Designer Wendell Castle has made a career out of challenging the boundaries that define art and furniture. A new exhibition Wendell Castle Remastered, on display at the Museum of Arts and Design, celebrates Castle’s many innovations, juxtaposing a selection of historically significant works with a group of new works that combine craftsmanship and digital technologies including 3D scanning, modeling 3D and computer-controlled milling. This is the first exhibition to examine Castle’s digital works.
While his predecessors, such as George Nakashima, preferred the organic expressiveness of the surface of wood, Castle developed a sculptural technique in the early 1960s called “pile lamination”, where thick slabs of wood were glued together before being glued together. be sculpted into dynamic biomorphic forms. It was this unprecedented approach to furniture making that defined Castle’s six-decade career and made him a legend in the American fine furniture movement.
“Scribe’s Stool” (1961-1962) is one of the first works exhibited. Tall, thin, sinewy and bony, the stool looks technically functional, but its unsightly high chair-like frame would make it difficult to sit on. The elaborate and sweeping gestures of Art Nouveau were an obvious source of inspiration for this and other early works on display. Above all, “Scribe’s Stool” underlines Castle’s evolving desire for its furniture to be thought of and collected in the same way as sculpture.
“Blanket Chest” (1963) is Castle’s first stacked laminated cabinet. It is a voluptuous work in the form of a radish – and a prelude, for Castle would soon master this technique, giving him the ability to make even larger, more textured voluminous designs reminiscent of the biomorphic works of Jean Arp and Henry Moore.
Castle’s “Serpentine Floor Lamp” (1965-1967) seems resolutely designed for the market. It is an elegant work of mahogany, which bends and bends and straightens. The work was actually the result of Castle manipulating and twisting a paperclip.
“Benny” (1969) is an arch-shaped lamp that sits on the floor with a glossy finish and a strip of neon that runs along its spine. It’s unclear why it’s called “Benny”, but unlike gallery Lee Nordness – who failed to sell a single unit – judging by its looks, it would have made the perfect product for IKEA during its opening in 1973.
One of the most iconic examples of Castle’s desire to combine form and function is found in the wonderfully crafted elongated work titled “Table-Chair-Stool” (1968). In this work, which was featured in Castle’s first solo exhibition in New York in 1968, Castle explores simple furniture pairings – a stool, table, and chair – and ties them together into a single statement.
The exhibition timeline jumps to the near present with a selection of new works created using computer software, sculpted by a CNC milling robot, programmed to perform precise sculpting and cutting. This new technology allowed Castle to create great works with more regularity and consistency, and in less time. Although the milling robot does the majority of the work, each design still undergoes tedious manual finishing sessions. It’s obvious that Castle and his assistants resisted using this technology for as long as they could, as these advancements have been available for years. “You have to stay in tune with the times!” says Castle in a video interview, projected onto a wall next to his work. “You always want to stretch and go beyond what you’ve done before.”
But this is where the complexity and sophistication of the work is overtaken by thick, heavy mammoth shapes. Bigger is sometimes not better. What Castle traded for the scale was its elegance of line, that plunging, Art Nouveau-like quality so revered in his early work.
Almost all recent works reference Castle’s iconic pod-like shapes. Some incorporate stunted, cone-like forms, which have the potential to sprout into the coiled fronds of young ferns, but this is not the case.
There are 15 new digitally created works on view. “The Secret of a Few” (2012) is one of the first designs made with digital technology. It is a work of stained ash wood, carved into three-bucket seats with rounded ends that bend and cradle. The horizontal strapping of the stacked lamination process is exemplary, providing an elegance unique to Castle only. The work plays on an earlier work titled “Settee” (1967) which is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Using technology, Castle scanned two different chairs, digitally cut them down the center, and grafted the halves together to create a new chair called “More or Less” (2014). It is one of the most interesting recent designs as its shape and contours deftly navigate the territory between sculpture and furniture.
“High Hopes” (2015) and “Suspended Disbelief” (2015) revisit earlier designs and reflect Castle’s technological capabilities on a monumental scale. The first functions as a towering lamp and stands over nine feet tall; the second, like a table that spans 13 feet in diameter. They are heroic works but they lack expressive qualities.
Unlike modern painting and sculpture – where experiencing the process is part of the viewer’s excitement – furniture, like architecture, can appear still and lifeless. The emphasis on the functionality of the “product” often prevents the viewer from considering the artistic intent, inherent symbolism or psychology behind the work. It is when furniture, like architecture, is used and brought to life by people that we feel its scale, the angst of its design, and the drama of its craftsmanship.
Enter the world of dance and of young choreographer/performer Dylan Crossman who, at the request of the museum, presented in November “Oscillating While Dreaming”, a site-specific dance piece created in response to the installation of two sculptures in bronze exteriors of Castle.
Crossman, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, brought out the humanity in Castle’s work. Two dancers, Lisa Boudreau and Russell Stuart Lilie, join Crossman in city clothes and down jackets designed by Quinn Czejkowski, to form a line on the street side in front of the museum. Crossman’s choreography is a mix of pedestrian and technical. It’s emotionally vulnerable without the weight of the narrative. The torso and legs operate independently in pulsating bursts. Turns in flats and colorful laces still look exciting as the crowd surrounds the dancers. With arms wide and in unison, the trio’s measurements measured the space in combinations that were sometimes balletic and others simply walking. At some point, each of the dancers, Boudreau in particular, take turns standing on “Tentation” (2014). In an instant she hit a beautiful leaning, leg high behind her, and on the next breath she took a elongate, extending her body backward into Lillie’s open palm.
Sensitive to time and rhythm, Crossman offers real moments of pause to hear the sounds of the city and to study bodies in motion and reflect on our relationship to Castle’s works.
Crossman’s choreography is not prescribed by the sculpture and remains totally independent. Which is refreshing. For when the dancers interact or echo a pose in relation to Castle’s bronzes, it’s specific and momentous, like when Crossman and Lillie pushed and pulled each other in and out of concave seats in Castle’s “Wandering Mountain” (2014 ). It is then that we fully understand the contours of Castle and its relationship to the body.
“I have no trouble coming up with new ideas,” Castle said in a recent interview, and it’s easy to see through this exhibition, which juxtaposes examples of old and new work, how much the artist continues to be inventive and innovative today.
Wendell Castle Remastered continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan) until February 28, 2016.