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The Body Eclectic

April 2015 - Interior Design Magazine

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It's right there in the title, "Ralph Pucci The Art of the Mannequin" At New York's Museum of Arts and Design the retail display figures now considered artwork. "Whatever next?" you might wonder. "An exhibition of empty frames?
A pedestal retrospective?
Perhaps it's time to reexamine our assumptions on display at MAD,
through August 30, are no mere dummies. These are lively collaborations spearheaded by the visionary Ralph Pucci celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ralph Pucci International, equally well known for showcasing contemporary furnishings as for making mannequins . Pucci's chief mannequin enabler is sculptor Michael Evert. The roster of designer rule-breakers includes those who have also shown furniture and lighting at Pucci's showrooms
(Interior Design Hall of Fame member Andrée Putman, Patrick Naggar, Ruben Toledo) and those who have not Kenny Scharf, Maira Kalman, diane von furstenberg) The result is something new, a hybrid of craft and commerce that transcends both.

"You'll be amazed," MAD director Glenn Adamson says. "This has all the impact and elements of sculpture-body, stance, posture, gesture-and all the style of fashion, wrapped up in one. Indeed the show is interesting in both subject matter and exhibition design, the latter the work of Toledo and his fashion designer wife, Isabel. Serried against a scarlet partition and denuded of their raison d'être, the fabulous figures are part classical sculptures and part runaway models. One has a teardrop head with a single eye. One is an urn, another a bird-woman on an Alexander Calder base. Some are athletes. Some are lifelike. One is plump. One is Christy Turlington in half-lotus. Off to the side, another scarlet partition conceals a working studio in which Evert is staging live sculpting sessions. Finally, there's a witty installation of Pucci jewelry forms, mannequins in miniature, sporting pieces the Toledos selected from MAD's permanent collection.

The cumulative impression is astonishing: an unveiling of beauty that was hiding in plain sight all along, through 40 years of shifting zeitgeist. "We show chronologically how Ralph has been looking at fashion, Keeping up with it but maintaining his distance," Adamson Says. "What he's doing is abstraction picking up on surrealism. It allows him to speak to every kind of form. It's intuitive for him"

Pucci is an outlier in a field that has tended to rely on straightforward verisimilitude, but he does have predecessors. In 1897, one L. Frank Baum founded
The Show Window: A Journal of Practical Window Trimming for the Merchant and the Professional, a monthly documenting such crowd-pleasers as the hypnotist who put his wife to sleep, then left her to be goggled at by the shoppers, and the "vanishing lady", a live millinery model who repeatedly disappeared and reappeared. (He left the publication in 1900 on the success of his story about the ultimate symbol of display trickery, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.) Later innovators improved on the mannequin's materials, from papier-mâché and wax to plaster and plastic, and had some some fun with form. In Paris, Pierre Imans modeled a josephine Baker figure, with a dark-complexioned head by the illustrator Erté, in the 1930's, and Siegel & Stockman produced Christian Dior's New Look figure in 1947. In New York in 1932, a former soap sculptor (really) named Lester Gaba attained notoriety by squiring his molded-plaster "Cynthia" out on the town, an exploit that landed her a multi-page Life magazine story. Then, in London in 1966, Adel Rootstein's famously faithful portrait of Twiggy became the first supermodel mannequin.

The way that Pucci talks about his mannequins, you might almost call them his charges. Such is the charisma the fiberglass figures radiate. But he's not given to theorizing- he's too busy running a business. "A true New York character and a classic American story," as Adamson puts it, Pucci grew up on his parents' mannequin repair truck, then took it over and promptly switched to manufacture. "We made action mannequins. There was no such thing in the early '80's," he says. In 1986, he collaborated with Putman on her golden Olympian Goddess. From there, "to add a bit of sizzle," he says, he went on to pluck inspiration from all over, not just fashion but also ancient Egypt, Miles Davis, Andy Warhol.

Amid the thousands of commercially utilitarian mannequins produced today, predominantly faceless or headless size-2 humanoids, Pucci's versions at MAD stand out for their humor, grace, formal innovation, and, yes, artistry. His genius is to fuel the creativity of others. Gathering talent, channeling it through a sculptor's hands, translating ephemeral fashion into solid bodies - he's the impresario of a fresh art form. And he's humble, considering MAD's exhibition less as a personal anniversary tribute than as a way to shine the spotlight on the world of visual mechandizing.

"They're very creative people, like interior designers or architects, " he says. "They should get more credit than they do."

Kate Sekules