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Thomas Gentille. American Jeweler by Andrea DiNoto

Article  /  ArnoldscheArtistsEssaysCritical Thinking
Published: 21.06.2016
Andrea DiNoto Andrea DiNoto
Author:
Andrea DiNoto
Edited by:
Arnoldsche Art Publishers
Edited at:
Barcelona
Edited on:
2016
.

© By the author. Read Klimt02.net Copyright.

Intro
This essay is part of the book Untitled. Thomas Gentille. American Jewelery. A leading exponent of art jewellery worldwide. Gentille’s pursuit of essences, belies a freedom of mind that speaks of who he is: an American artist jeweler.
 
The Midwest is a section of the U.S. often referred to as America’s heartland. Here, in Mansfield, Ohio - a city surrounded by farming communities and strongly identified with the quintessential American values of agrarianism and self-reliance - Thomas Gentille was born in 1936 to a Sicilian-American father and a mother of Swedish, Irish and Swiss descent. Like many Americans of his generation, Gentille expresses pride in his mixed heritage, identifying as much with his culturally rich, Euro-centric roots as with his plainspoken Midwestern upbringing. Gentille received what he describes as a superb public-school education that included art, music, creative writing, and languages. He credits his high school art teacher, the modernist painter Clay Walker (1), with encouraging him to become an artist as well.

At Walker’s suggestion, Gentille applied for and, in 1954, received a scholarship to the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) intending to study painting. The CIA, which traces its founding to 1882, is dedicated to multi-disciplinary arts education. Notable 19th- and 20th -century alumni include the painter Charles Burchfield; glass artist Edris Eckhart; and painter/ceramist and industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost. Gentille recalls that at CIA “I had studied painting, woodcut, weaving, ceramics, sculpture and watercolor by the time I had a jewelry class.” But it was that life-changing class, taught by the noted American metalsmith Fred Miller, himself a CIA graduate, that set Gentille on the path now culminating in this exhibition at Die Neue Sammlung - The Design Museum in Munich. Miller’s exacting emphasis on techniques provided Gentille with skills that would later serve him as a teacher at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina; Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where he established, and became the director of, the center’s first jewelry program.

 
  • But it was that life-changing class, taught by the noted American metalsmith Fred Miller, himself a CIA graduate, that set Gentille on the path now culminating in this exhibition at Die Neue Sammlung - The Design Museum in Munich.


Gentille’s years at CIA - he graduated in 1958 - coincided with the flowering of the studio jewelry movement in America, whose practitioners sought to reinvent their craft with an art-world perspective. These aspiring artist-jewelers looked for inspiration not to craft but to the various art movements that had germinated in Europe in the decades before World War II.(2) Elements of Dada and Surrealism, which exerted a powerful influence on the Abstract Expressionists, appealed as well to studio jewelers - notably Sam Kramer and Art Smith - eager to distance themselves from both fine jewelry and commercial production. Many of these artists produced geometric and constructivist forms, usually in silver but sometimes base metals and other non-precious materials, and even found objects as legitimate elements of jewelry composition. In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art documented the nascent movement with the exhibition Modern Handmade Jewelry, in which work executed by prominent fine artists, such as Alexander Calder and Harry Bertoia, was displayed side by side with pieces by studio jewelers, including Margaret de Patta and Paul Lobel. By the 1960s, elements of collage and assemblage were appearing in American studio jewelry, notably in the work of J. Fred Woell (d. 2015) who taught at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, for three decades.

 
  • Many of these artists produced geometric and constructivist forms, usually in silver but sometimes base metals and other non-precious materials, and even found objects as legitimate elements of jewelry composition.


In his senior year at CIA, Gentille recalls being dissuaded (unsuccessfully) by Fred Miller from making a piece of jewelry entirely from ebony, a material then considered appropriate only for tea-pot handles and such. Gentille’s freely admits his training under the master metalsmith was minimal, amounting to only half-days over two semesters. Likewise, only the names of a few prominent fine jewelers - Georg Jensen, for example - may have been mentioned in class. “I had no awareness of jewelry, whatsoever,” Gentille maintains, “although I knew of painters, architects and sculptors. We didn’t have the benefit of the European system,” he says, referring to the rigorous jewelry apprenticeship tradition common abroad. “On the other hand,” he observes, “the American system gave us freedom to rebel against the idea that precious materials were the most precious thing in jewelry.” It was this very lack of a doctrinaire education that encouraged Gentille to adopt the idea - while still a student - that jewelry could be made entirely from common materials and conceptualized as a true art form. For him, materials such as wood, acrylic, and aluminum had esthetic qualities equal to gold and silver and deserved to be honored as such.

 
  • 'The American system gave us freedom to rebel against the idea that precious materials were the most precious thing in jewelry.'


Courses in the color theories of A. H. Munsell and, significantly, Josef Albers, the noted German artist and Bauhaus teacher (3) served to reinforce his emerging esthetic, as both jeweler and artist. Like generations of artists before and since, Gentille found Albers’s theories, which emphasized the interaction of colors, particularly influential in the evolution of his own subtle yet distinctive palette. While, as an emerging artist, he found much of American studio jewelry “beautiful,” Gentille states “I did not have the ability within me to do beautiful curves, in the manner of Arp and Miro,” which was much the style in the 1950s. “My head,” he says, “went in an orthogonal direction.” This cerebral commitment to a spare, rectilinear style has yielded objects - mainly brooches - of exquisite proportion and meticulous construction; objects in which cold connections - an alternative to solder and a more challenging technique – are conceived as integral to the total design. Multiple materials are often combined in a single piece of Gentille’s work – cork, wood and metal, for example – with color sometimes supplied in the form of pigmented resin. The light-modulating effects of mother-of-pearl, inset in maple as an illusory “disappearing corner,” serves to brings one creation to life with visual sleight of hand. In another, a rectangle of bone pierced with tiny, stainless-steel rivets, Gentille presents a rare harmony between the biological and the industrial in what might be perceived as a detail of the cosmos.

 
  • This cerebral commitment to a spare, rectilinear style has yielded objects - mainly brooches - of exquisite proportion and meticulous construction; objects in which cold connections - an alternative to solder and a more challenging technique - are conceived as integral to the total design.


His unwavering vision is the product of a lifetime spent in wide-ranging self-education in fine art, including weekly visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum. Further, Gentille reads avidly. His vast collection of art books quite literally fills the rooms of his New York apartment. But he declines to cite “influences” preferring, instead, to talk of a shared vision with artists such as Piet Mondrian, Agnes Martin, and Donald Judd or even with the contemporary Spanish architect Alberto Campo Baeza, known for his spare, white structures.

 
  • His unwavering vision is the product of a lifetime spent in wide-ranging self-education in fine art, including weekly visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum.


There is no denying Gentille’s modernist sensibility, which today, especially, places him more in a Northern European than American context. Yet he asserts he came to this non-objective esthetic - a conscious balance between line, color and light - entirely on his own working, as he says, “under the radar” during America’s tumultuous craft revival, which today reaches ever more radically into the conceptual sphere. Against this ever-changing backdrop, Gentille’s creations remain a unique and constant vision that has been honored by three of art jewelry’s most coveted awards: the Herbert Hofmann Prize (2001); the Bavarian State Prize (2004); and Klassiker der Moderne (2006). In 2014, a selection of his jewelry garnered pride of place in Unique by Design: Contemporary Jewelry in the Donna Schneier Collection (4) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Prominent among the pieces on display were examples of Gentille’s extraordinary eggshell inlay work which raises this ancient decorative technique to a painterly, and at times sculptural, medium. Now, on the occasion of this well-deserved overview, hosted by Die Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum in Munich, visitors will have the opportunity to view not only Gentille’s remarkable jewelry, but his watercolors as well - vibrant, small-scale compositions - illustrative of his unique ability to create two-dimensional works that convey a kind of floating, meditative energy purely through the chromatic intensity of blocks of color. In every case, Gentille’s pursuit of essences, for the “soul of materials” no matter how common - wood, acrylic, eggshell, or the air itself – belies a freedom of mind that speaks of who he is – an American artist jeweler who, by the way, is celebrating his 80th year!

Andrea DiNoto
 

References

1 Walker (1924–2008) was proficient in diverse art media, including printmaking. His work is enjoying a resurgence, especially in California, where he settled in the 1960s.

2 In her seminal book on the subject, Messengers of Modernism, Toni Greenbaum documents the work of dozens of artists who formed the basis for the American studio jewelry movement.

3 Albers, together with his wife Anni Albers, emigrated to American in 1933. The couple taught together at Black Mountain College in North Carolina until 1949. Albers went on to teach at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut

4 Ramljak Suzanne, Unique by Design. Contemporary Jewelry in the Donna Schneier Collection, New Haven/London 2014.

About the author

Andrea DiNoto is a New York-based writer on art, craft, and design. Her articles on jewelry have appeared in Metalsmith, American Craft, Connoisseur, and Metropolis. She is the author of Art Plastic: Designed for Living.
 
Works at the exhibition.
Works at the exhibition

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Personal collection objects.
Personal collection objects

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360º exhibition space view

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