explained in Everyday Fashions of the Twenties:
. . . mail-order fashions began to fall behind those of Paris and by 1930 the lag increased to about two years. Late and somewhat diluted, the style of the period nevertheless touched even the cheapest wearing apparel. The art movements in Paris and the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925 managed eventually to make their influence felt on the farms of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, and in the ghettos of the large cities.
Ordinary Parisians were almost completely over wearing the knee-length, dropped-waisted dresses by the mid- to late 1920s, but in the United States, the style was increasing in popularity. In Flapper Jane, an article in the September 9, 1925, issue of the New Republic, Bruce Bliven wrote:
These [styles] which I have described are Jane’s clothes, but they are not merely a flapper uniform. They are The Style, Summer of 1925 Eastern Seaboard. These things and none other are being worn by all of Jane’s sisters and her cousins and her aunts. They are being worn by ladies who are three times Jane’s age, and look ten years older; by those twice her age who look a hundred years older.
The flapper look was ubiquitous enough to make its way into illustrations and comics. The comic strip “Flapper Fanny Says” tracked the trials and tribulations of the eternally young and somewhat androgynously stylish Fanny. The invention of cartoonist Ethel Hays in 1924, the strip remained in print into the 1940s under different artists.
Around that time, John Held Jr.’s drawings of long-legged, slim-necked, bobbed-haired, cigarette-smoking flappers were making the covers of Life and the New Yorker. His vibrant illustrations, along with those of Russell Patterson and Ralph Barton, captured the exuberant lifestyle–and clothing style–of the time.
Looking back, we can now see how art inspired the decade’s fashion trends and how those fashions fueled a lifestyle. That, in turn, came just about full circle to be reflected in yet another form of visual representation—illustrated depictions of the freewheeling flapper culture—that kept the momentum of the decade going.
December 6, 2012
The Bass Weejun loafer is not named after a Native American tribe.
Suitcases sometimes are time capsules.
And a postal worker can design high-end scarves.
What follows is Threaded’s second blog roundup of sartorial curiosities from around the web, turning on their head assumptions about what we wear and why we hold onto things.
The classic loafer, and various bedazzled iterations of it, have come roaring back into public consciousness since residing on the feet of dressed-down corporates for the past couple decades. How the shoes originated with Norwegian fishermen, when preppy college students’ flocked to them and why they’re called Weejuns is explained by Nancy Macdonnell in her New York Times cultural history of the slip-on, “Loafing Around”:
Despite the Ivy League associations and moccasin construction, the loafer is neither American in origin nor named for a little known Native American tribe. Instead, Weejun is a corruption of “Norwegian.” What does that Scandinavian country have to do with the preppiest of American shoe styles? As it turns out, quite a bit: The loafer as we know it came about thanks to a combination of Lost Generation wanderlust and a growing and more general desire for comfort. Though Paris was the most famous destination for F. Scott Fitzgerald and his lesser-known cohorts, some of his peers journeyed further afield. Those who went to Norway noticed that Norwegian fisherman made themselves comfortable shoes that consisted of leather sides joined by a strip of leather across the instep like moccasins—still the way true loafers are made today.
Last year, photographer Jon Crispin’s Kickstarter campaign to document the neglected but intact suitcases of patients from the Willard Psychiatric Center in Willard, New York, caught my eye. Dating from the 1910s to 1960s, these suitcases were left at the asylum after it closed in 1995. Now, as time capsules, the valises, and the objects within them, tell the eerie and heartbreaking story of each patient’s life, many of whom never left the hospital after they were admitted.
Hunter Oatman-Stanford at Collectors Weekly interviewed Crispin last month about his project and the contents of the suitcases he’s been photographing in “Abandoned Suitcases Reveal Private Lives of Insane Asylum Patients.” The everyday objects Crispin photographed, which patients felt were essential upon entering Willard—green Lucite hairbrushes, a bright yellow alarm clock, a tube of shoe cream, a gold leather belt, a sewing kit, black-and-white photos, silverware—are fascinating bits of cultural ephemera on their own. In each self-contained parcel, the contents come to represent the patient. In the interview, Crispin recalls one particular story that’s stayed with him:
One of the last cases I shot was from a guy named Frank who was in the military. His story was particularly sad. He was a black man, and I later found out he was gay. He was eating in a diner and felt that the waiter or waitress disrespected him, and he just went nuts. He completely melted down, smashed some plates, and got arrested. His objects were particularly touching because he had a lot of photo booth pictures of himself and his friends. Frank looks very dapper, and there are all these beautiful women from the ’30s and ’40s in his little photo booth pictures. That really affected me.
Lastly, did you read the story that’s been circulating on the Internet about the Texas postal worker who moonlights as the only American artist to design Hermès scarves? Kermit Oliver, who’s in his 60s, has contributed 16 paintings to Hermès since the 1980s when Lawrence Marcus, the executive vice president of Neiman Marcus, recommended him. His scarf designs, painted when he’s not working the night shift at the Waco post office, take six months to one year to create and are highly sought after. His enigmatic lifestyle and reclusive art career was documented in “Portrait of the Artist as a Postman” in the October issue of Texas Monthly:
Kermit’s wife met me at the door. She wore dish-washing gloves and an apron decorated with red chile peppers, and her hair was up in a turquoise bandanna. “You know,” she said, “we’re not visiting people.” But she welcomed me in, offered me some orange juice, and led me down the creaky plank floors of a dark, cramped hallway. The walls were covered with art: images of exotic animals, elegant ranch-life pastorals in vibrant colors, biblical allegories. We passed a framed scarf, Kermit’s first for Hermès. Displayed behind dusty glass, it was a portrait of a Pawnee Indian chief on a bright-orange background, surrounded by childlike drawings of galloping horses with flag-toting riders.
Anything that you’ve read recently that you would recommend to Threaded readers?
November 6, 2012
The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, has recently digitized 60 percent of its collection and made it available to the public. If my math is correct, that means that 123,802 objects spanning 24 centuries can now be viewed online. Prints, drawings, graphic design, decorative arts, textiles, wall coverings and garments that previously had been on view only during exhibitions or in print catalogues can now be found on the Cooper-Hewitt website along with details about materials and construction, when the object was acquired and its provenance.
Take note that the database is in its infancy. That means the search functionality is still very limited and placeholders for a slew of images are commonplace. While you may encounter hiccups here and there, the Cooper-Hewitt Lab is fully transparent throughout this massive undertaking, letting us know that the glitches are just part of getting everything working smoothly. I’m willing to be patient, especially after I came upon some incredible objects—skewing more toward dress and textiles, obviously—while digging into the online collection.
And while you’re perusing the Cooper Hewitt’s collection, I highly recommend its Object of the Day series in which the museum spotlights the history and provenance of an object from its collection. One of the best so far—on October 24, the museum chronicled the Swatch watch and how it popularized the analog watch amidst a surge of digital Casios and Timexs.
October 2, 2012
“I’m from the generation that came to New York to meet their idols. In my case it was Andy Warhol and Antonio Lopez.”
What do Jerry Hall, Jessica Lange and Grace Jones have in common? Antonio Lopez. Without him, these women, along with other “Antonio Girls,” as he called his coterie of beauties, might not be the household names they are today. An influential fashion world figure from the 1960s to the ’80s, Antonio had an eye for spotting talent and illustrating beauty, transforming aspiring models and actresses into pinnacles of glamour.
Spanning three decades, the Puerto Rican-born, Bronx-raised fashion illustrator’s work could often be seen in the pages of the New York Times, Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily and Interview. He effortlessly invoked surrealistic, abstract and Pop art, and referenced contemporary youth culture with ease. Using pencil, ink, charcoal, watercolor and film, Antonio captured the human form and the fashions adorning it, bringing a breezy, sexy sensibility to his fashion imagery.
After working in the late ’60s with his “Girls,” Antonio moved to Paris in the early ’70s and steeped himself in French culture. That boiled down to night-clubbing with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld (whose apartment served as his crash pad), Yves Saint Laurent, Paloma Picasso and others, many of whom were subjects of his drawings, Instamatic photographs, and Polaroids from that time.
What was particularly striking about Antonio’s work was his uncanny ability to morph his illustration style from one subject or designer to the next. So by the early ’80s, he’d been hired to execute ad campaigns for YSL, Norma Kamali, Valentino, Missoni and Versace. And in a cyclical turn of events, his interpretations frequently influenced those designers’ collections the following season.
In 1987 at age 44, Antonio died far too young from AIDS-related complications. Because of the stigma at that time associated with AIDS, the fickle nature of fashion and the lack of Internet, his work had been fading into fashion history—until now!
Through October 20, you can see some of Antonio’s most renowned illustrations as well as some never before seen in Antonio’s World at the Suzanne Geiss gallery in New York City. Concurrent with the show, in September Rizzoli published Antonio Lopez: Fashion, Art, Sex, and Disco, a book of his illustrations.
All Photos Adam Reich. Copyright the Estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos. Courtesy the Suzanne Geiss Company.