Criticism has never held any relevance to my work. About Critique. Interview with Thomas Gentille

Published: 12.08.2018
Thomas Gentille Thomas Gentille
Carolin Denter
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Klimt02 continues with the discussion about critique and shows various perceptions. We have been choosing different interview partners from the field of art and design. Working in art and design might seem like a wonderfully idyllic and relaxed career choice, where you have the pure freedom to let your creative juices flow. Each of them represents a unique view and gives us an overview of their own experiences. This is the fifth interview of seven.

We talk with Thomas Gentille who has re-imagined the possibilities of jewelry as a medium of artistic expression since over 50 years. He has invented new techniques, explored alternative materials and created works that are both minimal and poetic.
As an Artist, how important was critique during your education, to grow into that role, and which role plays critique now in your artistic life?
Criticism has never held any relevance to my work. On the other hand Critique has played an extremely important part. In High School my art teacher Clay Walker gave me extended critique on all the work I produced in those years, which was considerable, consisting mostly of painting, silkscreen, and woodcuts. He would often invite me and another fellow who was one year ahead of me to his studio as well as taking us to museums and galleries in other cities. There he would very often critique the art we saw. In this way he taught us to see. After graduation, I became a student at The Cleveland Institute of Art. In the four years I attended critique played a crucial part. Kenneth Bates the enamelist, my Freshman Design instructor, was brilliant at critique. However the master of critique, was my Sophomore Design instructor, the jeweler John Paul Miller. He did not yet teach jewelry. The first semester was two dimensional design. The second semester was three dimensional. There were thirty in our class. After each assignment was turned in, the work would be placed on three large tables, lined up in the front of the room. He picked up the majority of them, one by one, giving a full critique on each, for the benefit of the entire class. What worked, what didn’t work, but also WHY they did or did not. This would include, over all design, color, form, scale, material, craftsmanship and more. It was a remarkable, vast earning experience.

Who gives you critique?
Now, only myself. It is constant.

What is the challenging thing about being critical about other artists artworks? What is difficult to be self-critical?
It is important to understand the difference between being critical and critique. Critical can mean disapproving, adverse commentary, this is nonproductive. Critique means a constructive analysis of a work, this analysis, to be at it’s most fruitful must state Why something works, and/ or, why it does not, in part or whole. As to critique (never criticism) to another artist never, unless it’s a student, then critique is a necessary part of teaching. Although I often talk to other jewelers about their work it’s never about critique. It’s about ideas, and sometimes technique.

  • What I respect and admire most is unique thinking. That for the most part is what is missing. Each person must find their own unique voice. I am an enemy of plagiarism. Now, there are many nice words in use to camouflage this word.

In my opinion, every artist needs to be critical in a certain way, to make art. Art mostly reflects the Zeitgeist, the society, politics, environment, future (…) Regarding this, do you think there is enough critique from the “inside” of the contemporaryjewellery bubble? What are you missing in certain?
For me the above is a statement and two questions.
I can only speak for myself here. I agree with the first statement as I understand it. However I am not interested in the zeitgeist (or trend), the society, politics, or the environment when it comes to my work but don’t be mislead by this statement, because outside of my work, except for politics, I am involved. As to the bubble I am outside of it by choice. What I miss most in new works is original thinking. I see too much of this looks nice with that without any real thought. A lack of understanding about scale, this sensitivity of scale is often the last discipline students come to understand. What I respect and admire most is unique thinking. That for the most part is what is missing. Each person must find their own unique voice. I am an enemy of plagiarism. Now, there are many nice words in use to camouflage this word.

Since we all, as artists, brands or institutions, start using social media more and more for self-marketing purposes, it seems to me that self reflection, self-critics and empathy is disappearing more and more. As most of us know, we have the possibilities to „block“ any person on your channels, which do not agree with us. I get the impression, that people
use this, to create their own little online Utopia. Do you think, that this behavior and the censored contents of social media makes us less capable of dealing with criticism?

I have never used social media.

You are one of the first artist in the American studio jewellery scene. Every single piece of your artistic career is told to be a masterpiece, unique in its craftsmanship and its aesthetic value. I read, you even deny to date your pieces, in order to keep older and younger works on the same level of valuability. So, what was your worst experience connected with critique during your professional career (in the widest sense)?
I have read this statement about the dates concerning the monetary value of my work. It is incorrect, for it is a statement I never made. I do not date my work because I do not think the year something is made is important. I date by Century, 20th and 21st. I was born in 1936, from that time until I am gone is an exceedingly short time in the history of the world. So between those two dates everything has been made.
The most uncomfortable experience took place at Parsons School of Design in New York,(the jewelry program which was excellent but is now closed). I had been invited along with the Chairman of the program to critique, along with four other artists, giving the students their final critique before graduation. In the meeting room, before our critique in the gallery, I told the others there was one students work that I would not critique. Her work was of an extreme personal nature relating to her personal physiology. I requested that the others giving critique not ask me questions about the work. When we arrived at the young woman’s work, after everyone had spoken and were about to move on. One of the professionals unethically betrayed my request saying. “You told us you did not want to discuss this work. Tell us why”. I was appalled by the unethicality of this. It was an extremely difficult moment for the young woman, as it was for myself. Though from different points of view.

You are one of the first American studio jewelry artists and you are working already since 1958. What did you learn about the jewellery world through your position as one of the most influencing artist in the U.S but as well worldwide?
It was my goal from the beginning to change the scale of Jewelry and to change its position based on its value of precious metal and gemstones.
To show that all material is precious. To show it is precious you must find its ‘soul’. You do this by listening to what it tells you. It will show you its most glorious self if you treat it the way it wants to be treated. For a direct example of this: If you take a piece of ebony and sand it with rough sand paper, it will not give you much, kind of a fuzzy grey black. Sand it with finer paper it gets blacker, polish it (I aways hand buff not using wheels) it becomes a dense black, beautiful, easy to stop there, but give it a coat of wax laden with carnauba, buff it with a soft cloth, add at least two more coats, polishing to a sheen between each coat. Its magnificent "soul" is brought to the surface. Through each of these stages you get closer to its soul’. All materials respond in this way, the way of their desire. The more natural a material the easier to accomplish this. The more completely synthetic the more difficult. There a lot of extraordinary contemporary jewelers in the world, the world does not yet seem to know about them. The museums in America are slowly learning. They need our guidance.

You‘ve spent a lot of time investigating contemporary jewellery or studio jewellery. Did this affect the way and the criteria you use, in judging art?
I was trained as a painter and a sculptor and only took jewelry in my senior year for 1/2 a day once a week. So I had, and do, spend much more time looking at paintings, sculpture, and architecture than at jewelry. But I do look at a great deal of jewelry having seen many fine pieces especially in Munich Germany during Schmuck. A yearly event usually in early March.
It is very Interesting taking a walk in town with the jeweler Peter Skubic, If there is jewelry in a window, any style, period, quality from fine to junk. He will stop with you and talk about it, often with easy commentary, a critique, and this is a rare informative pleasure.
There is a painting by Henry Matisse, ‘View of Notre-Dame’, in the permanent collection of MoMA that is so enigmatic I’m still trying to understand. A short story by Earnest Hemingway, titled ‘A Clean Well Lighted Place’, that I understand, and do not understand every other time I read it, and a Painting by George Braque titled ‘The Studio’ (Vase before a Window) in the Metropolitian Museum of Art that is compositionally thrilling. I have spent hours in front of this painting critiquing it, trying to understand its complexity. As I leave it, every time, I am out of breath. I critique every building that goes up in Manhattan, and critique the older ones, redesigning in my mind as to how they could have been better. This critique does not transfer directly into my work in any way. It does keep my eye and mind fine tuned. So, yes, critique still plays a vitally important part.

About the Interviewee

A leading exponent of art jewellery worldwide, Thomas Gentille is a leading light in studio jewellery in the United States. In the late 1950s the American artist was the first to use novel combinations of plastic, aluminium, wood, papier mâché, sawdust, silk, glass and air – instead of gold, silver and precious stones. Gentille wants to call into question the value of precious metals in jewellery and the way they are appraised. He also objects to a chronological approach to his works. His pieces are one-offs, which are often unique in their closeness to sculpture and architecture. A remarkable feature is the ‘eggshell’ technique Gentille has developed, with which he creates astonishing crackle effects. With more than 180 jewellery objects and drawings, the present publication produced by Die Neue Sammlung  titled, ‘UNTITLED. THOMAS GENTILLE, AMERICAN JEWELER’, represents the first comprehensive overview of his life’s work.

Gentille’s works are owned by leading museums worldwide, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Cleveland Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Yale University Art Gallery and The Danner Foundation at Die Neue Sammlung and the Collection of Die Neue Sammlung.

About the author

Carolin Denter completed her training as Goldsmith at Master School for Craftsmen in Kaiserslautern in 2013. In 2015 she made an Internship at Klimt02, where she is working since 2016 as Content Manager. In 2017 she graduated with Bachelor of Fine Arts in Gemstone and Jewellery at University of Applied Science Trier, Campus Idar-Oberstein. After her graduation, she started working part-time as Marketing and Design management Assistance at Campus Idar-Oberstein in the Gemstone and Jewellery Departement.