Book Reviews

Daniel Brush: Gold Without Boundaries with writings by: Ralph Esmerian, Paul Theroux, Donald Kuspit, David Bennett, Daniel Brush New York, Harry N. Abrams Inc. 275 pages, $65

A newly published book describes Daniel Brush’s road to enlightenment, while a reissue documents the world’s greatest jewelry collection.

Thirty years ago, Daniel Brush – only 20 years old and already showing in major galleries – found himself at an impasse. He felt “totally apart,” judging his work “unrelated to a movement, with few interactions, lonely…” Brush describes his mind in that period as “confused and on fire, a totally uncontrolled fire, looking for the ‘quenching’ of enlightenment.”

The road to enlightenment began with a golden bowl from the third century b.c. Brush saw on display in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. That simple Greek vessel inspired him to begin making gold objects of his own. The first was a domed container. He made it on his kitchen table.

Brush’s gold pieces have no real counterparts. They’re impractical, gracefully imaginative, possessing what one critic calls a “subtle grandeur.” Except for his earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, they’re meant to be looked at and touched rather than worn or used. Almost everything in Daniel Brush: Gold Without Boundaries belongs to collectors.

In an essay here, American author Paul Theroux describes the artist as a man of “rituals and routines, stimulations.” Brush claims to have had Cheerios for breakfast and pea soup for lunch every day for 20 years. That way he doesn’t have to waste time thinking about what to eat. He begins his day in the studio – a 5,000-sq.-ft. loft in Manhattan’s toy and flower district – sweeping the red maple floor. Again, and again, and again.

Rigorous self-discipline explains how this artist had the patience to apply some 78,000 hand-fashioned, pear-like gold granules to Second Dome, a box of steel and granulated gold. The granules form a design critic Donald Kuspit describes as “an age-old geometric pattern of curves, some concentric, some intersecting … at once symmetrical and asymmetrical.” It also explains why Brush insists on making his own hand tools to cut and shape his materials. (He uses machines as well.)

The book includes photographs of a walking stick, a “Barleycorn” box, a snuff bottle, a “gold dust wand,” and a table pomander, all carved from mastodon ivory. The ivory is exquisitely inlaid with gold patterning. The “Jelly-Bean Suite” bracelet, made of gold overlaid with Bakelite studded with Burmese rubies and flecked with diamonds, has the look and feel of that which results when patience and physical labor turn unlikely combinations of materials into something exquisite and unique.

Not that people haven’t paid attention. Back in 1978, the artist packed a substantial group of objects in a suitcase and headed for Madison Avenue. The proprietor of the first store he entered looked at it all and said: “I’ll buy everything you have.” Since then, Brush produces objects for collectors. These often consume huge amounts of time: 600 hours to make Second Dome, for example.

D.T. Suzuki writes that “the essence of Zen Buddhism consists in acquiring a new viewpoint on life and things general.” This, he argues, is “really and naturally the greatest mental cataclysm one can go through in life.” Brush, a devotee, creates works that in their formal but spirited perfection embody the primary concepts of Zen, as defined by Suzuki. They are: “irrationality, intuitive insight, authoritativeness, affirmation, sense of the beyond, impersonal tone, feeling of exaltation, and momentariness.”

The Queen’s Jewels: The Personal Collection of Elizabeth II by Leslie Field, 1997, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 192 pages, $17.98

In July 1939, Cecil Beaton arrived at Buckingham Palace to photograph Queen Elizabeth. Queen and photographer discussed which evening gowns Her Majesty might wear, in which rooms. Beaton suggested Elizabeth accessorize herself with as much jewelry as possible. The queen, sporting diamonds “the size of robins’ eggs,” smiled modestly and explained to Beaton that “the choice isn’t very great, you know!”

This latest reprint of The Queen’s Jewels, first published in 1987, documents what author Leslie Field calls the only “truly great jewellery collection in the world.” Essentially, it’s about what the queen owns and when she wears it. The book is organized alphabetically by gems from amethysts to turquoises; the biggest chapter is on diamonds (the royal fave). It matches brooches, bracelets, necklaces, tiaras, and crowns with photos of the Windsors wearing these items.

The collection largely originated with Victoria. Her ascension to the throne in 1837 initiated a testy gender dispute and split England from the German state of Hanover, which up to that time was also ruled by the British crown. A tug of war developed over the Hanoverian jewels. Most were successfully claimed by Hanover’s sovereign, King Ernst. What remained constitutes the first important cache in the royal collection.

Purchases then supplemented the royal jewels. In her 64-year reign, Victoria alone added at least 10 times as much jewelry as she started out with. Her successor, Queen Alexandra (queen from 1901 to 1910, Queen Mother until 1925), was herself no tightwad. She appeared on state occasions “covered in jewels from the top of her head to the hem of her skirt.” So thick with diamonds was she that at her Aug. 9, 1902, coronation in Westminster Abbey, Alexandra seemed to one spectator to be “ablaze with light.”

The fall of the Romanovs brought a bounty of new gems to the British royal family. In 1929, Queen Mary, successor to Queen Alexandra and grandmother of Elizabeth II, arranged to purchase what was left of the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna’s stash. (Marie Feodorovna, Queen Alexandra’s younger sister, fled Russia two steps ahead of the Bolsheviks.) Members of the royal family, for example, favor the four-row pearl choker with its 20 diamond-studded vertical bars and sapphire clasp, once worn by the Romanov ladies.

The best things the queen owns originated as gifts. In 1905, the South African government presented the Cullinan Diamond to Edward VII. The Amsterdam firm of Messrs. I.J. Asscher cut the big rock in two, then into nine major stones. To this day, the brooch the queen wears most often is a showcase for Cullinan V, an 18.8-ct. heart-shaped stone set in a platinum brooch of lesser diamonds.

Other lovelies include the Koh-I-Noor diamond, 793 cts. in the rough, given to Queen Victoria in 1850 and subsequently cut and recut to a more wearable 106 cts. It’s usually worn as a brooch. Another piece favored by the Queen Mother is a Cartier diamond tiara accompanied sometimes by earrings with diamonds “so heavy that they noticeably pull down her earlobes.”

Jewels, says Field, are “the visible proof of royalty … symbols of the power and authority handed down from generation to generation.”

Ah yes, noblesse oblige. It sometimes takes odd forms. An 1843 lithograph of Victoria shows her sporting a brooch consisting of a large oblong sapphire surrounded by 12 round diamonds. In 1851, the queen graciously arranged to have the lithograph cheaply produced “so that even the poorer of her subjects could afford to buy it.”