New York

Tiffany & Co., Design Drawing, 1875–76, watercolor, ink, and graphite on wove paper, 18 5⁄8 × 15 1⁄2". From “The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present.”

Tiffany & Co., Design Drawing, 1875–76, watercolor, ink, and graphite on wove paper, 18 5⁄8 × 15 1⁄2". From “The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present.”

“The Clamor of Ornament: Exchange, Power, and Joy from the Fifteenth Century to the Present”

From Christoph Jamnitzer’s buxom amoretti to Wolfgang Hieronymus Von Bömmel’s scrollwork beasts, from François Boucher’s conchiferous Rococo to Robert Adam’s gentrified classicism, from Louis H. Sullivan’s Midwestern mandalas to Prophet Isaiah Robertson’s millenarian millwork, from Wendy Red Star’s critical interpolations in the photographic archive of Apsáalooke costume to Tom Hovey’s faithful renderings of cakes from The Great British Bake Off (2010–), “The Clamor of Ornament”—billed as “the most ambitious omnibus exhibition The Drawing Center has undertaken in a decade”—embraced its topic with maximalist éclat. Punning on design theorist Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, which endeavored to educate Victorian tastemakers in “general principles” of decoration across world cultures, the show dispensed with the positivist baggage of the 1856 sourcebook in favor of a blithe if softly didactic eclecticism. “Rather than promoting restraint and establishing rules,” writes guest curator Emily King, “we are here to celebrate ornamental profusion and welcome ornament’s particular talent for pleasurable disruption.”

“The Clamor” was full of prodigal fun, though its pleasures weren’t innocent, as King made an effort to reveal how ornament’s circulation and reappropriation are entangled with conquest and capital. A ca. 1830–40 watercolor by an anonymous Indian artist of the Company School depicted the interior of the Hammam-e-Lal Qila at the Red Fort in Delhi—once the bathhouse of a Mughal emperor—here converted into apartments for an English officer. A presentation of William Morris’s “Snakeshead” print fabric (produced with dyer Thomas Wardle in 1876), alongside fragments of eighteenth-century Indian chintz by unknown artisans, demonstrated the socialist design reformer’s debt to South Asian textile traditions jeopardized by cheap cotton harvested by formerly enslaved people in the American South and processed in English factories. At around the same time, Tiffany & Co. was working on a scheme for a bombastic Rococo Revival bauble that would come to be known as the Adams Vase. Echoing the shape of a cotton plant, this gold gem-encrusted receptacle was commissioned by the shareholders of the American Cotton Oil Company in honor of its chairman, Edward Dean Adams. One of the original Dow Dozen, the corporation began as a syndicate of Texas and Arkansas mills that sold ginning by-product as fertilizer, cattle feed, and cooking oil after the Civil War.

Hanging beside this Gilded Age trophy of American industry was Boudoir, 1939, a flamboyant Victorian interior by artist Perkins Harnly. Furnished with swags, stripes, and a portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt in a gaudy frame, this louche bedroom scene was among the many submissions Harnly created for the Federal Art Project’s Index of American Design, a New Deal program that employed artists to produce hyperreal watercolors documenting America’s decorative-arts heritage. The kind of upholstered frippery that Jones and Morris would have criticized as the meretricious trappings of bourgeois taste here becomes a reliquary of queer exuberance amid the privations of the Great Depression. Made during the warp-speed economic and cultural upheavals of the Meiji Restoration, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s Feeling Pain: A Prostitute in the Kansei Era c. 1778, 1888, also finds naughty frisson in the ornament of a bygone century. Hailing from the late ukiyo-e master’s “Thirty-two Aspects of Women” series, 1888, the woodblock print portrays an Edo courtesan biting down on a handkerchief as she is tattooed with the name of a lover or customer. Associated with criminals and the disaffected remnants of the Samurai class, tattooing was banned in 1872 by the Meiji government as it implemented rapid industrialization, trade, and the adoption of European manners and dress seen in Tomioka Eisen’s print Textile Merchant, ca. 1901, depicting a Japanese woman in Edwardian attire transacting with a carrot-topped Western clothier.

If this writing seems like a welter of description and anecdote, that is very much in the spirit of the show. Clamor was as key to its conceptual architecture as was ornament; the latter, as critic Jed Perl has observed, was alternately conceived as a floating world of signifying delights, or a prism refracting the violent relations of production, consumption, and dispossession. How to approach beauty and history beyond the potted moralism and jaded flânerie that polarize and flatten contemporary discourse? The answer lies beyond the ambitions of this exhibition, which dazzled and beguiled nonetheless in its involute surfaces and untapped depths.