D r e a m S p a r k l e


Volume 1, Number 2






More Than One Way to Build a Guitar



Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, through July 4, 2011


Picasso:Guitars 1912-1914, Museum of Modern Art, through June 6, 2011

The Martin guitar plant in Nazareth, Pennsylvania is one of the great factory tours in the United States. It’s where Henry Ford’s assembly-line manufacturing, the backbone of American industrial capitalism, meets old world hand craftsmanship. Dozens of specially trained craftsmen are required to assemble a single Martin guitar, each contributing a highly-specialized piece of the puzzle resulting in instrumental perfection. Current exhibits in two of New York’s finest museums offer different perspectives on guitar-making as individual artistic expression. Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 4. Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914 is at MOMA through June 6.

 Guitar Heroes brings priceless examples of European instruments from the Met’s vast permanent collection together with singular handcrafted masterpieces from three contemporary Italian-American luthiers: John D’Angelico, James D’Aquisto, and John Monteleone. Beginning with the history of Italian string instruments including violins, lutes, mandolins and guitars from sixteenth and seventeenth century Cremona, the exhibit opens with ornate specimens inlaid with ebony, ivory, mother-of-pearl and tortoise shell.  Neapolitan mandolins from the eighteenth century features dazzlingly decorated black and white bowl backs. Stradivari guitars with spruce tops and maple backs demonstrate the wood combinations carried forward to twentieth century arch-top guitars. The exhibition’s second-gallery focuses on the luthiers who came to New York from Naples with sparkling examples of inlaid mandolins produced at the turn of the twentieth century.

 John D’Angelico began his career in the early twentieth century making bowl-backed mandolins in the mandolin factory of Raphael Ciani in Little Italy on the Lower East Side. In the early thirties D’Angelico hand-copied the arch-top jazz guitar design of the Gibson L5. He created custom guitars for Chet Atkins, Les Paul and others. His New Yorker guitar design was based on the art-deco architecture of The New Yorker hotel. These eighteen-inch wide hollow cutaway f-hole jazz guitars are among the most influential hand-made designs of the middle twentieth century.

 James D’Aquisto began as an apprentice to D’Angelico, eventually building his own New Yorker style guitars. After D’Angelico’s death in 1964 D’Aquisto relocated the business from Little Italy to Long Island, crafting large arch-top guitars with unusual colored woods, odd-shaped sound holes and other innovations. He created custom guitars for Paul Simon, Grant Green and Steve Miller among many others including a blue sunburst arch top built in the 1990s.

 Also based on Long Island, John Monteleone learned from D’Aquisto and from Bronx luthier Mario Maccaferri. Some of the most unusual instruments in the exhibition are the W-shaped harp and lyre-style guitars produced by Maccaferri and featured alongside his French-designed jazz guitars first used by Django Reihardt. Monteleone’s over-sized sculpted and scrolled designs are the newest and most extravagant instruments in the exhibition. He built extensions of the New Yorker art-deco design based on Radio City Music Hall and the Chrysler building, using a wide array of materials including mosaic patterns of exotic woods and jeweled fret-boards. One of his innovations was the inclusion of sound-holes in the side of the guitar so the guitarist hears the instrument in the same way the audience does. His set of four guitars called the Four Seasons includes honey-colored, sunburst, blond and sky-blue designs, each with unique timbral qualities for which he commissioned a guitar quartet composed by Anthony Wilson. The Summer guitar includes six rare woods, coral, mother-of-pearl, diamonds and rubies. The exhibition also includes unique teardrop shaped guitars designed by all three of these contemporary masters.

 The Metropolitan offers a rich iPhone / iPad app for this exhibition that includes full-color photographs, a guided audio tour and many audio and video clips including performances on vintage instruments by Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, George Benson, Grant Green, Jim Hall and others, as well as interviews with Paul Simon, Steve Miller, Jeff Mironov and John Monteleone.  Some of the most fascinating video is of James D’Aquisto at work. This trend in mobile apps for museum shows was started last year with the release of the Fifty Years at the Pace Gallery app. The Museum of Modern Art offered sparkling high-definition full-color plates of its Abstract Expressionist New York exhibit for the iPad. Unfortunately they have not done the same for Picasso : Guitars. However, the exhibition website offers a thorough history of these works with several dozen reproductions that include built-in zoom and audio commentary.

 In addition to its definitive collection of Abstract Expressionist painting, one of the things MOMA does best is offer detailed exhibitions exploring the many “isms” of early twentieth century art (for example, its current exhibition of German Expressionist graphic works.) Perhaps its richest holdings are the dueling catalogues of Matisse and Picasso at the dawn of Cubism. When MOMA moved to Queens during its renovation, they mounted a hugely successful Matisse and Picasso exhibit. More recently MOMA featured Radical Invention, an examination of Matisse’s more experimental paintings of the period 1913-17 that closed in October. Picasso: Guitars examines the same period (1912-14) in Picasso’s work centered around a multimedia sculpture of a guitar first done in cardboard and later reproduced in metal, accompanied by a series of several dozen collages and drawings that disassemble and reconstruct the shape of the guitar.

 In the many two-dimensional works in this exhibit, Picasso used cut-out newspaper, wallpaper and sheet music as well as a variety of textural and drawing media, such as spackle and grit, to create cubist perspectives on the guitar and other stringed instruments. Like the Guitar Heroes exhibit, the earliest works are violins.  Then leaping into three-dimensional space he used paper, string and wire to create a sculptural collage, turning the negative space of the guitar’s sound-hole into a protrusive cylinder. He turned the solid projection of the fret-board into an open box-like rectangular space traversed by a sewn lattice of string. A year later he recreated the sculpture in sheet metal and wire. Of particular interest are the photographs reproduced from a 1913 journal, Les Soirees de Paris, of additional guitar-shaped assemblages that were never exhibited. In Guitar and Bottle of Bass for example, Picasso uses wood and other materials to mount what look like parts of a dismantled guitar and bottle of beer onto a flat surface, further blurring the distinction between sculpture and collage.

Unlike the instruments on display in Guitar Heroes, Picasso’s hand-made guitars make no sound. But there is no less craft and invention in Picasso’s guitars. It was Man Ray, another early twentieth century avante-gardist, who made explicit the womanly form of the guitar (or more likely cello) in his iconic f-hole tattoo photograph. From the pinch-waist form of the earliest Neapolitan guitars to the paste-up cut-outs of Picasso’s revolutionary works, to the elegant guitar fashions of D’Angelico, D’Aquisto and Monteleone it is clear that for many artists there is a captivating and sensual satisfaction in using elegant materials to hand-craft personal one-of-a-kind instruments in the shape of a woman.


John Piccarella