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Radically Simple, Unmistakably Betty Cooke

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The minute I left the Betty Cooke retrospective at the Walters Art Museum, I knew what I had to do. I headed directly to The Store Ltd., Cooke’s jewelry space and museum-style shop, located in Cross Keys since 1965. After trying on several signature pieces, I bought myself the perfect necklace.

In all honesty, I had my eye on this particular item for over a year, but had never brought myself to a full commitment. However, walking through The Circle and the Line: The Jewelry of Betty Cooke, an exhibit of 160 works made between 1947 and 2017, it became obvious that it was a now-or-never moment. I knew that this relatively affordable piece would be gone the next time I visited and I really wanted to own this small bit of Baltimore’s cultural legacy, especially after seeing so much of it displayed with precision and care at the museum.

My Betty Cooke necklace is an asymmetrical thread of thin silver tubes boasting a petite chunk of pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, placed off to one side, with an extra linear tube and a circular disc dangling sideways off the chain in counterbalance. Compared to much of Cooke’s work on display in the museum, it’s quite simple. This particular piece grabbed me because it felt deliberately weird and playful, while fluently speaking the visual language Cooke has honed through seventy-plus years of making.

The author’s pyrite and silver Betty Cooke necklace

 

Neckpiece, ca. 1955, silver, collection of the artist, image courtesy of The Walters

Consistent with every object in the Walters retrospective, my necklace is unmistakably Betty Cooke, yet somehow distinct from any other piece of her jewelry that I have ever seen. Cooke’s superpower is a curious economy in design and materials, literally combinations of circles and lines, so that each object boggles the mind in its’ ability to offer something new from the most limited of palettes.

Just like Cezanne’s solid yet gravity-defying tabletops strewn with ripe peaches and pears which manage to delight and confound, Cooke accomplishes new depth in each item with the most basic of shapes and an occasional surprise element. There is subtlety, but never repetition. There is revelation in the tiniest nuance.

After I claimed my work of art jewelry, Cooke and I chatted at length about her exhibition at the Walters and the programming surrounding it, as well as the museums that have recently acquired her work. At age 97, Cooke is a legend throughout the region and her meticulously curated shop is synonymous with the “good design” and angular simplicity her jewelry is known for.

Like clockwork, Cooke shows up to work every day to create, talk, curate, and meet with clients, and her enthusiasm for the job appears as consistent and even-handed as it ever was. Simple yet effective. No frills. No drama. No boredom or frustration. Just a focus on material, problem-solving, and human interaction.

There is nothing more inspiring than observing the satisfaction that comes from doing the creative labor one loves, day after day, asking and answering the questions that matter most in one’s chosen medium.

Bracelet, 1981, gold, diamond, and pebble, collection of the artist, photo courtesy of the Walters Art Museum
Cooke’s superpower is a curious economy in design and materials, literally combinations of circles and lines, so that each object boggles the mind in its ability to offer something new from the most limited of palettes.
Cara Ober

I first noticed Cooke’s jewelry when I moved to Baltimore in 1999. I made it a point to attend art-related events and gallery openings to get to know the city’s art and artists, but I found myself equally interested in the unique fashion language that broadcasts taste, creativity, and a certain kind of sartorial edge that comes from living in a gritty town full of artists.

There were all these women with cool haircuts and funky glasses wearing this linear silver jewelry, noticeable in its adherence to a severe geometric restraint. Once it caught my attention, I saw it everywhere there was good art, mostly worn by women who had established themselves as artists, curators, professors, and arts professionals.

A formidable designer and globally respected artist, Cooke has based her entire career in Baltimore, working and selling her jewelry first in a tiny storefront on Tyson Street in Mount Vernon with her late husband and partner in art and business Bill Steinmetz (1927-2016), and after 1965 at The Store Ltd., located at The Village at Cross Keys, then a utopian James Rouse real-estate experiment.

From the start, The Store Ltd. was unlike any other in town, a precursor to the modern museum shop, where high-end housewares, well-made clothing, Marimekko fabrics, art books, and home decor balance out the other half of the shop that exclusively sells Cooke’s modernist necklaces, rings, earrings, bracelets, and brooches.

Every single object in the shop reflects Cooke’s taste, where less is more and good design is everything. Cooke has long been seen as a local style icon and for decades, women have trusted her to help them select clothing and jewelry for specific events that looked and felt good, but also made a statement.

 

Neckpiece, 1988, gold, photo courtesy of the Walters Art Museum
Neckpiece, ca. 1955, silver, photo courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

When I learned about Cooke’s retrospective curated by Jeannine Falino at The Walters, I was thrilled but also curious about how they could display small metal objects in sprawling galleries without them getting lost in the space or feeling absurdly tiny. Despite a diminutive size, Betty Cooke’s jewelry speaks to comprehensive ideas where the most unpretentious shapes create an expansive sense of possibility. But how to manifest these ideas at a scale that resonates in a museum?

The Circle and the Line features 160 unique objects, and most are so small they can fit into the palm of a hand, so the curators and exhibition designers had a huge challenge in establishing the myriad small, sparkly objects as significant works of art and clearly signifying that the Walters galleries are not a jewelry store, not even one as elegant and minimal as The Store Ltd.’s showroom.

I expected a stark white backdrop for this spare modernist work, and was surprised to find walls in pale earthy greens, blue-grays, and lavenders, with monumental wall paintings of Cooke’s tiny designs, large quotes, and huge black-and-white historic photos of the artist punctuating the gallery walls. Rather than a distraction, the color elicited a sense of comfort and cohesion, and the patterns and wall text reflected a movement and a scale that accurately reflects the artist’s ambition. The large photos personalize the collection of work, mostly situated in small glass cases, and they provide historical context, an effective way to educate the viewer without using wall text. The images offer a linear sense of storytelling mirroring the evolution of Cooke’s work throughout the galleries.

The exhibition follows a roughly chronological timeline over seven decades of innovation, offering the viewer an opportunity to experience the subtlety and variety that Cooke’s work encompasses while revisiting the themes that have propelled the artist conceptually and aesthetically. In addition to Falino, the exhibition design was envisioned by exhibition designer Sam Mera-Candedo in conjunction with Falino and Walters curator Jo Briggs, as well as the artist.

 

detail from Necklace, ca 2012, gold and pearls, collection of Berthe Hanover Ford
When you wear jewelry by Betty Cooke, you’re communicating with people in the know.
Jeannine Falino

“My idea was for an overarching narrative, but with thematic stops,” says Falino by phone in New York, where she resides. “We wanted to create relationships between what was on the walls with the objects in cases, so we selected quotes and historic photos, and adapted them.” Falino said that Mera-Candedo modified key designs featured in each gallery by Cooke and enlarged them to indicate thematic changes in the exhibit and selected three or four gradients of the same color in each section to emphasize individual works and cases, effecting a sense of focus and relationships between bodies of work.

Rather than featuring her very earliest work first, the initial gallery displays some of Cooke’s most famous and complicated circle-and-line neck designs, created between the ‘50s to the 2000s. “It’s so important to realize that artists often revisit their favorite subjects, which is why we opened the show with six circle-and-line pieces to show how the concept of a circle and a line informs her work in so many ways,” Falino says.

After the introduction, the show unfolds with occasional groupings of common themes, like a selection of tiny pins featuring abstracted animals and birds, as well as wire creatures made over a twenty-year period. They also decided to include some of Cooke’s early paintings and a few of her favorite works from the Walters’ collection.

“The museum opened in 1934 when Betty was ten years old and she remembers certain objects that made an impression on her,” says Falino. Objects on display include a small Egyptian hippo sculpture with lotus flowers drawn on it, and the exhibition designers used this object as a transition into a selection of Cooke’s own depictions of plants and animals.

 

Betty Cooke at work in her studio on Tyson Street, ca. 1947
Betty Cooke jewelry photo by Peggy Fox, ca 1984, published in BmoreArt Issue 09

“We included a gorgeous Corot painting with people walking down a path and tree branches extending to the sky,” says Falino. “Visitors can look at the painting and then, to their right, they will see similar branching forms echoed in Cooke’s jewelry.” Falino says they also included an Etruscan hand mirror, shaped like a circle and a line, as well as a Medieval gauntlet and breastplate in mixed metals, placed as a reference near Cooke’s designs with combinations of silver, brass, and copper.

I ask about Cooke’s signature style, an edgy geometry that is immediately recognizable. “When you wear jewelry by Betty Cooke, you’re communicating with people in the know,” Falino acknowledges. “You’re broadcasting that you’re a certain kind of person who appreciates good design, and probably also art, poetry, and the avant-garde. This was especially true in the early (mid-century) days when she started out. And she never made the same thing twice. Over time, she shifted from small abstract shapes to forms that responded to larger events in the world, especially new discoveries in science and the natural world, both microscopic and interstellar.”

One curious standout, a segue between the first and second galleries, is a case of gorgeous angular leather bags. “She won several awards for these designs and Woman’s Day published an article about them in 1956,” says Falino. At age 32, Cooke’s designs were featured on the national stage through this article that proclaimed the smartest leather designs are the simplest to make. “Betty’s insight was to work with the natural shape and movement of the leather, to simply cut, fold, and stitch,” says Falino. “Cooke did the simplest things and made these very avant-garde and modern designs.”

 

Leather Handbags

Cooke’s earliest pieces of jewelry are made of silver and humble materials like pebbles and ebony, but subsequent galleries feature works made of gold and gemstones. “In the early years, like other studio jewelers, she did not use flashy or expensive materials to set herself apart from the world of commercial jewelry,” explains Falino. After she moved to the Village of Cross Keys to open The Store Ltd. in 1965, she began creating designs in gold, and the exhibit includes a number of custom pieces featuring precious gems, commissioned by local patrons for holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries.

Near the end of the exhibit, there is a large glass case with three mannequins draped in purple garments with several hand sculptures, wearing Cooke’s jewelry as it is intended. In recent years, fashion-based museum exhibitions, like Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination and Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Met, have presented art garments and jewelry on mannequins, rather than hanging them on the wall or in cases like sculpture. This kind of display can be distracting if not perfectly executed, but at the Walters, it could have been dynamic to include more of Cooke’s work displayed on human figures.

While it isn’t reasonable to hire models to wear Cooke’s designs and stand in the museum for several months, especially during a pandemic, this sort of activation could have been realized as a one-time fashion show or performance in the galleries. A video of a Cooke fashion show, or even beautiful photographs of her designs being worn by professional models or collectors, would have been a powerful addition, but it would require hiring an artist to create those photos or videos, and this introduces an additional aesthetic, which is complicated but satisfying when done well.

 

Betty Cooke jewelry photo by Peggy Fox, ca 1984, published in BmoreArt Issue 09
Ring, ca. 1950–1965, silver, onyx, photo courtesy of the Walters Art Museum
Ring, ca. 1965, gold, quartz, photo courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

In the final gallery, there is a documentary video interview with Cooke, a conversation moderated by former MICA president Fred Lazarus and MICA Design professor and Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, Ellen Lupton, which adds the artist’s voice to the galleries. This is an essential part of the exhibit that should not be skipped or skimmed. Cooke is small in stature and her voice isn’t loud, but her confidence is unmistakable and her eyes twinkle with mischief and energy, like so many of the objects in the galleries.

“One of the things that is so impressive about Betty, for anyone thinking about a life in the arts, is that she never waited for opportunities to come to her,” says Falino, summing up my own takeaway from the exhibit. “Betty has an incredible work ethic. She wastes no time. She is always busy. She has always had faith in herself and gets up and does the work every day and wants that work to have an impact. To me, this is what has kept her in business over seventy years. Thanks to Bill [her late husband], her absolute partner in all things, she designed new work and commissions for her devoted clientele. Nobody comes close to her on that level.”

When you consider the scale of a comprehensive retrospective for a living artist, it’s a staggering task to encapsulate so many decades of work into a succinct and seamless presentation—and to accomplish this in a way that meets the artist’s very particular needs and standards. The exhibit had an immediate impact for me, as a Baltimore-based artist, a woman, and a business owner. Upon seeing it, I knew that it was important for me to collect Cooke’s work while it’s still available, not just to express my admiration for the artist but to physically remind myself to be committed to the creative labor that satisfies me every day.

 

Betty Cooke in conversation with Fred Lazarus and Ellen Lupton

Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line is the first major museum retrospective of the Baltimore artist’s work and is on exhibit through January 2, 2022 at The Walters Art Museum. It explores the themes, and expressions in Cooke’s jewelry practice, and spans the period from her earliest designs in the 1940s and ’50s to the present.

The Walters exhibition includes a beautiful catalogue that can be purchased at the museum shop, The Store Ltd., and online.

For more on Betty Cooke at BmoreArt, read Good Design is Timeless by Shane Prada with photos by Peggy Fox from Issue 09 or listen to an early Conversations Podcast from 2015.

Selfie of the author wearing her Betty Cooke necklace.

 

Header Image: Neckpiece, 1989, gold, collection of Martha Head

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