Reflections on Wendell Castle
Thursday, January 25, 2018
With great sadness, the Burchfield Penney Art Center mourns the loss of Wendell Castle, the internationally celebrated artist who died on January 20th at the age of 85. For more than five decades, his creative energies never waned. He truly changed the worlds of sculpture and furniture design to reflect a uniquely contemporary aesthetic, enticing viewers to ponder the vocabulary of his works, which can be mysterious, beautiful, surreal, irreverent, and humorous. He embraced challenges to evolve forms and production techniques in service to his vision.
Unexpected circumstances and serendipity often alter the direction one takes in life. Wendell Castle epitomized the emerging artist adjusting to an employment opportunity when he took a position at the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1962. In 1969, he took a position at SUNY Brockport, where he taught until 1980; and then founded the Wendell Castle School in Scottsville, in which he led a two-year advanced design program until 1988. He returned to RIT’s School for American Craftsmen as Artist-in-Residence in 1984 and continued as both a superlative teacher and mentor. He also expanded his studio with assistants to help meet the increasing demand for his work.
Ultimately, Wendell Castle became known as the world’s leader in creation of art furniture; that is, sculpture that could serve a utilitarian function without conforming to traditional design conceits. His resume extends to more than 70 pages, an overwhelming document of his achievements citing grants, honors, awards, major world-wide museums and institutions that own his art, more than 100 solo exhibitions, even more selected group exhibitions, films, video and television appearances, publications, and bibliography. Among his most revered sculptures, Ghost Clock (1985), can be seen at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, after having been in the Renwick Gallery for many years. It looks like a tall grandfather clock draped with a white sheet, which is actually bleached Honduras mahogany. Thus it shares puckish humor with Raphaelle Peale’s fool-the-eye painting, Venus Rising From the Sea—A Deception, created around 1822 to give the illusion that he had covered his nude goddess painting with a cloth.
The Burchfield Penney Art Center had a long relationship with Wendell Castle. In 1975, he was included in the survey exhibition, Language of Wood, for which his artist’s statement revealed a philosophy he would maintain his whole career.
I believe that furniture should not be derived from furniture. This practice can only lead to variations on existing themes. New concepts will arise only when we clear our minds of any preconceived notions about the way furniture should look. Most important is the notion that these ideas must be conceived with vision. To me an organic form has the most exciting possibilities. An organic form is not so clearly understood in one glance. My forms may be plant like, shell like, human like, animal like, or bone like, all at once or in various combinations. I make no attempt to reconstruct or stylize natural forms, but I try rather to produce a synthesis or metamorphosis of natural forms, my forms are not free form, they are designed and constructed within strict boundaries. These are boundaries of scale, material, and the necessary function an object must perform. The difference in form or shape is accounted for by the fact that my forms are not shaped by standard construction techniques or the current vogue in furniture fashion, but rather the shape comes from inherent life forces. Furniture should not be subservient to the mechanics of life’s activities, or the techniques of the hand or power tools.
Wendell Castle and his wife, Nancy Jurs visited the museum on many occasions, particularly in connection with our biennial series, now known as Art in Craft Media, and other exhibitions, including Nancy Jurs: World Peace and thematic exhibitions featuring works by current or former students and studio assistants. We also had several opportunities to visit them. Wendell and Nancy toured the museum’s Collectors Club through their fascinating Scottsville studios in 1996 and 2010, always graciously answering questions and speaking about their working methods. In 2010, with a major exhibition of new designs soon to open at Barry Friedman in New York, we got a preview of many works before they were shipped. We saw Black Widow and Nirvana Chairs created in fiberglass in limited editions of 12, a rocker in “Ferrari red,” a 13-1/2-foot tall lamp, a Triad Table in gilded fiberglass, and nickel-plated steel tables. Early in 2008, Ted Pietrzak, Scott Propeack and I visited in the hopes we might commission a conference table or chair for our new building that would open in November. Alas, prices far exceeded the SUNY allocation. We also discussed the possibility of producing a major exhibition with a catalogue—another great idea that did not come to fruition without the funding to make it possible.
The Burchfield Penney Art Center is proud to own nine works by Wendell Castle. Charles Rand Penney donated seven of the nine in 1994. Three are original production, enameled polyester furniture from 1969, including a large black arm Chair, an orange Clover table, and a white Molar table—a functional side table that humorously looks like a giant tooth. These were among Castle’s first experimental series using non-natural materials after he had achieved national acclaim for his handcrafted, organically shaped, wood furniture. His trompe l’oeil mahogany Umbrella Stand (1980) demonstrates Castle’s incredible carving skills of the stand and the umbrella as one piece, accompanied by a drawing of its design. Two studies for the 500,000th Steinway Piano (1987) feature Castle’s commissioned design for the milestone 500th anniversary of this premier piano company. In 2000, the Burchfield Penney Art Center purchased an orange enameled polyester Molar chair (1969) with funds from the Sylvia L. Rosen Endowment to complement previous holdings. The most recent acquisition, Spooning Chairs (2002), is a sculpture made from maple and jelutong woods. It was a gift of HSBC Bank and the artist, by exchange, in 2008 and appeared in the inaugural exhibition, In Rare Form: Western New York Sculpture, in the museum’s new building. In one interpretation, it represents the most basic, archetypal chair motif reduced to its essentials as if drawn by Piet Mondrian—one in black and one in white; the two appear to sink down into a voluptuous, hand-stitched, leather pillow. Considering the title, Spooning Chairs might also symbolize a loving biracial couple in a comforting embrace. By balancing two simple, glyph-like chairs on a super-realistically carved wooden pillow, Castle once again demonstrates his lifelong love of wood, his unique ingenuity, and an unparalleled mastery of both medium and message.
This remembrance in written on behalf of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, but also reflects my personal sorrow in losing such a compassionate, brilliant, and beautiful artist friend.
Burchfield Scholar, Head of Collections & Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center
Burchfield Penney Instructor in Museum Studies, SUNY Buffalo State.