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A national treasure's sterling trajectory

The Fowler Museum's 'Silver Seduction' honors Antonio Pineda, a driving force behind Mexico's 'Taxco School' and celebrated silversmith to the stars.

August 31, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

TAXCO DE ALARCON, MEXICO — Metallurgically speaking, it sounds paradoxical to talk about a "Golden Age" of silversmithing. But the phrase comes naturally to Antonio Pineda as he recollects the era when his lustrous creations adorned heiresses' throats, commanded praise from heads of state and draped the creamy skin of Hollywood stars.

Back in the day, circa 1940-80, Pineda was a charismatic, compact bundle of energy with a matinee idol's pencil mustache and a studio mogul's vaulting ambition. A master of silver design and sculpting, he oversaw a taller (workshop) that at its peak employed dozens of other silversmiths in relentlessly inventive activity. Fusing centuries-old techniques with the innovative tropes of Mexican Modernism, Pineda's studio and a handful of others coined a style of high-end fashion jewelry that briefly made this remote, colonial-era town of 50,000 into a tourist lodestone.

Today, at 89, he's a bit frailer and slower-moving. He no longer spends countless hours laboring over sleek silver necklaces with inset ovals and amethysts worthy of an Aztec princess or chic, futuristic geometric flatware fit for a millionaire's dining table.

But his playful humor, aesthetic judgment and apostolic faith in his chosen medium remain unvarnished by time. "The richness of silver is immortal. It doesn't die," Pineda says, repeating a favorite maxim over a lunch of chiles rellenos with one of his former apprentices, Javier Ruiz Ocampo, at Pineda's ranch home here.

The enduring beauty and ingenuity of Pineda's work have inspired a large retrospective, “Silver Seduction: The Art of Mexican Modernist Antonio Pineda,” running through March 15 at UCLA's Fowler Museum. Drawn from the collection of Cindy Tietze and Stuart Hodosh of Los Angeles, "Silver Seduction" not only aims to make tangible Pineda's talent but also to animate the culturally rich, intense decades of Mexican history following the revolution of 1910-20.

That dynamic era of ideological and artistic ferment gave rise to Mexican Modernism and its cousin, a conspicuously 20th century brand of Mexican nationalism. The twin impulses flowered in the murals of Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros; flowed through the introspective fiction of Juan Rulfo; haunted the iconoclastic cinematography of Gabriel Figueroa; and echoed in the primordial rhythms of composer Silvestre Revueltas.

Modernity's spirit also took flight in the works of Taxco-based silversmiths including Pineda, Antonio Castillo, Hector Aguilar and dozens of master smiths whom they trained and/or employed in their workshops. Constantly sketching out new ideas, enamored of solving technical problems and testing rare methods, Pineda found a vocation to match his restless nature. "People always ask enthusiastically about the knowledge, the art in action, of working with silver," he says. "I believe that art is magic; it's cosmic."

Another favorite aphorism from an incorrigible romantic: Silver, says Pineda, is "like a woman, because it's white, it's ductile, it's an invitation to be touched, to be modeled, to be made immortal by the artist."

Although silver had been mined in the mineral-rich Taxco region since the conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, silversmithing was minimal before the 1930s.

The godfather of Taxco's emergence as a center of silver production was William Spratling, a U.S.-born designer-entrepreneur and Tulane University architecture professor. After moving to Mexico in the late 1920s, Spratling bought a house and set up a taller in Taxco, employing two goldsmiths from the neighboring town of Iguala. Pineda went to apprentice with him at age 11.

"We give credit to Spratling that it was he who started with a workshop," Pineda says.

But Pineda and his colleagues in the nascent Taxco School, which included his brother Bruno Pineda, soon began to develop their own signatures, says Betsy Quick, the Fowler's director of education and the show's in-house curator. Moving beyond the Art Nouveau styles popular in the 1920s and '30s, the young silversmiths wrested and transformed ideas from a variety of sources, from the whimsical figures in pre-Columbian codices to the stark, streamlined silhouettes of Art Deco. In quintessential Modernist fashion, they emphasized surprising convergences between antique and contemporary styles.

"It seems to me that [Pineda] became very aware of a bigger world of design," Quick says, "and then it seems to me he got on a roll of making these very bold statements."

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Marks of distinction

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