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*Jeff Perrone (left) with artist Jimmy Wright. Photo: John Corbett.
*Jeff Perrone (left) with artist Jimmy Wright. Photo: John Corbett.

Jeff Perrone (1953–2023)

Jeff Perrone, a founding figure of the Pattern and Decoration movement, died this spring in New York at the age of sixty-nine. His death was confirmed by artist Elaine Reichek, his longtime friend. Perrone was a noted art critic whose 1976 Artforum essay “Approaching the Decorative” reshaped the conversation around the decorative in contemporary art. His own oeuvre was as powerful as his writing: Perrone jarringly placed materials typically associated with feminized craft, such as buttons, trim, and fabric, in the service of aggressive pronouncements, in works seeming at once to embrace and eject the viewer. “All I can say is that you put your best impulses into your work, not your worst impulses,” Perrone told BOMB’s Roberto Juarez, a friend, in 1993. “If I can do that, it’s enough.”

Jeff Perrone was born in Atwater, California, in 1953. After earning his BA in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley, he moved to New York, where he taught at the School of Visual Arts from 1977 to 1983. “I always looked like I was from Brooklyn,” he told Juarez. “Which is why I moved to New York as soon as I could.” During this time, Perrone began writing regularly for Artforum. In “Approaching the Decorative,” a review of the landmark group show “Ten Approaches to the Decorative” at New York’s Alessandra Gallery, he argued for the value of craft, long overlooked in an art history that prized painting and its masculinist tendencies.

“[I]t is easy to see how the prejudice against the decorative can crop up at any time in relation to anyone’s work. This prejudice is both relatively new, and unevenly administered,” he wrote.

“In this century, we have the clothes designed by Sonia Delaunay and the architectural decoration of Matisse, the tapestries of Stella and Frankenthaler, the ceramics of Picasso and Lichtenstein, among hundreds of other examples. Scratch any art movement or established artist, and you are likely to find some form of ‘nonprofound’ activity involved with applied form. More than just a prejudice against the decorative, the criticism I cite reveals an assumption of a certain set of minimal, reductive norms for art that stress calm rather than busy-ness, holistic rather than fragmented images. These are inherited prejudices, not inherent biases.”

After brief mid-’80s stints teaching at the University of Texas, San Antonio (“It was extremely depressing,” he told Juarez. “Given the fact that there is nothing to do in Texas but drink and shoot animals, I started playing around with clay to relieve boredom”) and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, Perrone settled in New York for good. Just in time to witness the carnage wrought in his community by AIDs, he turned in earnest from criticism to artmaking, working at a print shop to support himself.

Perrone’s works of this era took both canvas and fired clay tiles as their supports. These were hung directly on the wall, via nails that pierced the ceramic tiles. “The point is, you can’t frame them,” he noted. He soon brought influences ranging from the vibrant effusion of Indian art, which he discovered at a young age, to the stark bright Minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly to bear in works made from hundreds of carefully sourced buttons, often collected over decades, which he sewed onto fabric to spell out biting polemical and political phrases.

“Perrone’s words and phrases, too, could cumulatively constitute a persona at a distance from the man himself, or their vernacular currency could be an intellectual interest of his,” wrote Artforum’s David Frankel in 2018. “And yet, undeniably, a part of the pleasure of this work is the feeling that an artist, under the shield of an elaborate and intricate formal exercise but also in plain sight, is telling us exactly what he thinks.”

Perrone continued to create his text-centric works for more than two decades, most recently experimenting with a larger scale. He enjoyed solo shows at New York galleries including Marinaro, Cheim & Reid, Holly Solomon Gallery, Sperone Westwater, and Charles Cowles Gallery, and saw his work included in group shows at the American Craft Museum, New York; the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts; the Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina; and the J. B. Speed Museum of Art, Louisville, Kentucky, among other institutions. His last show, “A Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party,” which will now serve as a memorial exhibition, is on view at Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey through June 17.