Is Fashion Art?

Phoenix Art Museum pairs fashion designs with paintings, sculptures and photos to answer the question

This winter, Phoenix Art Museum presents Collective Inspiration. Drawing from across the Museum’s collection of more than 20,000 objects, the exhibition showcases eight fashion ensembles and accessories spanning the 20th century that have been paired with paintings, sculptures and prints to illuminate how formal artistic and design principles can be applied equally across fashion objects and more traditionally recognized forms of arts. Collective Inspiration will be on view from Dec. 12, 2020, through May 2, 2021, in the Kelly Ellman Fashion Design Gallery.

“Phoenix Art Museum is excited to present Collective Inspiration to our audiences,” says Tim Rodgers, PhD, the Museum’s Sybil Harrington Director and CEO. “Featuring objects drawn from across the Museum’s broad collection, this new exhibition provokes thoughtful and unexpected conversations about art. Our community can expect to see more exhibitions like this in the future that generate and advance ideas about the nature and value of different forms of artistic expression.” 

Collective Inspiration features approximately 15 works drawn from the Museum’s various collection areas, including fashion design and Asian, American, European, Latin American and contemporary art. These objects are organized into pairs, placing a fashion garment or accessory in conversation with a painting, sculpture or print to prompt dialogue on how the principles and elements of art and design, including color, line, form, texture and value, can be applied to fashion objects as well as more traditionally recognized forms of art. 

“The idea for Collective Inspiration came from a question I am often asked during interviews and in the galleries: ‘Is fashion art, and why?’” says Helen Jean, the Museum’s Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design and the exhibition’s curator. “This exhibition is a way for the Museum to address those questions directly and educate our audiences on how to apply the principles of art to fashion as they do to a painting or sculpture. Through Collective Inspiration, I want our visitors to see how the conversations they’re having about art in the Asian or American galleries can carry over as they explore our fashion exhibitions.” 

One object grouping in Collective Inspiration features a cream-colored suit by American designer Ralph Rucci (photo at top) and a sculpture of a similar hue by contemporary Japanese artist Fujikasa Satoko (photo at top). Beyond their similar color palette, both works are characterized by exacting technical precision and organic, undulating lines.

(left) Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons, dress and shoes, spring/summer 2018 look #13. Inkjet printed polyester velvet, leather. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum. Museum purchase with funds provided by Arizona Costume Institute / (right) Jan van Dalen, Still Life: Vanitas (Naturaleza muerta: Vanitas), c. 1665. Oil on oak panel. Collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds provided by Friends of European Art

Another section of the exhibition places a dress by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons’ spring/summer 2018 line in conversation with a still-life painting by 17th-century Flemish artist Jan van Dalen, inviting visitors to explore the form and composition of each work.

Additional objects include a jacket by Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo placed in conversation with a favrile glass vase created in the early 20th century by Tiffany and Co. and drawn from the American art collection; a dress by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons paired with a painting by Flemish artist Jan van Dalen from the European art collection; and the fashion collection’s oldest objects, a pair of metal-lace gloves from the 1640s, set alongside an 18th-century portrait of Doña Maria Moreno y Buenaventura from the Latin American art collection.

Collective Inspiration is meant to set the stage for conversations and debate about what makes something art,” Jean says, when reflecting on what she hopes the Phoenix community takes away from the exhibition. “I want debates in the gallery—I want people arguing about why a particular dress and vase make sense together or why they don’t. I am excited to see what kind of ideas and feedback this exhibition elicits from our audiences.” 


Collective Inspiration

Dec. 12, 2020, through May 2, 2021

Phoenix Art Museum, in the Kelly Ellman Fashion Design Gallery, 1625 N. Central Ave., Phoenix

For more information, visit phxart.org.

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