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American Artisans Convey Dynamism of the Machine Age

New York museum shows off exuberant works that embrace full-speed-ahead zest of European modernism during the years 1920-1945

WHEN Eleanor Roosevelt commissioned ceramic bowls for the New York governor's mansion in 1931, she specifically asked for something modern in spirit. What she got were Viktor Schreckengost's ''Jazz'' bowls that sum up the flapper age of whoopee. Each bowl - with its blue-black, nocturnal colors and imagery of blaring saxophones - is a time capsule of the era's speakeasy culture.

In ''Craft in the Machine Age 1920-1945,'' the American Craft Museum in New York shows off 140 such exuberant objects that embrace the full-speed-ahead zest of modernism.

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Americans in general were resistant to avant-garde, nonrepresentational art produced in Paris after the turn of the century. But American artisans showed no hesitation. They got with the program early and incorporated its forms into crafts in all mediums. An international exposition of decorative arts held in Paris in 1925 was the turning point.

Art Deco takes over

After that, French-inspired Art Moderne (also called Art Deco) swept this country. The Arts and Crafts style as well as popular Colonial Revival were replaced by Art Deco ornament like curvilinear lines, stylized fountains, zigzags, pyramids, and circles.

William Hunt Diederich's ''Fire Screen with Foxes and Hounds'' (c. 1925) is an archetypal Art Deco piece. The elongated, elegant lines of the animals, enclosed in a perpetual circle of the hunter and hunted, resemble simplified paper cutouts that Diederich made as a child.

Another Art Deco design is Loja Saarinen's ''Tapestry #3 for Kingswood'' (1928-29), which she wove for the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., directed by her husband, architect-designer Eliel Saarinen. Its geometric pattern with inverted chevrons shows the clean, architectonic style of Scandinavian textiles.

Other craftsmakers experimented with the fractured geometry of Cubism. Wharton Esherick, a painter, proved himself a wood wizard with his ''Sewing Cabinet'' (1933). Its shape combines the faceted planes of Cubism with the angularity of German Expressionism.

The dominant shape of the exhibition, repeated in all formats from candelabra to tapestries, is the stair-step profile of the skyscraper. Paul T. Frankl's ''Skyscraper Bookcase'' (1926) combines this new set-back shape with Old World craftsmanship. Elaborate marquetry anchors a stacked progression of boxes that rhythmically alternates positive and negative spaces, as in Piet Mondrian's grid paintings.

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The skyscraper motif recurs in ''New York Waterfront,'' a silk tapestry made around 1928 by Lydia Bush-Brown. The imagery of soaring buildings and chugging tugboats captures the dynamism of the machine age, when technology transformed New York City's skyline from brownstones to behemoths.

Frederick Carder - the father of the studio-glass movement - is well represented by two sculptural works. His paperweight cologne bottle of 1927-31 is a multilayered tour-de-force. A core of bubble glass and green organic shapes reflect the ornamental Art Deco spirit, while its cut-crystal exterior suggests the Cubist tendency to overlap shapes. In Carder's ''Six Prong Green Jade Vase'' (c.1930), six triangular glass compartments spring from a common base like the horn section of a jazz combo.

After the Depression hit in 1929, the playful, swirling imagery of Art Deco seemed too froufrou for hard times. Consequently, American designers shifted full-throttle into machine-age aesthetics. In the process, American craft jettisoned all vestiges of provincialism. In the 1930s, ''streamlined'' was the operative word. Sleek, rounded shapes, as in mass-produced Fiestaware pottery, predominated in every room of middle- and upper-class homes.

William Waldo Dodge's silver cocktail shaker of 1929-31 looks like a Minuteman missile on the launch pad, and Harry Bertoia's silver tea service reduces teapot, sugar bowl, and creamer to pure geometric ovals.

The Bauhaus ''form follows function'' credo infiltrated America, as European emigres like Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, and Josef and Anni Albers spread the doctrine of utilitarian design. Russel Wright's aluminum pitcher of 1935 is an austere cylinder, as smoothly contoured as a zeppelin. The infatuation for machines was so intense in this epoch that even handcrafted objects were honed to resemble lean assembly-line goods.

Designer's hand rediscovered

Just when faith in mass production reached its apogee, a reaction set in. Precursors of the studio-craft movement like Esherick and Carder produced pieces with the stamp of an individual artisan's hand.

Alexander Calder's jewelry, like his gilded brass ''Necklace'' (c. 1940), retains his hammer marks. The three tiers of linked circles have the light, graceful flow of the mobiles and wire sculpture for which he is known. You almost expect the necklace to ripple in the wind.

Other celebrated artists are also represented in the show. A ceramic head by Isamu Noguchi - reduced to a minimalist essence - reflects both his tutoring by Constantin Brancusi and his study of ancient Japanese craft. The Russian sculptor Alexander Archipenko's ''The Bride'' (1936) is an abstracted terra-cotta figure, whose dynamic lines and assertive curves cross from craft into high art.

This exhibition, third in the museum's decade-long series to document 100 years of American craft, illustrates a fruitful period when American artisans came into their own. Absorbing the currents of European modernism into the mainstream of American craft pushed our artisans past the watershed to merge the applied and fine arts.

* 'Craft in the Machine Age' remains in New York through Feb. 25, 1996. It won't be shown again until Sept 7-Nov. 3,1996, when it appears at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana. Other US showings of the exhibit aren't scheduled until 1997. A companion book was co-published by the American Craft Museum with Harry N. Abrams ($49.50, hardcover; $29.95, paperback).

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