Published: January 27, 2009
Antonio Pineda’s Modernist jewelry has been known to drive men to extremes. Many years ago, the Mexican actor/director Emilio “Indio” Fernandez so wanted to put a ring from Pineda’s private collection on actress Maria Felix’s finger that he smashed his fist through a glass display case. When the great man’s hand emerged cut and bleeding, Pineda recounts, “It was too late for me to tell him the ring was not for sale.”
Pineda, who at 89 laughingly related the story, is perhaps the most enduring of the Taxco silver masters influenced by the American expatriate architect, designer and professor William Spratling.
In an unspoken ideological liaison with artists like Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros and silver designers Spratling, Frederick Davis, Hector Aguilar and Jorge “Chato” Castillo, Sigi Pineda and Antonio Pineda all worked in a uniquely Mexican Modernist form heavily peppered with Mexican nationalism. They also ushered in Mexico’s silver renaissance.
The Taxco School, as the group was known (and Taxquenos , as they called themselves), was born in the 1930s, flourished in the 1940s and 1950s and did not decline until well into mid-century. Antonio Pineda’s career remained strong through the 1970s.
In its heyday, Taxco was the high-end shopping destination for Hollywood stars, heads of state and international socialites. While they may have been captivated by the avant-garde scene that flourished in the cafes of Taxco’s cobblestone lanes, the real draw was extraordinary jewelry impeccably executed in local tallers (workshops).
While in Taxco, buyers were wined, dined and invited to luxuriate in comfortable reception rooms equipped with private bars. They were then beguiled by a parade of silver jewels embellished with amethysts, obsidian, onyx, jade and turquoise. Pineda went so far as to entice vanities with silver jewelry set with pearls.
The maestro’s work evolved from an early post-Mexican Revolutionary style influenced by a variety of themes that surrounded him, including everything from pre-Colombian art to Art Deco to the sleek lines of abstraction. Works that were in demand at mid-century are today highly collectible and the subject of an exhibition titled “Silver Seduction: The Art of Mexican Modernist Antonio Pineda” on view at University of California, Los Angeles’ (UCLA) Fowler Museum through March 15.
The exhibition draws heavily on anthropologist Gobi Stromberg’s seminal work on the Taxco School. More than 250 silver pieces from the collections of Cindy Tietz and Stuart Hodosh are on view. Viewers also have the added advantage of seeing and hearing Pineda recount, through videos, how his inspirations and manner of working came about.
To Pineda, “Silver is like a woman. It’s white, it’s ductile, an invitation to be touched, to be modeled, to be made immortal by the artist.” Clearly, the artist has not lost any of the charm that, as a younger man with a pencil mustache, good looks and American-style ambition, helped catapult him to the top of his game.
Pineda’s success and that of his contemporaries was also fueled by American retailers Montgomery-Ward, Coro and, almost exclusively in Pineda’s case, Richard Gump, who marketed the silver creations to a postwar audience eager for beautiful things.
Taxco, in the state of Morelos, became the source of the New World’s precious metals when Cortez staked his mining claim a year after defeating the Aztecs in 1521. Then its output fell fallow until early in the Eighteenth Century when Don Jose de la Borda rediscovered the local lodes and proceeded to build a fortune in Taxco.
It served him well to also build schools, roads, houses and an ornate cathedral trimmed in gold. Taxco became, once again, the source of metal so precious that, with the Mexican Revolution bearing down, silver barons destroyed their mines rather than lose them to leftist upstarts. Early in the Twentieth Century, entrepreneurs began to offer silver souvenirs to tourists, often near the railways that branched out from Mexico City.
The silver renaissance of the Twentieth Century, ironically, owes its genesis to an American. William Spratling, Pineda says, “lit the fuse for the whole Modern Mexican movement in Taxco.”
As the story goes, Spratling had intended to spend only a week in Taxco but never left. Seeing a potential others had overlooked, he hired two master goldsmiths from a nearby town and opened the Taller de Las Delicias (Workshop of Delights). Pineda’s father, who was a supporter of Spratling’s taller, encouraged Antonio to apprentice there. The boy began working with Spratling at the age of 11.
At the time, Mexico was forging its way into the new century with a host of educational programs that included a nationwide network of Esculas al Aire Libre At the local Taxco school, Pineda took art classes with New York Studio School artist Tamiji Kitagawa. He also benefited from outings with Spratling and the artist David Alfaro Siqueros, often carrying the artist’s paint box and serving as artist’s model.
When Pineda was ready to leave the Taller de Las Delicias, he moved on to Mexico City to work with silversmith Valentin Vidaurreta, a proponent of Art Deco. Later, he was a salesman at Spratling’s shop. By the time Pineda opened his own taller in 1933, he knew the silver jewelry business inside and out.
According to Betsy Quick, director of education and staff coordinator for the UCLA/Fowler Museum’s Pineda project, the artist’s career took off in 1944, when he was included in an exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. Contemporaries of the show included emerging artists Margaret de Patta and Georg Jensen. It was Pineda’s work, however, that captured the eye of Richard Gump, heir to the San Francisco retailer. Gump bought the entire collection of 160 pieces and made a deal to sell Pineda’s pieces exclusively.
Over the years, the partnership resulted in unheralded benefits. Gump brought Pineda bags of fine stones from China and encouraged him to incorporate them into the works commissioned for the department store. Because of the high temperatures generally needed to work metal, the use of unusual stones presented challenges. If some appear to be floating, it is because Pineda allowed only a minimal amount of metal to touch them. In other situations, he embedded the stones in metal or set them close together in rows to emphasize the structural lines of a design. In still others, the stones were cut to fit irregular shapes.
Mexican jade, obsidian, moonstones, tiger-eye, rough emerald cabochons, carnelians and onyx were stones of choice. He twisted silver, knotted it, folded it, fashioned it into wire and tipped it with amethyst teardrops.
Both Antonio and his cousin, designer Sigi Pineda, set cultured pearls in silver. Among the most commanding are the pieces in which the cool whites play against onyx or “plata pavonada,” silver with a pearly finish, the result of oxidation.
Ultimately, the body of Pineda’s work is characterized by the use of more semiprecious stones than any of the other Taxquenos.
It is also marked by clever concealments. Quick stated that it is often difficult to discern the closure or clasp on a Pineda work. The sophisticated junctures and links of jewelry allowed the pieces to move with the body, enhancing the artwork’s dynamic visual quality.
The addition of several master smiths to Pineda’s taller encouraged, rather than inhibited, innovation. For instance, they were able to construct sculptural forms that were hollow, light and easy to wear. Every piece that came out of the workshop fit the body perfectly.
With an efficiently run taller in place, Pineda devoted himself to design. His silverwork then morphed into the realm of sculpture. Rafael “Chino” Ruic, the chief of the hollowware division, figured out how to translate small sculptures into large scale. These pieces soon found exposure at the international level. Antonio Pineda exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1950, “Five Thousand Years of Mexican Art” (Paris and London, 1952) and “Mexican Modern Art” (Rome and Mexico, 1960).
Today, as the collectibility of vintage and antique Mexican silver by Taxco’s silver renaissance designers grows, Pineda’s work still stands apart from that of his contemporaries.
Each of the Taxquenos had his or her own signature look. Spratling’s work, for example, was, in Pineda’s words, “notable for its designs inspired by codices, ceramics and sculpture from our ancient pre-Columbian cultures and also from a type of design that&⁷e young Taxquenos would make on Aldaco Street, designed by Valentin Vidaurreta and inspired by the flora and fauna of Mexico.”
Pineda has said that when he broke away from these designs, “It took me a long time to find my voice.”
He found inspiration in many places. He could work basic forms, such as crescents and tear drop shapes, into a seemingly infinite variety of designs. Zapotec masks, roof tiles, origami, the wall drawings of Lascaux, images of War World II all touched him and resulted in masterpieces.
In the 1950s, as the craze for matching accessories accelerated, Pineda fed middle-class America’s desires with suites of matching bracelets, earrings, rings and brooches called “parures.” Belt buckles, which looked great with full circle skirts, were also a popular accessory.
During this period, he also began creating sculptures for the arm, large bracelets that are nothing less than body art.
The men’s findings, cufflinks and rings in Pineda’s oeuvre are miniature sculptures. They reflect the same attention to design and detail as chokers, brooches, earrings and bracelets. Of the tableware, flatware and accessories on view in “Silver Seduction,” most are pristine and elegant, a coup de grace of form.
Working primarily in .970 silver, Pineda had several hallmarks, each of which indicates the year the jewelry was made. “Antonio Crown” has been the reigning hallmark since 1953. Earlier variations date back to 1939.
In laying out the Pineda exhibit, Quick first introduces Pineda and explores his roots, then expands into the works of other makers, such as Spratling and Aguilar. A section devoted exclusively to Pineda contains more than 200 items, most selected from the high period of his oeuvre, 1930 to 1960. There are also two videos, one of which demonstrates the influence of the Mexican Revolution on young artists. The other is on Pineda, with footage and sound bites of the master.
Silver Seduction: The Art of Mexican Modernist Antonio Pineda , which is edited by Gobi Stromberg, accompanies the exhibition and can be purchased from the Washington Press for $35.
he Fowler Museum is at 308 Charles E. Young Drive North, in the heart of UCLA’s north campus. For information, www.fowler.ucla.edu or 310-825-4361.
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