Attitude and Alchemy: The Metalwork of Gary Lee Noffke
2 April – 11 September 2011
The provocative humor and pioneering style of metalsmith Gary Lee Noffke will be exhibited in a major retrospective of the artist’s work at the Mint Museum Uptown this spring. Featuring significant examples of Noffke’s hollowware, flatware, and jewelry, the exhibition Attitude and Alchemy: The Metalwork of Gary Lee Noffke (2 April – 11 September 2011) not only captures the artist’s rebellious nature, but also examines his methodology, evolution of style, and impact on the field of metal.
Described as the “ultimate maverick,” Noffke has dedicated himself to metalsmithing for nearly 50 years, passionately exploring surface, form, and function, while simultaneously embracing and challenging tradition. A self-proclaimed “reprobate” who imbues his work with a dark sense of humor, Noffke has reacted against the medium’s tightly constrained working methods and formal decoration by creating functional objects characterized by wildly manipulated surfaces, subtle changes to utility, and spontaneity. His well-known exploits, such as a tendency to purposely misdate work to trick art historians, serve to communicate the artist’s personality and offer an esthetic statement on the social relevance of contemporary metalsmithing.
Noffke was born in 1943 to working-class parents in Sullivan, Illinois. Because money was scarce during his childhood, Noffke regularly built toys from found materials, and in the process, learned to use tools and work with his hands. His mother encouraged her son’s interest in art, even supplying him with a steady supply of gold to utilize during school. After receiving a Master of Fine Arts in metalwork from Southern Illinois University, Noffke taught at Stetson University and California State College. In 1971, he accepted a position at the University of Georgia at Athens and taught jewelry and metalwork there until 2001. He has received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to metalsmithing, including a National Endowment for Arts fellowship and membership in the American Craft Council’s College of Fellows, and has exhibited his work nationally and internationally.
On view in the changing galleries of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, Attitude and Alchemy spans Noffke’s career from the 1960s to present day and presents approximately 130 examples of his silver and gold jewelry, hollowware, and flatware, along with a selection of objects forged in steel. Accompanying the objects is a video of Noffke laboring in his studio, which will offer visitors a glimpse into his working environment and provide them with a deeper understanding of his process, technique, and personality.
The exhibition begins with early examples of Noffke’s jewelry and metalwork, which embody his relentless ornamentation and reflect his initial interest in painting and intaglio printing. One of the finest examples of this early work is his 18k Gold Goblet (1970). Often referred to as the holy grail of metalsmithing, the goblet reveals Noffke’s expressive mark-making, as well as a major design influence, ancient Peruvian metalwork. The show then explores objects from the mid-1970s to the early 1908s, a period during which Noffke closely examined the relationship between form and function to reveal the total working process. Works like Ladle (circa 1975) lack the ornate decoration of Noffke’s early works, demonstrating a shift towards optimum utility.
In the 1990s, Noffke had an artistic breakthrough. Frustrated with cold forging sterling silver, Noffke began making his own alloys and pouring his own billets in the 1990s. Noffke’s research led to the development of his 969 alloy (96.9% silver and 3.1% copper). This new silver alloy allowed him to increase the scale of his form, and provided greater expediency as well as spontaneity. Noffke went on to research hot forging gold, creating numerous, highly-acclaimed large gold bowls.
The exhibition concludes with Noffke’s elegant forms that integrate surface and form equally. His 21st century works include heavy and expressive hammer marks, adding depth and another layer of information to the surface. This shift led to the use of a range of tools in unorthodox ways to generate textures, lines, and patterns, an approach that continues to impact metalsmithing today.