MoMA Signs Off with Brancusi

Brancusi’s 1930s marble Fish

MoMA is taking a four-month break while it reinstalls its collection in its expanded 53rd Street home. For nearly a year before it closed its doors, MoMA provided a beautiful gathering space devoted to a much-loved modern master in a beautiful show Constantin Brancusi Sculpture.

Always packed with admirers, you could frequently hear visitors exclaim upon turning the corner and entering the sculpture gallery exclaim, “Wow!”

There they all were – Brancusi’s marble The Fish sculpture that seemed to be swimming, the soaring Bird in Space, and the primal tall oak Endless Column.

1910 marble Maiastra, a mythical Romanian bird with a pedestal created from another sculpture

Everything was drawn from MoMA’s expansive collection. Every viewpoint joyfully represented what contemporary audiences love about Brancusi’s work. View it in our Flickr album.

Hard to believe that the epic Maiastra was created in 1910 or that this innovator grew up as a woodworker in the rural Romanian countryside and walked across the continent to relocate to Paris to be where the early modernist practice and philosophy were percolating.

For a fun look at how it all began for Mr. Brancusi, watch the film that MoMA created using footage shot by his buddy, Man Ray here and also listen to a jazzy playlist of Brancusi’s favorite songs and atonal orchestral hits of the day.

Brancusi’s work is the epitome of Modern to the contemporary eye, but it wasn’t always that way. One of the most beloved pieces in the room was initially considered a blasphemy to art when it was first exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Listen to MoMA tell the story:

MoMA on 53rd Street reopens on October 21. MoMA PS1 in Long Island City remains open.

Fashionable Fabric Takes Center Stage at FIT

Wool: Mila Schön’s 1968 double-faced wool coat and 1985 Azzedine Alaïa trench

The Fabric in Fashion exhibition at the Museum at FIT through May 11 makes a good point – people today do not pay much attention to the fabric in their clothing, but that’s a break with the consumer culture of the last several centuries.

Fabric telegraphed what status you had, what season it was, and how much money you might have spent on a fabulous outfit. In a clever twist, the show opens with a muslin dress in a period shape lit with all types of cross-cultural patterns and images, evoking fancy French, African, and American textiles.

FIT shines a light how traditional fabric and synthetic creations have been used in high fashion since the 18th century, starting with the stories of wool, silk, and cotton.

Take a walk through the show in our Flickr album and on FIT’s own website.

Silk sheath evening gowns – 1950 crepe by Guy Laroche and 1999 silk faille by Oscar de la Renta

Dresses from the FIT archives demonstrate the extreme flexibility of wool, which has been spun and woven since ancient times. Some wool fabrics are as light as silk, while others are molded, shaped, and bonded to create architectural forms that were as right for 19th-century women’s sportswear as they were for Carnaby Street.

The silk ensembles selected from the FIT archives show off a wide range of that fabric’s ability to drape, shape, and burst into dramatic architectural forms when buttressed by the right underlining and interfacing.  The show features silky satiny wedding attire, embellished damask gowns, stamped and gilded silk velvet Fortuny masterpieces, and sculpted Schiaparellis – demonstrating how a silk’s weight is key to its potential use.

High-fashion knit: Alexander Wang’s 2015 mesh dress inspired by Nike’s Flyknit

Side-by-side Claire McCardell dresses show how a single cut (in this case, her ubiquitous “popover” design) can be casually chic in cotton or elegant in silk.  Jersey dresses and synthetics – rayon and even Nike’s Flyknight by Wang – are featured, telling the story of how knits and synthetic went mass market by the 1970s.

Couture fabrics and innovative weaves, however, steal the show. An elaborate 1859 silk dress showcases how a single width of ottoman fabric morphs into velvet and fringe. It may not be to the taste of a contemporary eye, but is a true masterpiece of fabrication.

You are able to take a close-up look of how a strip of artfully printed metallic satin enhances a silk velvet Fortuny from the Thirties.

Couture textile: Bob Bugnand’s 1958 silk faille dress

Then turn to examine the high art of fabric from French fashion houses of the Fifties — Bob Bugnand’s matching silk faille dress and mink-trimmed coat and Jacques Griffe’s evening vision in Lurex jacquard.

But all the high-end fabric isn’t flashy. A standout is the austere, minimal evening cape, created from gazar silk developed by the Swiss textile house of Abraham specifically for Balenciaga – a key ingredient to the stunning architectural shapes for which the house was known in the Sixties.

Watch here to observe FIT’s behind-the-scenes work to make all the fabric exhibition magic happen:

Enjoy a glimpse of the multimedia that opens the show!

Ye Olde Hip-Hop Brings Met Armor to Life

It’s Showtime NYC troupe. Photo: MetLiveArts

Nimble knights and knaves again take the stage tonight amidst the horses, banners, shields, lances, and heraldry of the Metropolitan Museum’s Hall of Arms and Armor in Battle! Hip-Hop in Armor, part of MetLiveArts.

The amazing dancers from It’s Showtime NYC are putting on their gauntlets and knee guards to show spectators what it’s like to bring medieval and Renaissance armor to life in a co-production with the Met’s Department of Arms and Armor.

The static state

Tonight’s program is the third in a series of performances, running through spring, where street-style choreography presents a modern interpretation of chivalry, battles, honor, mysterious tales, and ghosts.

The dancers took a crash course in the days of old from curators in the Met’s Arms and Armor department and got to learn how to apply accoutrements that are normally relegated to the mannequins and cases in the popular hall.

Bashford Dean, the Victorian world traveler and collector who began this department over 100 years ago, would have loved it, since he is a man that also liked to dress up in similar regalia.

Kester Esterphane makes chivalry and armor come alive

The troupe from It’s Showtime have created several dance pieces, including one that tells the story of a long-dead king who springs to life from his medieval tomb to terrorize craft thieves who try to steal his stuff.

Rising up dressed in an authentic chain-mail tunic, the king brings zombie-like commotion to the tale and answers the choreographic question: How does a dancer bring a feeling of terrifying mayhem to the stage when he’s wearing that many pounds of heavy, constricting steel?

A conversation with curators revealed that although visitors see the armor displayed in static form, all of the engineering involved makes it incredibly flexible. So, asking dancers to try it on and create new moves actually shows off something that isn’t apparent about the Met’s incredible collection.

Knaves face wrath of an angry king’s ghost.

Congratulations to the curators of Arms and Armor, MetLiveArts, and the It’s Showtime NYC dancers for such a fantastic concept and program! More! More!

It’s Showtime will perform it’s pieces several times tonight and reappear like knights of old on February 8, March 22, April 12, and June 7.

And in case you think this is the first time the Arms and Armor curators have ever tried to put a new twist on a medieval subject, take a look at one of Bashford Dean’s brainstorms when movies were just starting to be made in Queens.

Yes, he talked to Barrymore and other early actors and directors of American cinema on just how to get people interested in the past. Here’s a link to one of Bashford Dean’s media pieces that also brought the knights back to life:

50 Shades of Pink at FIT

Jeremy Scott’s 2015 crazy-fun leather and zipper ensemble for Moschino, featured on posters for the show.

Everyone has an opinion about the color, and that’s brought to bear on the fun, irreverent, and insightful show at the Museum at FIT, Pink: The History of a Punk, Pretty, and Powerful Color, on view through January 5.

FIT’s downstairs gallery shows a retrospective of pink in fashion in the first room, anchored by Gwyneth Paltrow’s pale pink Ralph Lauren slip-gown that everyone remembers from the 1999 Oscars.

A stroll around the room is chronological, beginning with a fancy and frilly girly-girl two-piece ensemble from the 1850s, through ice-pink Chanel from the flapper period to pale pink plasticized space-age Courréges coats to the hot-pink satin features on Eighties society-ball statements by Adolfo and others.

Courréges logo and exquisite details on 1972 coat.

There’s even a full pink immersion installation of My Little Pony, Hello Kitty, and Barbie to make the point that for much of the 20th century in the West, pink has been associated with little-girl things.

Through the doors to the main gallery, curator Valerie Steele shows us the facets of how pink functions in a global society, as a transgressive color, as a wry joke, and even a power statement when applied to menswear.

One of the most interesting facts about pink is hidden in tiny label copy inside the first historical tableaux – a gorgeous 1775 silk brocade robe á la française on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and man’s suit from the same Pompadour Pink period.

Men and women in pink, 1775 style.

The word “pink” only entered the English language in the eighteenth century – the same time that the word “rose” was coined in French.

So, yes, despite the color’s appearance in the natural world prior to the burst of fashionable plant cultivation in the 18th century, it really took off as a response to horticulture that was reflected in fashions for both ladies and men.

From there, the exhibit explores how pink came to be associated with gender-specific kids’ clothes in the early days of Western consumer culture and how it was adapted as a “like life” color in lingerie and lingerie-inspired outerwear.

There are iconic pinkish women-as-flower dresses by Charles James from the Thirties and Fifties, and examples of Schiaparelli’s “shocking pink” reimagined by the house that bears her name today.

Rei Kawakubo’s 2005 biker-ballerina leather and pink gingham ensemble for Comme des Garçons.

It’s a great contemporary touch to see how punks and Rei Kawakubo subverted pink, and how Janelle Monae, Rihanna, and rappers have used it for their own pop-shock purposes.

See details of our favorites in our Flickr album. For fun, we’ve arranged the photos in chronological order and zoomed in on the embroideries, draping, embellishment, and masterful stitchery.

As usual, FIT has done an outstanding job on the digital side of the exhibition. Take a look at the exhibition website and FIT Flickr site, showing full-length photos of the ensembles. Listen to the audio tour of the show.

Enjoy curator Valerie Steele’s tour of the show here:

 

City Dreams by Bodys Isek Kingelez

Visionary Dorothea model created from cut paper and found objects in 2007 welcomes visitors to the show.

You can see what dreams are made of on MoMA’s upper floor when you walk into a world created by a self-taught artist from Zaire who saw all the possibilities of a new nation as his country transitioned from Belgian colonization.

Closeup of 1996 Ville Fantôme, a large utopian cityscape of cut paper, packaging, collage, and paint.

Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams is a retrospective of visionary cities, skyscrapers, public buildings, stadiums, and monuments created from paper, cardboard, packaging, paint, ink, bottle caps, and other stuff over his lifetime. Experience the sheer genius of it all – and a virtual-reality tour – through January 1.

Three of his eight fully realized city models are featured at MoMA – examples of work that was eventually shown in (and collected by) art museums throughout the world.

Kingelez (1948-2015), who came from a small colonial village in the Congo, was taught by missionaries early on and went on to teach secondary school. But when political change came to the Belgian Congo in the Sixties, Kingelez became determined to contribute his vision to what his country could become.  And he used the materials at hand to create models of buildings that symbolized harmony, peace, and understanding.

After his work was shown in Paris, the international art world came calling, and Kingelez had the opportunity to work full time as an artists, creating ever more elaborate cities and models. Although he never traveled out of Zaire until 1989, Kingelez always imbued an international vision to his creations.

Detail of 1992 Reveillion Federal, a temple to democracy.

The models are precise, clean-cut visions of the future.  MoMA has created a VR-headset experience where you can walk through one of the cities, fly to the top of skyscrapers, and cross bridges to the future.  It’s a great way to enter 2019.

Take a look at our Flickr album of some of the work in this amazing show.

Enjoy this video of the artist himself showing how nature and lofty ideas can be put to work in architecture, engineering, and design:

 

For more on Kingelez and his life, click here. For a soundtrack, MoMA’s assembled a great one from Zaire here.

Catholic Inspiration for Fashion at the Met

Balenciaga’s 1967 silk wedding dress in the Romanesque Chapel at the Met Cloisters

The brilliant installation of haute couture in the historic halls of the Met Cloisters, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, closing October 8, also serves as a surprising showcase for the spectacular medieval art residing in the same space.

Curator Andrew Bolton’s thoughtful placement and narrative creates a genuine conversation between European couture and religious-themed works made over 500 years ago at both the Cloisters and the Met’s Fifth Avenue location.

The Cloisters show starts spectacularly with Balenciaga’s 1967 wedding dress dramatically casting shadows across the floor of the largest room at the Cloisters, the Romanesque chapel with its outsized arch and crucifix.

Closeup of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2007 evening ensemble printed with 15th c. image of the Virgin by Jean Fouquet.

The jeweled pieces of German stained glass are echoed by Gaultier gowns, and Craig Green’s avant-garde ensembles created from Islamic prayer rugs are at home amidst the 13th century tapestries in the Hall of Heroes. Looking at each contemporary expression fully reflects the magnificent artwork resting just a few feet away.

Hidden spaces, leafy cloisters, underground tombs, light-filled corridors, and dark, secret corners of the Treasury all provide surprises and context for exploring visitors – Valentino’s Garden of Eden dress, Galliano’s Machiavelli gown for Dior, Dolce & Gabbana’s gold silk-and-metal macramé wedding ensemble, and McQueen’s crown-of-thorns headpiece.  Seek and you will find.

Sleeve detail of monastic paper taffeta 1969 evening dress by Madame Grés.

Take a look at our Flickr album to see many close-up the details of all the clothes and surrounding artwork.

The Met has gone all out to make the connections between clothes and the Catholic themes explicit, providing innovative high-res photos, several brief videos and blog posts. Read more about the themes here.

Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, gives an overview of all the inspiration and documentation of the exquisite clothing, jewelry, and inspirational art work in the show in this video here.

Closeup of Olivier Theyskens’ 1999 evening dress with a hook-and-eye closure in the shape of the cross. From the Crusades section of the show in the Gothic Chapel.

Click here to walk through every room of the Cloisters with Andrew Bolton and hear him explain how he made the selections according to the surrounding artworks.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

Highlights include a procession of works from Gianni Versace’s last collection, Gaultier’s hologram votive dress, Mugler’s floating angel, and the loft high above it all, populated by ethereal figures wearing choir robes by Balenciaga.

1984 dress by Thierry Mugler from his Winter of Angels collection, part of the Celestial Hierarchy at Fifth Avenue

Here’s a link to the Met’s walkthrough video.

An important part of the Met’s undertaking is a spectacular mini-exhibition of incredible works of clothing art from the Vatican, which took significant negotiation. Here, Andrew shows highlights of the items on loan from the Vatican, some of which have never been displayed abroad before.

Walk through the Met’s Vatican section of the show here.

Grant Wood Puts Sophisticate Spin on American Myths

1930 American Gothic, which Grant Wood modeled on his sister and dentist – an “invented” couple. Collection: Art Institute

Travel the world, but paint what you know.

It seems to be the philosophy that guided the artistic development of our homegrown American painting virtuoso, as told in the Whitney’s revealing exhibition, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, on view through June 10.

Although the Art Institute never lets American Gothic leave the Windy City, the famous couple has been having quite a time on the High Line, surrounded by a wealth of beautiful paintings, crafts, furniture, magazine covers, book illustrations, drawings, and lithographs. See our favorites in our Flickr album.

Since Wood’s iconic masterwork burst upon the scene at the Chicago Art Institute in 1930, it’s surprising to know that this is only the third time that Wood has had a one-man show in New York. Whitney curator Barbara Haskell and her staff decided to give Wood the props he deserved by assembling this satisfying and revealing tour of his life’s work.

1930 Arnold Comes of Age, a European-inspired birthday portrait of his studio assistant froom Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum

It’s clear from the start (after you pass the corn chandelier) that Cedar Rapids, Iowa treasured their native son, handing him design and ad commissions galore. Although he always lived close to his mom and sister (the model for the mysterious “Gothic” gal), his artistic direction was solidified fairly early on by trips to Paris and Germany as a young man.

Forget impressionism and expressionism. Wood was captivated seeing the works of Durer and Memling, whose style matched his own precise painterly tendencies.

Returning home, he embarked upon a series of portraits that were completely local (e.g. his mom, art students, neighbors), but harkened back to the centuries-old European style – precisely rendered central figures and metaphorical symbols scattered across shrunken landscapes. Straight out of the 1400s.

1931 folk-inspired The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere from The Met’s collection

When Gothic appeared on the cover of the Chicago Evening Post in 1930, his fate as the quintessential “American” painter was sealed. And he committed himself to staying in the Midwest, painting what surrounded him.

The show takes us through his journey from there: interpreting and busting American myths, celebrating the hometown and ordinary, and sometimes veering into the visual language of folk art to create a feeling of a simplified time.

Cover illustration for Time magazine commemorating famed aviator Wiley Post, September 23, 1940.

When World War II began to brew, Woods was even more convinced that the power of his images could be harnessed to engender a call for action among everyday Americans. Deceptive simplicity on the canvas only underscores his highly sophisticated understanding of the power of symbols, craft, and art history.

Woods embraced many types of WPA and commercial commissions, while keeping up his fine-art output, including selling lithographs (“affordable art”) by mail order. Although one of a naked farmworker got him in hot water with the United States Postal Service, the accusation of “porn in the mail” really didn’t hurt his reputation.

The final two galleries of the show assemble his highly precise, fully modern farm landscapes from a ten-year period – rich, colorful, and geometric until they aren’t. The curators have interspersed gorgeous but melancholy graphite drawings of barren, snow-covered fields. Their presence captures the melancholy of Grant Wood’s final years – grappling with illness and life in Iowa as a closeted man, who died far too young.

1940 charcoal drawing March from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Even with the somewhat sobering feel, it’s a glorious gallery to end the show – one that leaves visitors marveling about the skill, talent, and magic wrought by an artist whose they feel as if they are discovering for the first time.

The Whitney persuaded lots of other Iowa museums to contribute to the show, too. They shipped everything but the WPA building mural (click here to see a silent video) at the University of Iowa Ames library.

Take a virtual walk through the show with the audio guide and see photos of the different work as the curators talk.

Listen to the brilliant curator Barbara Haskell, as she puts this man’s work into context:

Gold and Other Ancient Luxuries at The Met

Gold crown, headband, and ear flares worn by high-status person from Peru’s Northern Coast (Chongoyape), 800 – 500 B.C. Collection: NMAI, Smithsonian.

What constitutes luxury? Something wildly extravagant, made of expensive and rare materials, and incredibly intricate and beautiful.

There’s plenty on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, running through May 28.

The show, which returns to New York after a run at the Getty in Los Angeles, is a fulfilling journey that takes you over 3,000 miles through North and South America and across the years – from 1200 B.C. to the Spanish conquest of mighty kingdoms.

The star attraction is gold, which was hammered and fashioned into portable ornaments worn by high-net-worth individuals centuries ago. Crowns, ear flares, and nose ornaments from Peru’s northern coast, made sometime between 800 and 300 B.C., are on display right at the start of the show.

Front of a headdress from Peru (Moche), 300 – 600 A.D. Collection: Lima’s National Museum

But as you wind your way further through time and cultures, many more virtuoso works are displayed – a gold sheet octopus for the front of a headdress and the dramatic crescent-shaped burial ornamentation for the Lord of Sipán, both Peruvian pieces from the Moche culture made 600 years later.

In the center gallery, you encounter whimsical gold sculptures from Colombia made nearly a thousand years later by Colombia’s Muisca people, who “sacrificed” some of these precious items to the gods by tossing them into lakes or cenotes – a practice that unfortunately led the Spanish to believe that the mythical El Dorado really existed.

Incan tunics for votive figures, 1460 – 1626 A.D. From The Met, Field Museum, and AMNH.

Curators segment the show by highlighting the various approaches to luxury by different indigenous cultures – intricately woven textiles, feathered shirts and temple wall hangings, carved jade, monumental stone portraits of royalty, and even a lime container in the shape of a jaguar that is partly made from platinum.

Because materials were sourced so far from where the luxury items were crafted and preserved, the show weaves a rich tale of trade. Networks for jade far from Guatemala, tropical birds far from the Amazon rainforest, and ocean shells far from the dry Andean highlands.

Pair of gold, shell, and stone ear ornaments from Peru’s North Coast (Moche), 200 – 600 A.D. Collection: The Met

The mosaics, beadwork, and of multiple precious-stone inlay are dazzling, both in their visual impact and when you stop to consider the South American supply chain.

The magical properties of shells were acknowledged by everyone in these ancient kingdoms – from the rulers and lords that sported patterned multicolored shell collars to priests using shell-shaped ceramics for ritual offerings to everyday farmers who ensured sufficient rain by scattering broken shells in their fields.

Mixtec mask of spondylus shell, mother of pearl, and turquoise, 1200 – 1521 A.D. Collection: Italy’s MIBACT Museum of Civilization

Spondylus shells – the ultimate in marine adornment – only came from the oceans near Ecuador or northern Peru. Rulers just had to have them.

By the time the Spanish arrived in the New World, the level of artwork was at an all-time high. A particularly virtuoso inlaid Mixteca mask is shown toward the end of the show – one so beautiful that it came into the hands of Count Medici and is on loan from a museum in Italy.

Take a look at the beautiful items on the Met’s exhibition website and our favorites on our Flickr album.

See what’s behind the golden door by taking a peaceful video walk through this gorgeous show. All you’ll hear are the magical Mayan cenote bells:

Find out more by listening to the audio guide of the show here.

When Jewelry Has Its Own Idea

Organic geometry: Kazumi Nagano’s brooch of folded linen paper and other materials.

Can jewelry actually speak? The Cooper Hewitt curators thought so when they went through the expansive collection that a donor had assembled, as shown in Jewelry of Ideas: Gifts from the Susan Grant Lewin Collection, on view in New York through May 28.

Lewin, who donated her collection to the Smithsonian, was passionate about collecting fairly conceptual wearable art pieces – works that reflected pop culture, or held great symbolic meaning, or told a story that was significant to the artist.

Around 150 bracelets, pendants, necklaces, and rings are on display in the show. They’re all intriguing works on their own, each telling a story, but the selections are nicely classified into sub-groups, such as Nature, Symbol and Metaphor, Memory, and so on.

Nature: Daniel Kruger’s necklace with pressed flowers and leaves.

Some groups tell the art-for-art’s sake story; other groups are made of materials with charged significance. But all reflect the deep thought that jewelry artists give to their work and the delight the wearer has in either sharing the story of the piece or just keeping its secret to themselves.

The show emphasizes how ground-breaking artists have conceptualized jewelry to go beyond the constraints of simply pretty, glitzy, or decorative ends.

For example, the paper necklaces by Kiff Siemmons speak to the artist’s interest in pulling dramatic shapes out of lowly materials and in cross-cultural collaboration – in this case, working with artisans from Oaxaca’s Arte Papel who are expertly reviving pre-Columbian paper making technology with traditional, plant-based dyes.

Attai Chen’s paper, paint and coal necklace from Nature section of the show

In the portion of the show where jewelry reflects society and the human condition, designer Deganit Stern Schocken used crushed soda cans and zircons in a piece named after Israel’s largest checkpoint, evoking the daily West Bank anxieties of passing between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The fact that Estonian artist Kadri Malik incorporated a large shark tooth in her “It’s Getting So Dark” necklace gives the piece a voice that speaks volumes, even if the wearer doesn’t say a word. The same is true for Attai Chen’s dark riff on nature — dramatic necklace formed from paper, paint and coal.

Art Smith’s 1948 Modernette Cuff Bracelet reflecting the art world’s interest in biomorphic forms

The show also touches on the history of post-war wearable art by innovators in America and Europe, including a biomorphic piece by Sixties jewelry maker Art Smith, who was connecting the dots among the cultural influences he was seeing in painting and dance studios from his Village studio.

What about other art for art’s sake? The curators showcase collection pieces that are colorfully painted, baubles incorporating found objects, and art that simply conveys the joy of pure, clean, abstractions.

Lewin certainly had fun collecting and wearing provocative pieces, and the curators also seemed to have enjoyed displaying these fascinating works in a context that suits them.

Take a look at some of our favorites in our Flickr album.

To give an idea of how kinetic artist Friedrich Becker conceptualized his work in motion, here’s a video showing how his ring activates to convey its story when worn:

This show focuses upon an international array of artists. But for anyone that wants to dig deeper into the roots of American studio jewelry 1940 – 1970, art historian Toni Greenbaum  describes how artist-made jewelry came to its cherished place in the art and design worlds today:

Americas Prehistory Revealed in Places No One Has Looked

Fun Greater Coclé monkey plate from Panama’s Rio Coclé del Sur (AD 700 – 850)

It’s easy to think that that prehistory in America is all about the grand architecture of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. But the National Museum of the American Indian wants you to think differently.The current show at NMAI’s Customs House in New York, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, on view through May 20, takes you deep into the rain forests of several countries to show how colorful clay pots reveal a rich story of artistic complexity, style, and cross-cultural trends.

The achievement of the show – a multiyear exhibition that began its run at the NMAI in Washington, DC in 2013 – is telling a story through the humble material that nearly every village home knew how to shape. The everyday nature of the items stands in sharp contrast to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current Golden Kingdoms show that focuses on the luxury trade.  Yet, it tells a similar tale.

Mayan rain god Chaac makes an appearance on a Guatemalan incense burner (AD 250 – 900)

In skilled hands, artisans over the last three thousand years transformed their clay into whimsical daily objects, powerful ritual tributes, technological implements, and shockingly intricate storytelling media.

NMAI took a ground-up approach to uncovering history, focusing on six relatively unknown sites where discoveries are being made by universities and students in Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama.

The focus is on the pottery, although you also see jade pendants that the Mayans threw into cenotes as offerings in Guatemala and upscale gold and spondylus shell necklaces excavated in Panama’s Greater Coclé sites.

The show emphasizes the style that each cultural group brought  –Mayan incense burners from Guatemala with dramatic portraits of the rain god Chaac, storytelling painted vessels from Honduras, and vessels, plates, and icons depicting monkeys, tapirs, vultures, frogs, and birds of the surrounding rain forest.

Ulúa River jaguar-paw bowl from Honduras (AD 850 – 950)

The sites where these clay treasures were found functioned primarily as agricultural villages, not grand palaces; however, many sites show paved roads leading in and out.

The artistic and archeological evidence makes it clear that local artists were adapting and interpreting the lore, myths, histories, and styles picked up along the bustling trade routes through Central America, where birds, jade, gold, cacao, and humble pots were being traded, used, and refashioned.

Lempa River artists from El Salvador near Palacio, Cuscatlán made armadillo pots and lots of other animals (AD 900 – 1200)

You don’t often link ancient pottery and mass-market production, but at least one case shows a ceramic mold from El Salvador that was used by the artist to crank out Mayan-style pendants about 1,500 years ago.

There’s also a case showing how pottery stamps were used to embellish textiles even further back in time. These stamps are from Honduras and Costa Rica, but you can be sure that techniques to make your everyday cotton tunic a little nicer was fairly widespread.

View some of our favorite items on our Flickr album.

The introductory gallery of the show describes some of the early archeological activities in Central America, which were often spurred by the powerful agri-businesses (e.g. United Fruit) that set up shop in Central America in the early 20th century.

Examples of how pottery stamps were used to print fabric since 300 BC. Here, a Honduran monkey stamp and two others from Costa Rica.

The show makes the point that the next wave of amateur treasure-hunters in the Sixties and Seventies swept a lot of the archeological finds out of the county and into US and European museums.

Today, however, the NMAI salutes the universities, professors, and students throughout Central America that are discovering ancient histories in their own backyards and developing the scientific skills to contribute to the scientific dialogue about the past.

The show leaves you with a sense that the discoveries are just beginning. Watch this video and travel deep into the rainforests and meet the next generation of Central American archeologists on the cusp of making new discoveries:

Download the catalog here to see maps of the area and get to know more about bustling prehistoric cultural production centers you never knew, like the Ulúa river valley in Honduras and the vibrant Gran Cocle in western Panama.

2012 painted Lenca vessel from Honduras — showing that artists are still going strong after 2,000 years