New York

“Homage to the Bag”

Museum of Contemporary Crafts

Bag—A receptacle of flexible material open only at the top (where it can be closed); a pouch, a small sack.

If one took a simplistic view of the boundaries of art, it would be easy to dismiss a show of bags at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts as being merely about craft. One could see it as sheer haberdashery, like the recent men’s clothing show at the Brooklyn Museum. But what is a bag? The exhibition reveals that bags are important carriers—the pun is intended—of content in society. On its most basic level a bag is something we put things in when we can’t or don’t want to carry them in our hands. But it is also a form of communication indicating its owner’s persona, social status, hobbies, politics, etc.

The show has four categories of bags: historic decorative ones; functional ones such as duffel bags and the string bags of primitive peoples; borderline craft/art bags; and high art bags such as an enormous fiberglass and epoxy brown paper bag by Alex Hay, Oldenburg’s giant kinetic ice bag or shopping bags silk-screened with images of their possible contents by Warhol and Lichtenstein. Most of the bags were presented not as isolated objects but in a slide show which placed them in functional situations.

Because they analyzed the content/contents of containers, I found those bags which lay between the boundaries of art and craft, such as Lesley Jean Goldberg’s satchel filled with stuffed cloth heads or Theresa Fairbank’s stuffed potato sacks surrounded by cascades of crocheted lumps suggesting fecundity, the critical focus of the show.

The inside covers of the catalogue are lined with alphabetical lists of kinds of bags (the word “bag” plus an adjective modifying it)—knitting bag, laundry bag, leather bag, litter bag, etc. This parsing of types of bags is more than mere graphic design. It appears in the show as a large body of craft-sculptures which are plays on the words which modify “bag” and attempts at constructing visual equivalents of the verbal. They do not always produce what is normally conjured up by the words. For example one thinks of a sandwich bag as being a paper or plastic sack for packaging sandwiches. Joy Nagy’s sewn satin and foam rubber Sandwich Bags: Bagel; Hero; Swiss, Tomato and Lettuce are purses which reproduce sandwiches to scale. A bean bag is a cloth shape filled with beans used for games of tossing and catching, but Susan Zucker’s Bean Bag is a play on the enclosing quality of a bean pod. She applies a color 3-M xerox of a photograph of beans in a slightly open pod to the outside of a green velvet purse in the shape of a pod. A more direct form of literalizing the verbal is Marcia Lloyd’s traditional shoulder bag with a leather hand attached to the flap identifying the piece as a “hand”-bag. My favorite object was a winged, quilted Flight Bag by Elizabeth Gurrier. By anthropomorphizing a fairly homely piece of airplane carry-on luggage, she makes a humorous commentary on the psychological condition of the nervous passenger in the act of flying, whom she renders as a face complete with knitted brow and interlaced fingers, protruding from a squashy winged bag.

I, for one, have become extremely tired of the put-down of crafts one encounters in art circles, crafts here being something that is made with one’s hands especially through one of the traditionally feminine needle arts. One would think, with the introduction of new sculptural materials in the ’60s, that the use of soft, flexible, sewn materials would no longer be a questionable pursuit. “Homage to the Bag” serves as a definite critical maneuver on the part of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. Through the juxtaposition of “crafts,” design, and fine-arts objects under the egis of a unified concept, one is forced to talk about them with equal emphasis.

Ann-Sargent Wooster