Cynthia Bringle (United States, born 1939), “Four Cups,” circa 1968, stoneware, 7 1/2 x 3 3/8 inches; 11 1/8 x 3 5/8 inches; 5 × 3 1/4 inches; 9 × 3 1/2 inches. Collection of Arline Fisch. Photo by Bruce Schwarz

Taking its name from its first location in Montville, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts was founded in 1950. By the time it had settled at its current coastal location on Deer Isle in 1961, the school was making waves and helping to redirect the course of American art.

Haystack’s role in postwar American visual culture is difficult to overstate. Although the school’s presence is quiet for the people of Maine – it’s rarely open to the public and does not have a museum or gallery on its grounds – it has roared for many years among the American culture communities that make visual objects. Haystack offers workshops, seminars and residencies, rather than classes or degrees.

The glass great Dale Chihuly, for example, is arguably America’s most famous living artist. He taught for several years at Haystack and then openly based the Pilchuck Glass School he cofounded in 1971 on the Maine institution. Pilchuck not only led the Seattle area to become the epicenter of American glass art, but ultimately put America at the head of the international studio glass movement. While Chihuly’s swirling bottle in “In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969” leads the way for glass in the Portland Museum of Art’s scintillating exhibition, that’s not saying much. In 1969, American glass still had a long way to go. Most of the glass in the show wouldn’t get a passing grade in a first-year studio class now. But the artists had to start somewhere, and Harvey Littleton (known as the father of the American studio glass movement) brought one of the first art glass furnaces used in his seminal demonstrations up to Haystack; the rest is history.

Marvin Lipofsky (United States, 1938–2016), Untitled, circa 1967, blown glass, 19 x 5 1/2 x 5 inches. Portland Museum of Art, Maine, Gift of Mara and Juris Ubans in memory of Francis S. Merritt, founding director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine, 2016.33. Photo by Bruce Schwarz

While we could key in on clay or fiber, the history of glass art in America conveniently connects directly to Haystack. With the postwar notions of Abstract Expressionism lurking in their heads, artists wanted to express themselves directly through their materials. The fire arts – ceramics, metal and glass – offered a particularly primordial appeal. AbEx was happening with clay, championed by artists like Peter Voulkos, but glass was new ground. Its historic techniques were jealously guarded by the Italians. So the Americans would have to struggle to understand on their own. Littleton and Chihuly were joined in Maine by artists like Marvin Lipofsky and James Carpenter – a Mainer and Pilchuck co-founder now famous for his architectural glass, but whose pair of handled cups in “Vanguard” stand out for their blend of technique and expression.

If we could fast-forward to 2000, we would have found the leading glassblower in the world, Lino Tagliapietra, teaching for his 10th year at Haystack. It would have been inconceivable to have any Italian maestro teaching glass techniques in America in the 1960s.

Yet glass in “Vanguard” is far outstripped in the exhibition by the works in fiber and clay. Haystack, of course, wasn’t so limited: The show also features prints, painting, metal and more. Together, the objects present an almost overwhelming aesthetic depth beginning in the first room of the show with a pair of elegant ceramic vessels by Toshiko Takaezu and Elizabeth Crawford and woven textiles by Jack Lenor Larsen and Kay Sekimachi. The “Remoulade” textiles produced by Larsen at Haystack might look a bit dated now, but it’s because they became hugely popular through his New York showroom and were then factory produced for couches, etc.

The idea of “dated” is extremely interesting in “Vanguard.” Over such a range of objects, approaches and international artists (there is a particular presence of Japanese artists), the show offers a practically unique opportunity for insight about how Americans brought together qualities such as the individualistic expression of AbEx painting (think Willem de Kooning), the meditative skill of Asian craft, and the elegance of European mid-century modernism (e.g., Carlo Scarpa, Eero Saarinen). Together, these works make a great case for why we can’t shake ourselves from the design excellence of the 1950s and 1960s.

Cocurators Rachael Arauz and Diana Greenwold have gathered more than 90 works and a wealth of supporting materials such as photographs, brochures and posters. The design of the exhibition includes photographs blown up on walls, and it more than keeps up with the potentially overwhelming aesthetic of the objects. The fiber wall-hangings, in particular, are visually powerful in terms of color, texture and even sculptural depth.

Dorian (Dohrn) Zachai (United States, 1932–2015), “Allegory of Three Men,” 1962–1965, wool, silk, rayon, wood, cotton, ceramic, metallic threads, dacron stuffing; quilted, embroidered, assembled, 105 × 78 1/2 × 3 3/4 inches. Museum of Arts and Design, New York, Gift of the Johnson Wax Company, through the American Craft Council, 1977, 1977.2.105. Photo by Eva Heyd

Dorian Zachai’s 1962-65 “Allegory of Three Men,” for example, features three life-sized figures sewn together as a single element. They struck me as an industrialist, a king and a naked, Christ-like man; this reading works with the chess-logic to the almost cartoonish characters – a rook, a queen or king and a pawn. Visually, the large, colorful and highly stylized work catches your eye; it is powerful.

The Zachai, however, is joined by a throng of excellent fiber works that range from the subtle design elegance of Trude Geurmonprez’s 1963 3-D weaving “Untitled” to the luxurious colors and textures of Olga de Amaral’s “Muro tejido 1 (Wall Hanging 1).”

The other particularly strong presence is the assembled body of ceramics. Some, such as Toshiko’s 1958 “Double-Spouted Vase,” are strikingly unusual. Others, like William Wyman’s loose and lively 1962 “Slab Vase with Haiku,” represent the period apogee of the AbEx presence in ceramics. And others, led by Toshi Yoshida’s 1966 “Past History,” reveal a prescience (ironic, considering the name) of system-oriented sculptural considerations yet to become mainstream.

The range, however, is real. Fred Mitchell’s 1957 painting “Swimmers in Blue, Red, and Orange” doesn’t hide its nod to de Kooning, but it’s exquisite. I particularly enjoyed Stan VanDerBeck’s 1954 “Silverware Road Runner” and the stop-action film “Dance of the Looney Spoons” made from his bird-like utensil sculptures.

On virtually every level, “Vanguard” is a complete success. It handles the historical narrative of Haystack’s first two decades with succinct depth. It firmly establishes craft as a fundamental aspect of the postwar American cultural moment. Visually, the exhibition is exciting and engaging. And finally, rather than drawing snobby imaginary lines in the sand, “Vanguard” brings together the practices of art, design and fine craft. It’s an exhibition worthy of Haystack, the national gem that it is.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Toshiko Takaezu (United States, 1922–2011), “Double-Spouted Vase,” circa 1958, stoneware, 14 5/8 × 17 3/4 × 7 3/8 inches. Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of Eliel G. and Daniel A. Redstone in honor of Ruth R. and Louis G. Redstone, CAM 2002.49. Photo by R. H. Hensleigh and Tim Thayer

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