Pattern & Decoration

May 1, 2022 / Anh Vu


More is more.

The rebellion was not cloaked in slick black leather or draped in stark ivory silk.

It was crafted. Meticulously, repetitively; wrought with bubblegum pinks and periwinkle blues into a “fuck you” bouquet of untidy textiles and abstractions de fleur. The message was clear.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

We will be seen.

In the collective pop-culture imagination of the West, the influence of the 1970s settles on a peculiarly robust pedestal.

The decade birthed entire genres, subcultures, and cultural icons whose influences are embedded in our modern-day musical pathos. Radio broadcasts documented political oscillations in the wild, wild west, where progressive agendas faced off against generational chasms, stagflation’s debut, and a polarizing war. As the Internet age’s predecessor, this era also witnessed the development of the world’s first general microprocessor, e-mail, pocket calculators, and, out of a garage in California, a little company named Apple.

Attempting to distill the entirety of the 1970s into a neat literary schematic is an impossible task, but from that chaotic period of helter-skelter happenings, a particular thread can be pulled out. The ’70s, with its punk rock, defiant protests, and moxie charm appeared to be an age of definition. Tethers to convention were severed. The status quo no longer proved satisfactory. The communitarianism of the previous ten years was cast aside in favor of atomization. —that is,  a desire to stand alone, apart, and outside of traditional power dynamics.

More accurately, the ’70s was an age of redefinition.

The art world did not prove itself immune to this phenomenon. As more artists flirted with the avant-garde, traditional creative processes were challenged. This scene was the foundation of Postmodern art. Within Postmodernism, several movements arose, but one group’s anti-establishment mentality struck a particularly dissonant chord.

Enter Pattern & Decoration. A wily, mutinous gang of artists who refused to revere the (very male, very white) omnipresent voice that dictated the socio-cultural hierarchies of the art world, P&D specifically stood in opposition to Minimalism and Conceptualism — two movements whose central philosophies placed a high price point on austerity and paid dust to ornamentation and craft. These sentiments were nothing new, and likely a holdover from centuries of Eurocentrism and the patriarchy.

P&D refers to the decorative traditions throughout the world, including textiles, wallpaper, manuscript illustrations, mosaics, glassware, and embroideries. These forms of artistic production have long beenoverlooked by historians, theorists, and artists who subscribe to ideals of the rational and morally “pure”. 

Any art that was not created with those such intents at the forefront was deemed frivolous.  As Leo Tolstoy stated, “Real art, like the wife of an affectionate husband, needs no ornaments, but counterfeit art, like a prostitute, must always be decked out.”

By invalidating whole swaths of creation as merely extraneous, the work of women and non-Western cultures was shuffled into the category of “craft”…. purposefully distinct from “art”. To those in the ivory tower, real art required a deep understanding of theory and disciplined practice that could only be honed by a serious scholar of the arts and in the presence of equally distinguished peers — “his” hands were the channel from which ideas that propelled a culture forward were birthed, “her” hands merely decorated the home.

In objection and rebellion, leaders of P&Dt leaned in to their femininity and their ornamentation. They looked the critics, with their white squares and Duchamp, in the eye and said: “You’re fucking boring!”

Well, maybe not explicitly. But the message was clear through the celebration of color, pattern, and floral elements in the works of major leaders such as Joyce Kozloff, Miriam Schapiro, and Jane Kaufman. There was no such thing as too busy, too much.

P&D sought to redefine what “good art” was and who got to determine it. While the movement did not last very long, fluttering away by the 1980s, its doctrine, much like many of the things from the 1970s, has had a very impactful afterlife. ■

By: Anh Vu

Photography: Lorianne Willett

Layout: Charlotte Rovelli

Stylist: Kathleen Segovia

Varsha Vasu & Michelle Adebisie

 Tylan Dangerfield & Njoki Gitau

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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