What is Art Deco? For weeks before we opened our stunning new exhibition “Deco Japan: Shaping Art & Culture,” 1920-1945 at the Tyler Museum of Art, that question has hounded me mercilessly.
I’ll attempt to explain it in terms similar to how I phrased it recently to a young reporter: It’s almost impossible to describe in 50 words or fewer, but you recognize it instantly when you see it, in household items as practical as they are decorative, in graphic design, in fashion, in architecture. The beauty of this show — and everyone who’s come through agrees, the installation is amazingly beautiful — is that it incorporates all of it (with the notable exception of the architecture, as we can’t rightly fit another building inside our own). Our curator Ken Tomio found this show, was the only one in the state of Texas to get clearance to present it, and absolutely knocked it out of the park. It’s infinitely more fun to see than it was to install — because it was an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege to install. Our staff deserves an enormous amount of credit for pulling it off, and the results are self-evident.
Probably the finest example of “true” Deco left standing in Tyler is the Blackstone Building, which houses the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce on North Broadway. (Sadly, the historic, once-adjacent Blackstone Hotel was demolished in 1985.) Like the spire of the Chrysler Building in New York, the best designs of the movement (of which the Blackstone Building is one) betrayed a certain ... severity among the ornamentation, an element that permeated architecture and design even as Deco gave way to the more austere Mid-Century Modern style of the post-WWII era.
Look around town – even among McMansions and aging “pillbox” facades, you can find elements of Art Deco everywhere. The Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse Building on West Ferguson that once was home to the central post office frequently is cited as the zenith of Classical Revival design in the region, but a closer look at the filigree on the eaves across the roof, the intricate ornamentation on the limestone facade of the front entrance, reveal a pronounced Deco influence. Or, for a building you (hopefully) would have reason to visit more often than a federal courthouse, survey the interior of the Luby’s restaurant on Roseland: comically oversize wall vents, doorways so narrow that a bathroom break becomes a logistical impossibility for anyone of ample proportions ... Deco city, sweetheart.
You would be ill-advised to defer to me as a Deco “authority,” as I attempt no pretense of being an art historian. I simply recognize what I like and reasonably can articulate why. For a genuine authority on the subject, you’ll want to check out our Summer Lecture Series program with Deco Japan curator Dr. Kendall Brown coming up next Sunday, July 14. He’s armed with a Ph.D. in art history from Yale, has written approximately 50 bazillion books and articles, and in general knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Japanese art and the Deco movement. Visit our Web site, www.tylermuseum.org , for all the details, and call us at (903) 595-1001 to reserve a seat.
If you’re in the hunt for activities for your kids this season, we’re still accepting late entries for a few of our remaining Summer Art Camps. Spots are filling up quickly, the kids so far have had an absolute blast — and 90 percent of the reason is our museum educator, Derek Frazier. If your children possess any artistic curiosity at all, whether they’re 7 or 17, they could do far worse than spending a week with him. My art teacher smelled like Thunderbird and Kools, and screamed at anyone who had the unmitigated audacity to color outside the lines. Your kids get Derek, an fine artist in his own right, armed with the sense of wonder and imagination that marks the most compelling of teachers – and, by all accounts, a pretty cool dad as well. He’s something of a Bigfoot enthusiast, but we try not to hold that against him.
Our new director, Chris Leahy, is coming on board in just a couple of weeks, baptized by the fire of an extraordinarily busy season at the TMA. I truly believe I’m back in the right place at the right time. I hope you’ll stop by for our members’ “Hot Party on July 20, meet Chris, indulge in some Asian food and cool libations – and take a minute to flag me down while you’re there. You can’t miss me: I’ll be the youthful-looking yet slightly disheveled guy wearing a sportcoat in the middle of summer, gamboling down the stairs in search of my seventh cup of coffee that day. See you soon.
Jon Perry is the public relations coordinator for the Tyler Museum of Art.