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The Umbrellas of Manhattan

Times Arts Editor

I expect it would be possible to devote a month to exploring all the museums in New York and still not give them the time they deserve.

You would end up foot-sore, back-sore, eye-weary and brain-dazed. But you might have experienced a laugh or two amidst the prevailing feelings of awe and duty faithfully done.

At the moment, for perfect relief from solemnity, the American Craft Museum, just across the street from the Museum of Modern Art, is holding what can only be called a zany show of umbrellas.

Patterson Sims, the curator of modern art at the Seattle Art Museum, in a region where it rains a lot, sent 30 umbrellas to 30 artists and said do with them what you will. The idea was developed jointly by Sims and Kippy Stroud, the founder-director of Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop, devoted as it is to cloth in all its wondrous employments.

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The umbrellas as dispatched were wholly mundane and functional, even stolid, with wood shafts and a beige-colored covering. Nothing as up-market as those tight-furled, slim, black English jobs that resemble cloaked stilettos. This was the umbrella as necessary evil, in need of a face lift.

What the artists sent back to Sims confirmed what varied and antic imaginations artists have. Many, perhaps most, simply used the fabric as a shaped canvas and painted the umbrellas in a sunny blaze of colors. These hang from the ceiling in the museum, and the effect is of flying saucers visiting from a small planet with a large sense of humor.

Robert Kushner hung a curtain-like drape from the rim of the umbrella (which he splashed with gold) and seated a mannequin inside, as in a portable changing room. Another artist hung a plastic fringe that looks for all the world like a cloudburst only one umbrella wide.

Edward Henderson replaced one leg of a kindergarten chair with a pool cue that extends upward to become the shaft of the umbrella, and presumably creating a nice shady spot for recess on the playground.

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Michael Lucero furled his umbrella tightly, stuck it in a vase and wrapped both in yards of shiny gray mending tape, thus achieving what looks like a pewter sculpture, and a small homage to Giacometti.

Another artist turned the umbrella inside-out, as if a casualty of the wind, and painted it in dark and stormy gray and black. Still another removed the fabric and bejeweled the ribs, the result hinting of something to be carried by a tall semi-nude lady in a Las Vegas extravaganza.

My favorite was probably Don Nakamura’s. He sewed a pair of stuffed socks to one side of the umbrella and a pair of stuffed globes at the opposite edge, linking them by painting a clownish, arms-upraised figure across the canvas. The tip of the umbrella was thus significantly located to suggest either that the figure had been impaled or was male.

Those who imagine curators to be lofty-thinking and unvaryingly solemn will be interested to learn that the show is called “Rain of Talent.” “Umbrella Art,” the subtitle, does give the umbrella a new life as something more than a nuisance to be left on buses and in restaurants and unavailable when at last it does rain.

The other current show at the American Craft Museum is of furniture by George Nakashima, a Japanese-American, originally from Seattle, who was interned during World War II. He studied design at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and architecture at MIT and since 1951 has had as his principal signature tables and other objects essentially formed of one large, highly polished--and invariably extremely beautiful--slab of wood. The bark edge is left intact, giving the pieces the excitement and interest of abstract sculpture.

Nakashima now lives in New Hope, Pa. Coincidentally, his other work has the simplicity of Shaker furniture. The critics speak of his belief in “the anonymity of the craftsman” and his love of “the free edge” and “vernacular forms.”

These are alternate ways of saying there is nothing quite so lovely to look upon as an artful simplicity, and that you need not be an expert to know when you are in the presence of great beauty.


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