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Ralph Pucci's Handcrafted Mannequins Push the Envelope at the Museum of Arts and Design

April 2015 - Artnet

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Over the past 40 years New York-based designer Ralph Pucci has collaborated with major forces in fashion, art, design, and culture to create stylized, handcrafted mannequins worthy of a museum show. Now, Pucci's mannequins have their own show. "Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin" just opened at the Museum of Arts and Design.

The show, which is the world's first exhibition of mannequins, boasts over 30 of Pucci's strange, sinewy creations, as well as a replica of the studio of Pucci sculptor Michael Evert, where he will be molding mannequins before visitors eyes once a week until August.

Outlining the collaborative origin of each mannequin is a lengthy label, placed by the feet. These labels read like a who's who of the past three decades—a mannequin created for Diane von Furstenburg's stores is a strong female figure in glistening gold (created for the 40th anniversary of Von Furstenburg's famed wrap dress); a purple figure collaboratively designed by Kenny Scharf is purple with a fantastically painted face with one eye); the figure created for Anna Sui's store has an eye patch, a bob haircut, and a tiny star penciled below her lips).

Pucci's biggest collaborator throughout the years has been artist and fashion illustrator Ruben Toledo, who is responsible for more of the forms than any other name on the roster (aside from Pucci himself, of course) and who, alongside his partner Isabel Toledo, curated the third section of the exhibition.

Housed in the Tiffany & Co Foundation jewelry gallery, this section features several of Pucci and Toledo's surrealist busts draped with edgy pieces from the museum's permanent jewelry collection. Look out for two exquisite feather collars and a delicate necklace that is apparently made out of pig intestines.

But it's those elegant, celebrity-designed mannequins that are the star of the show—with their shiny, slender bodies and bubbling personalities, they're almost as fun to look at as live models.

There are also "action mannequins," which are perpetually frozen in mid-handstand or crouch, and were once used to sell athletic wear. "They're sort of like design, sort of like fashion, sort of like sculpture," said museum director Glenn Adamson. "In a way, they're better for being all three."

"They were looking to push the envelope and get that Olympian Goddess [mannequin] that had never been done before," said product designer Andree Putman about the figures she created with Pucci for the infamous mid-80s opening party for Barney's New York's 17th Street outpost. "At the opening, [it was] Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, these downtown people met with the uptown people, and my eyes were opened to what we had really been developing."

"At that point in time, it was about freedom to explore," Pucci continued. "Life is different now, people are more vanilla. Back then it was encouraged to really step out and be different."

It's certainly a moment of exploration for the museum. After acquiring a new location in 2008 and a new director in 2013, the MAD is attempting to carve out its niche within the competitive landscape of New York museums. It's not quite a fine art museum, but it is perhaps capable of putting on exhibitions that compete with them (see The Museum of Arts and Design Hopes a Biennial Will Help Brighten Things Up). Like the mannequins, the museum is a wild mix of fashion, design, and fine art that truly benefits from the influence of all three.

"Ralph Pucci: The Art of the Mannequin" is on display at the Museum of Arts and Design from March 31—August 30, 2015.

By Cait Munro