A drawing of architectural ornamentation
Louis H. Sullivan, Ceiling Design with Peacock Motif, 1876, Ink on paper. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY

An Exhibition at Manhattan’s Drawing Center Cultivates a Gloriously Unruly History of Ornament

The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present revives a more inclusive history of ornamentation across the globe. 

An inscription on a graphite drawing by architect Louis H. Sullivan reads: “the rigid pentagon has vanished in a mobile medium.” The 1922 drawing, titled Fluent Geometry reads is a component of the architect’s early twentieth-century treatise A System of Architectural Ornament (1st Edition, Rizzoli, 1990) and represents an unadorned five-sided shape as it undergoes an astonishing metamorphosis. Across five movements, a ripple of bows and bends progressively emerge from the elementary lines that form a pentagon. The form self-propagates, giving way to ever more intricate flourishes and depth. In its final expression, still nascent, the original shape is unrecognizable.  

Presently on loan at Manhattan’s Drawing Center, Sullivan’s plate joins a staggering array of objects on view in the museum’s latest exhibition, The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present. Guest curated by design historian Dr. Emily King with Margaret-Anne Logan and Duncan Tomlin, the exhibition details the global exchange and transformation of ornament over seven centuries. Comprising drawings, prints, textiles, and other embellished materials, the show establishes an expressive and insightful flow amid the fussy and florid. 

a drawing of a design for floral wallpaper
William Morris, Design for Chrysanthemum Wallpaper, 1877, Pencil and watercolor on paper. Courtesy William Morris Gallery, London, Borough of Waltham Forest
a drawing of architectural ornament on white paper
Martin Schongauer, Querfüllung auf hellem Grund (Horizontal Ornament), c. 1470, Engraving on white paper. Courtesy Cooper Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Adapted from Owen Jones’ 1856 design opus The Grammar of Ornament, the show’s title revives a history of ornament as theorized by European architects in the second half of the 19th century. Occupied with orders and principles, these texts mobilized visual comparisons of adornment to advance arguments on cultural differences. Moving beyond a methodology governed by rules and categories was paramount for Dr. King; commenting on the scope of the exhibition, she remarked, “this idea that you make it more inclusive, but still keep that structure, it just seemed completely untenable.”  

Like its predecessors, The Clamor of Ornament remains concerned with the social aspects of design, but it presents the material with explicit aims to do away with hierarchies and unsettle presumptions around ownership and taste. The curatorial and design team employs numerous strategies: saturated and wallpapered walls undermine the so-called neutral context of the white cube while merrily enhancing the space; works by the same maker reappear in multiple contexts; narratives of cultural exchange and collisions underpin groupings of objects. 

a drawing of a design for a temple in the metropolitan museum of art
Louis Comfort Tiffany, Design for Ark Doors, Temple Emanu-El, New York, 1910. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

The exhibition tackles power imbalances, exclusions, and erasures with refreshing specificity. A cluster of alluring illustrations produced for the Index of American Design (1935-1942) features an outlier: a screenprint by Louie Ewing of a Navajo blanket from the same period was produced independently; as the wall text explains, this government-funded index excluded indigenous designs despite aims to establish a comprehensive catalog of craft idioms and objects across the United States. Other moments redefine the terms of cultural heritage: a description accompanying lush floral patterns by British Arts & Crafts Movement designers relocates this regional design campaign amid international influence from Islamic and Asian iconography found on objects acquired during colonial trade. More contemporary highlights include a section detailing Dapper Dan’s appropriation of luxury goods logos alongside Wendy Red Star’s annotated photographs describing the cultural significance of bodily ornament sported by Native leaders.  

For all this range, Dr. King acknowledges that gaps were unavoidable; however, as she explained, “It’s not about being definitive, it’s about creating a way of seeing the world that expands.” This expansive view extends to the exhibition programming. Notably, “Sweet Series,” a trio of lectures by artist and baker Edward Cabral, unpacks the enduring affinities between decoration and dessert. Cabral, who specializes in a traditional cake icing method called English overpiping, was impressed that the Drawing Center was up to tackling the not-so-sweet side of the culinary arts, namely the abuses of the sugar trade. Mirroring the ethos of the exhibition, which finds relevance and revelations in the patterns of the past, Cabral observed, “That’s why I move so far back, because for me, that becomes a means to move far ahead.” 

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