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A Forest of Jewelry- exhibition design with Rupert Deese « MAD Blog
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A Forest of Jewelry- exhibition design with Rupert Deese

This interview was conducted by Rachel S. Weisman, a double major in Jewelry and Art History at Tyler School of Art at Temple University.

Artist Rupert Deese has been a friend of the Museum of Arts and Design for many years. He is a painter, printmaker, and a “maker” in general with a knack for design. Rupert has an interesting history, from fabricating furniture for Donald Judd (1928- 1994) a minimalist artist from New York, to displaying his own work at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Chelsea.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Rupert this past week, and talk about his most recent installation for the exhibition Space-Light-Structure: The Jewelry of Margaret De Patta, which is currently at MAD until September 23rd. Rupert was the exhibition designer for the show and worked closely with curator Ursula Ilse-Neuman to make everything look as perfect as can be. Before I started my interview with Rupert at Bouchon Bakery in Columbus Circle, he gave a kind “cheers” and clinked his glass of white wine with my cool glass of water. With a chuckle and a smile, he told me his story.

Rachel Weisman: When did you first encounter Margaret De Patta?
  

Rupert Deese: The first time I encountered her work was at a show called Messengers of Modernism. That’s probably not the first time, because the American Craft Museum had a permanent collection with some of her work in it, and, in 1995 or so, I started working with Ursula designing jewelry exhibitions. But the most important one was called Messengers of Modernism. It was a small kind of gallery really; it was a show that should have been on one of the main floors. It’s like there’s a caste system in the art world, and jewelry kind of falls to the lower section of the caste.

RW: Why do you think that is?

RD: I don’t know. But it’s small, that’s why. When push comes to shove, small jewelry could go in the cases downstairs. There were some Margaret De Patta pieces, and they just struck me, and they just seemed… so deliberate and not asking you to like them, and they were like a novel or something, just sitting on a shelf.

RW: Was it the shape or the stones used, anything in particular?

RD: It was everything. It was the lack of stones, actually. If she had a piece of quartz, she looked for a flaw or some inclusion, and then she would have this quartz shaped to feature that inclusion, and not in a literal way. She would take the energy of the inclusion and use it as a vector in the new stone. The concern for getting everything right was at such a high level. It was something else.

RW: In regards to the exhibition Space, Light, Structure currently at the museum, how did you come up with the design and did you discuss with Ursula how it should be organized and any ideas that you had initially?

RD: Well, you’re going to get rambling answers now.

RW: Initially were [the columns] a part of the original ideas for the show?

RD: No, not at all.

RW: So how did you come to include those?

RD: Let’s just say that Ursula talked me into doing the show. I think she first mentioned it to me three years ago.  I hesitated since I had been focusing on other things. And yet she presented the idea that I might design the De Patta show, she received a grant to help do the show, so I thought all right, I’m going to do this. There were several roads that led to where we got but one of them, and one of the most important, was the way Ursula organized the order of things in the show. It’s a biographical exhibition, but it’s very, very, very, VERY particularly about De Patta’s relationship to one of the great artists and teachers of the early 20th century: Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and how elements of his sensibility manifested itself in her work. So that’s one thing; but the other thing is the beauty of the pieces themselves.  They are monumental even though the largest of them is around 3 inches across. I decided not to consider pedestals because pedestals can be a difficult way to look at something delicate. You have to have a great deal of money to line the cases, employ perfect lighting and get them to look just right, otherwise it’s hard to make the display look like a dream.

I imagined a pendant called the Cathedral piece, and wondered “How can I show this to a visitor?”  I can’t hand it to her. I can’t touch it, I can’t hold it. So it needs to be in space, at about eye-level. So how do you get it to be in space at eye-level? And it had to be protected, and the Plexiglas should not interfere with the work. So for some reason I got this notion about the cylinders. I knew that you could buy Plexiglas in a cylinder shape. Then I thought, how are you going to light it? And mind you, Ursula and I had used a column vitrine vaguely similar to this in an exhibition at the old space on 53rd Street about seven years ago.  The principle had worked then. So I imagined a clear cylinder lit by an LED bulb- bought one with terrific color rendition, put it on a cord, put a dimmer on the cord, hung it over an acrylic cylinder, and saw that this was going to work.

And then there were two new challenges: one was how to get the piece of jewelry up near eye level– and the second was how to deal with the reflection that occurred inside the cylinder due to the curving back side of the cylinder.  A piece of prepared Mylar statically stuck to the inside back killed the reflection. To get the cylinder with the piece of jewelry off the ground to a suitable viewing height, the idea of the column came up:  connect the floor to the ceiling with a serviceable inexpensive material that would safely hold the Plexiglas case like a lantern. In addition, you could notch out a space for the lantern and run a cord down to it in, or along the edge of the column from the ceiling lighting grid. I called Eric Lindveit, the independent contractor who fabricates exhibition furniture for MAD.  Eric is a crucial part of the story.  He said, “Yes, we can do that.”

From there I had to build a prototype for Eric, begin to imagine the layout, and present the designs to the curatorial staff for their approval.  I built a prototype in my studio, and I thought “this works –great!” We had to make some adjustments to the height, though.  The result was compelling!

RW: I find that as an art student, when I know my budget is restricted I sometimes limit my creative process knowing in the back of my head I’m not going to have enough materials. This must have been one of your concerns as well.

 RD: Well that’s it. Sometimes that kind of thing is really important, if you have limited means and you want to do something, then you’ll figure out a way to do it. But we knew that the work had to be shown correctly and with the right light.   Any time that we had any doubt about the installation concept, the beauty of De Patta’s work would call out.  And I think that’s what really happened.  I believe the concept was readily approved because her work is so beautiful.

RW: You said that each piece works on its own really well, and you definitely highlighted that in each of the lanterns, because each lantern has either one or two pieces in it. I think that was really great, it’s not overwhelming and you can admire each piece individually.

RD: Thank you.

RW: You’re welcome. And I also really like when I’m looking at one of the pieces and I turn around to face another column, and you’re not directly faced with another piece,  I have to walk around it, and the columns let you look at it from the side and from underneath.  Usually if it’s in a case you can’t.

RD: That was it. We were stunned by how well it worked. So many of the things you just said were the result of paying attention to the situation; the way the building has those beautiful curves in it.

RW: Yeah, I was going to ask if you took into consideration the space and the lighting already on the floor.

RD: Oh absolutely. I grew up in a town that had several of Edward Durell Stone’s buildings. He is the architect who designed the original building, and I’ve been fond of his work the whole time. When the Museum of Arts and Design decided to change the building, I was against it. But when I saw what they built, I thought it was nice. You know that was then, this is now, and I like it. It makes a ton of sense, and I love the light in it.

Photo courtesy of Ed Watkins.

One day when the museum was closed we entered the gallery, turned out all of the lights and could see what the room did with its curves and windows. The building helped call out the arrangement: the building said “don’t worry, we’ll make it.”  So, more or less, we just kept listening.   For example the wall with the long case on it, my first thought was to take that out, and have lots of lanterns  — a complete grove. Ursula first called the cylinders “lanterns” which I loved, and we soon thought of the columns as “trees.” As you may know this was the first time MAD thought of the second floor as one continuous exhibition space.

RW: Oh I didn’t know that.

RD: Yeah, Ursula was originally assigned just the Tiffany Gallery. I don’t know if I said this but I thought, if that’s it I’m not doing the show, no way. This show is much too powerful to be squeezed into that little space.  So, anyway once Ursula acquired the entire floor for her show, we were told that we had to include the large freestanding wall in the main gallery, as there was no possibility to take it out. But in hindsight, this wall makes perfect sense for the exhibition. Because the exhibition begins by introducing the Constructivist works that influenced Margaret, they had to be introduced separately in order not to overwhelm De Patta’s jewelry.  Now the wall acts as a sort of diaphragm between the alpha part of the show and the beta part of the show, and I wouldn’t change it. If I could go in there and hit a remote and remove the wall, I wouldn’t do it.

Photo courtesy of Ed Watkins

RW: So at the time when you were considering the Constructivist section with Moholy-Nagy, his works are very powerful. You were very well able to emphasize more strongly the De Patta works and keep the Moholy-Nagy in that one section there. Was that difficult?

RD: Yeah. Again, it was a little bit of luck. A lot of the luck began with the artwork that Ursula had selected — such a refined set of objects.  Also, Moholy-Nagy’s work is not ego-driven. So the pieces work well. They create energy in that zone, but they don’t overwhelm. It’s like wow, look what I can do with Plexiglas and aluminum-covered, bent rods; look what I can do with these shapes. They’re the shoulders upon which the show rests, but they don’t demand to be seen.  The visitor won’t find the need to return to this space.

RW: So you talked a lot about your creative thought process with this exhibit, and I was wondering if that’s similar to when you are creating work of your own? I know you’re a printmaker, a painter and a “maker” in general, as Ursula put it.

RD: Yeah, absolutely. Basically you want to get out of the way of stuff that wants to happen. If you’re interested in things and your interest pushes you to wake up in the morning and think, what do you want to see? How can you make it happen? So it’s very similar, yeah. Most of the time I work by myself, so I just fuss with it until I get it the way I want it. At the Museum, I basically took the job for a few reasons: Ursula’s work putting the show together was spectacular, and I knew that Eric Lindveit was the contractor. And I knew that if he was convinced that my ideas were feasible then we had a good shot at realizing them. That’s different than working by yourself. There is a pleasure in closing the door and doing work on your own, but this actually turned out to be great. There’s not one piece in the whole show that I don’t like. And that’s never happened.

RW: So you liked working with other people, then?

RD: Linus van Pelt from Peanuts says, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” I often feel that way about it – I love to work alone.  However the people with whom we worked on that show – especially the installation crew — are fantastic. Fantastic.

RW: That’s great. I agree that sometimes it’s great to be alone and work, and just let things go on your own. But also having feedback from other people can be very helpful.

RD: Oh yeah, it can be fantastic. You can see why all of these marriages and divorces get started between people who make movies together because you get bonded in a funny way working on a project, where everybody has to cooperate to make the thing happen. And these last days at MAD  — I just loved seeing everybody because they were so good at what they were doing. And they were so cheery. If you saw the level of concern they brought to detail… it’s certainly as much as Margaret brought to her work. When you walk in there, you’re seeing some of my work, a lot of Ursula’s work, mostly Margaret’s work, a lot of Moholy-Nagy’s work, and you’re also seeing Eric’s and the museum crew’s sense of how things have to be. Just one example: when you look at the columns, the edges roll on the verticals. It’s not just a saw-cut edge.

Photo courtesy of Ed Watkins

RW: I have noticed that. It’s a very smooth finish.

RD: Very smooth, but look at where it goes around the corner. Each edge is routed, it’s not sanded, a machine went up and down the edges. And that’s the cheapest building material on earth, MDF, yet is looks sperfect.

RW: Very, very carefully…

RD: Yeah, but also taking extra steps to add details you would never notice

RW: So the material is not wood?

RD: It’s called MDF. It stands for Medium-Density Fibreboard. It’s sawdust that’s been compressed and sticks together.

RW: And what other materials did you use?

RD: Well there are three things. There’s the light bulb, which is critical. The LED lights are so amazing because they give off a very beautiful, true light, and they use very little electricity. They give off very little heat. We couldn’t have realized the design without those bulbs, because there would be heat build-up in the lanterns. And there are also the acrylic cylinders. There is an acrylic cylinder covered in black paper above the clear cylinder that houses the light bulb; there is a little cylindrical box sheathed in black paper underneath the clear cylinder.  In this box, there’s a little zone for conditioning material, mostly charcoal.  This hidden charcoal, sealed inside the container with the artwork, picks up any transient oxides so the piece will not tarnish.

RW: How do you know that?

RD: The registrar and the exhibition managers call out that stuff. They make sure that every object enjoys safe conditions during the show. The lighting, mounting, and the atmosphere must be controlled so that the objects are not under stress.

RW: I understand that you designed furniture for Donald Judd.

RD: That’s not exactly true. A long time ago, when I was trying to figure out what kind of work I liked to do, he was one of the people whose work struck me the most. I know, not knowing anything about you, that if you take the person’s work that you thought was the best, and you had the chance to work with him, you’d be like, oh my god. And that happened to me, when I was about 35 or so. I had a career as an artist in New York but there was a recession in the late 80s, and so I was looking for work. Anything.  And a friend of mine, who’s still one of my closest friends, had been working for this artist, Donald Judd. My friend wasn’t making enough money, he was more skilled than just being a assistant for this artist. And he said that he was going to quit this job. So I said “Are you out of your mind?” And he said, “No, I can make more money doing something else.“  So I said “I’ll take it” and he said “Sure!”  Judd’s building is at 101 Spring Street down in Soho. This all happened in 1988-89, and about 5 years before that, I was walking by that building with a good friend of mine, and I said “hey that’s Don Judd’s building” and he goes “I know that.  –I’m the only other guy who knows that’s Don Judd’s building!” We laughed, and then we noticed that the door was open.  So we walked in, and there was a display of Donald Judd’s furniture. He designed his furniture, but he had people make it for him. I went home and I said to my wife,” I just saw the most sublime, simple furniture.” I drew pictures of it and then 5 years later I was working for him, doing stuff like getting the mail and painting walls and scraping paint. My first job was to paint the elevator shaft, but it was about fifteen dollars an hour, which was a ton of money then. My friend who had left saw how much fun we were having and asked if he could come back, so all of a sudden there were actually four of us. We were close friends and we were working for Judd.  And this big chance for Don came up at the MAK Museum in Vienna, who wanted to do a show of his architecture and furniture designs. He said that he wanted to do that, but he needed all of these furniture pieces built, and his furniture makers said, “We can’t do it in that short amount of time.” Don turned to us.  And so my friend Jeff thought that we could do the job. Jeff said, “Let me make one of your pieces and you can tell me what you think. So Jeff went to his shop, made a Judd chair, brought it back the next morning and Don said “that’s good.” Suddenly we got the job of making all of Judd’s furniture. So we built a shop in Judd’s basement and began building his furniture. We didn’t make everything for that show, but we made a lot of the stuff.

So that was in 1990, and Don died in 1994, out of the blue. And we made his wooden furniture during that time, and I developed all these skills. And Ursula knew about it.  And she admired Judd’s work. At the time, she was organizing a show about the Bauhaus workshops, a fantastic show that she was putting together, and she called me and said, “I know that you make Judd’s furniture. I know that I like your sensibility as an artist, Rupert, can you design and make furniture for this exhibition?“ So the answer to your question, no,  we never designed anything for Judd, we helped him figure out some things, we found some new materials for him to use. But no, his designs were his, we implemented them.

RW: So the title of the De Patta show is Space-Light-Structure. Did you take this into mind?

RD: Oh absolutely, because it’s implicit in her work. The title is accurate. It might have been pretentious to title it Space, Light, Structure and Time. Moholy-Nagy’s work definitely recognizes that everything is in flux, and therefore, flux should be recognized. And when somebody’s wearing jewelry, it’s a performance. You know, your earrings are fairly static, but nonetheless, they’re there, they move when you move. Time, for somebody who’s making something that’s worn, is a real element in the way that the thing works. So I kept thinking of this pendant swinging, a pin on some linen or some cashmere, or some cotton. The context and the idea being in play, and I thought, how are we going to look at these pieces? And I continued to think, what if we had a bunch of people in a room and they were all wearing something? And as I crossed out a few ideas, I thought of the columns actually. My first notion was that the columns were butlers, because they were bringing the things out on a tray to the viewer. I had no trouble making a transition from butler to trees — I almost think that trees are butlers. It’s that idea. And thank god, when the title wall was made, it didn’t read boldly, SPACE! LIGHT! STRUCTURE!  Linda Florio, their thoughtful graphic designer, created a kind of ease on that wall, in that the title is not presented as a prescription on how to look at the show but it suggests to the visitor some things to look for.  You notice what you notice.

 

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  • Beverly Siegel

    Rachel, What terrific interviewing you did here. I read every word and look forward to more insights into our exhibitions. Thank you so much-you gave me more ideas to impart to the public during my tours. Bev

  • diane feldman

    During my tour of the DiPatta exhibition yesterday, a visitor exclaimed that the individuals who designed and installed the works were truly artists themselves.
    It is visually stunning.

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  • Charlotte Beeler

    A great interview to read for anyone interested in creative minds at work and in how a craftsman like Rupert Deese generously acknowledges the skills of other craftsmen.


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