Geoff Isles has seen it all, but he’ll be there anyway. Like so many collectors of craft, he cannot help but fill his home with more and more vases and sculptures. At the 58-gallery SOFA (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) New York fair from June 1 to 3 at the Park Avenue Armory, these collectors will be there eyeing each other to see who bought what, standing about in their Afghan hats, necklaces made of spoons and toggle-closed tunics, laughing in front of clay slabs, pointing to a wall hanging. And they will be spending from a few hundred for a ceramic pot to $300,000 for a glass sculpture. Not as much as for a Pollock painting, but still: Prices have gone up as craft has been trying to inch its way into the world of Big Art.
Like all collecting worlds, the object and craft crowd has many subcultures within. There are those who collect ceramics; others, baskets, glass, textiles, jewelry. Some collect pieces that actually hold things; other pieces look like they might have at one time. Some collect all media, while others—like the glass people—will not touch anything but glass. “They’re very narrow-minded,” said Mr. Isles, 46, standing in his 4,800-square-foot downtown loft, which has about 300 pieces of art—functional and not. Mr. Isles’ collection is “only 50 percent craft—mostly glass.” The rest is fine art, like the collection that he grew up with in his banking family’s home on the Upper East Side.
“Craft collectors in general don’t see beyond the craft,” said Mr. Isles, standing near a light-blue glass torso of a man with blue hair and big round ears called Dumbell. “If you show a glass collector an artist’s work on glass, and then the same artist’s work on Plexiglas, the collector won’t buy the Plexiglas one. To me it’s absurd, because it’s all about the material rather than the painting. There are glass clubs. Most glass collectors buy in color. It’s all about the color. It’s rarely about something else.”
The distinction between fine arts and crafts involves, for some—others see no distinction—both money (more for fine art) and the desire to create something more than just a functioning pot, vase or basket. Since the early to mid–20th century, the Studio Craft Movement brought about a revolt against function. Peter Voulkos, in the 1950’s and 60’s, was one of the first to cross the craft/fine art divide, making big, tough Abstract Expressionist ceramics and putting holes in his pots so they couldn’t possibly function (and thus were more than mere containers). Of course, one could jump back to Plato, when the great contributor to the harmony of the state was the one who could build the great utilitarian object.
Today, gallery owners are pushing the word “conceptual.” Many are making and collecting “conceptual ceramics”—the witty vase expressing globalism and the human condition—and “conceptual jewelry”: jewelry with a brain, a ring covered with skyscrapers. Ask someone what a “sculptural object” is and they’ll invariably say that it is more than craft, which makes one wonder why can’t it just be exquisite craft—some perfectly glazed bowl. On the other hand, why does it have to be craft in the first place? Couldn’t the artists wake up one day and start creating sculptures, just take a feeling or idea and go with it instead of making a pot more than it is, into something it’s not, not a pot but …. What about the craft collectors? Do they think people coming out of a craft tradition are more sincere, more authentic, and not some smarty-pants artist? Or does everyone feel more comfortable collecting objects that come out of a functional tradition?
A local fine-arts sculptor believes that all the new language is suspect. “When they say ‘sculptural objects,’ it’s a code word for saying craft is as good as sculpture,” he said. “Look at craft magazines: There’s nothing you could put candy in. Yet they are not quite sculptures, because they are more obsessively about the material. I don’t know why—there’s always something missing. Some things I like, but there’s a weakness in it I can’t put my finger on. In crafts, they sort of fetishize surfaces to a degree. A lot of these sculptural objects, they have something obsessive about the surfaces. It seems too important.”
Many collectors love these objects just for their textural excessiveness. Marc Steglitz, chief operating officer of the Guggenheim Foundation, and his wife Ilene, a digital artist, collect heads in every media, four of which weigh 300 pounds each. “We like things that are in your face,” he said. “I’ve talked to art historians, professors of fine art. They think that line between craft and fine arts is very thin.” He finds the surfaces of the pieces appealing. “One time, a psychiatrist came over and said, ‘What’s with you and the heads?’ I’m not very deep on this.”
David Ling, an architect who’s worked with I.M Pei and Richard Meier and designed the Blue Man Group’s house, among other high-end residences, has a craft collection that includes a Toshiko Takezu bowl, which he showed off recently in his two-story office/studio (which itself is like a highly sophisticated piece of craft, with a waterfall, two moats, and steel cones for showering and meditating). Mr. Ling said that he prefers the work of craft artists, like fiber artist Lenore Tawney, simply for its “amazing materiality, the amazing detail.” Going against the grain, as it were, of the new world of “conceptual craft,” he prefers work that is “less conceptual, less narrative—and a lot to do with technique, and when artisanal aspects are played up.”
While Mr. Ling was working on a house for a trustee at the Museum of Arts and Design (five years ago, they changed their name from the American Craft Museum because people thought it meant folk art), he was influenced by their collection, he said, and “found myself doing more and more textured, rustic shapes.” The whole business is catching on: Among Mr. Ling’s other clients are Barry Fisher, a retired lawyer, and his wife, who collect mostly baskets and ceramics—Toshiko Takezu, Richard DeVore, Wayne Higby—in their Gramercy Park duplex and house in New Jersey. “We like having something you can touch,” Mr. Fisher said.