Joel and Ethan Cohen’s movie that is in theaters now, Inside Llewyn Davis, sets much of its story around the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. From 1946-1979, over on 140 West Fourth Street, the African-American jewelry designer, Art Smith (American, born in Cuba, 1917-1982), fashioned modernist pieces from simple metals that achieved new expressions in shape and form.
Visual resonance can be detected between pieces of Smith’s and the works of artists associated with modernist abstraction, such as Jean Arp (French, born in then Germany (Alsace), 1886-1966) or, Alexander Calder (American, 1898-1976). Especially in the case of Calder, there is an immediate connection as he too made jewelry. For Smith, his jewelry’s fullest expression is dependent on its interaction with the human body. Smith said, “I see jewelry as bold–as an integral part of the face, arm, or body. It should be incomplete until it is on, related to the body.”
Smith’s work was included in the 1969 exhibition, Objects: USA, which featured three hundred objects that Lee Nordness selected for S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc. Smith was also included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1946 exhibition, Modern Jewelry Design; the Walker Art Center’s 1948 exhibition, Modern Jewelry under Fifty Dollars; and a 1969 solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Art and Design).
Greenwich Village neighbors were many of Smith’s clients. The bracelet and a pair of gold earrings by Smith were gifted to the Cooper-Hewitt by the famous preservationist, Margot Gayle, who was a longtime resident of Greenwich Village.
Pair of earrings, Designed and made by Art Smith, New York, NY, ca. 1950, Gold, Gift of Gretchen Gayle Ellsworth and Margot Gayle, 1997-171-2-a,b
Smith made cufflinks for Duke Ellington, and was selected to create a brooch for Eleanor Roosevelt. Even a character from the Cohens’ movie could have stopped in.
Abby Bangser is a M.A. candidate in the History of Decorative Arts and Design in the program offered jointly by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and Parsons the New School for Design. She is also the Head of the Americas Foundation of the Serpentine Galleries.