Designer Wendell Castle has made a career out of challenging the boundaries that define art and furniture. A new exhibition, Wendell Castle Remastered, on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, celebrates Castle’s many innovations, juxtaposing a selection of historically significant works against a group of new works that combine handcraftsmanship and digital technologies, including 3D scanning, 3D modeling, and computer-controlled milling. This is the first exhibition to examine Castle’s digitally crafted works.
While his predecessors, like George Nakashima, preferred the organic expressiveness of the surface of wood, Castle developed a sculptural technique in the early 1960s called “stack lamination,” where thick slabs of wood were glued together before being carved into dynamic biomorphic shapes. It was this unprecedented approach to furniture-making that has defined Castle’s six-decade career and made him a legend in the American art furniture movement.
“Scribe’s Stool” (1961–62) is one of the earliest works on view. Tall, thin, sinewy, and boney, the stool seems technically functional, yet its ungainly highchair-like structure would make sitting on it difficult. The elaborate, sweeping gestures of Art Nouveau were an obvious inspiration for this and other early works on view. “Scribe’s Stool,” above all, emphasizes Castle’s evolving wish that his furniture be thought of and collected on the same terms as sculpture.
“Blanket Chest” (1963) is Castle’s first stack-laminated cabinet. It’s a voluptuous, radish-shaped work — and a prelude, as Castle would soon master this technique, giving him the ability to realize even larger and more texturally animated, voluminous designs that recall the biomorphic works of Jean Arp and Henry Moore.
Castle’s “Serpentine Floor Lamp” (1965–67) seems unabashedly designed for the marketplace. It’s an elegant work in mahogany, that curves and bends and straightens itself. The work was actually the result of Castle manipulating and twisting a paper clip.
“Benny” (1969) is an arch-shaped lamp that sits on the floor with a shiny finish and a band of neon that runs along its spine. It’s not clear why it’s called “Benny,” but unlike the Lee Nordness Gallery — which didn’t manage to sell a single unit — by the look of the thing it would have made the perfect product for IKEA when it opened in 1973.
One of the most iconic examples of Castle’s desire to combine form and function can be found in the wonderfully crafted, elongated work titled, “Table-Chair-Stool” (1968). In this work, which was featured in Castle’s first one-person exhibition in New York City in 1968, Castle explores simple furniture pairings — a stool, table, and chair — and connects them in one single statement.
The exhibition timeline jumps to the near-present with a selection of new works created through computer software, carved by a CNC milling robot, which is programmed to do precise carving and cutting. This new technology has allowed Castle to create large works with more regularity and consistency, and in shorter time. Although the milling robot does the majority of the work, each design still undergoes tedious manual finishing sessions. It’s apparent that Castle and his assistants have resisted using this technology for as long as they could, as these advancements have been available for years. “You have to keep up with the times!” Castle says in a video interview, projected on a wall alongside his work. “You always want to stretch and go beyond what you’ve done before.”
But this is where the intricacy and sophistication of the work is overtaken by thick, weighty mammoth forms. Bigger sometimes isn’t better. What Castle has traded for scale is his elegance of line, that swooping Art Nouveau-like quality so revered in his early work.
Nearly all of the recent works reference Castle’s iconic pod-like forms. Some incorporate stunted, cone-like shapes, which have the potential to germinate into the furled fronds of young ferns, but don’t.
There are 15 new digitally crafted works on view. “The Secret of a Few” (2012) is one of the first designs executed with digital technology. It’s a work in stained ash wood, carved into three-bucket seats with rounded ends that curve and cradle. The horizontal banding of the stacked lamination process is exemplary, offering an elegance unique to only Castle. The work plays off an earlier work called “Settee” (1967) that is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Riffing on the 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 more interesting of the recent designs as its form 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, as a table that stretches 13 feet across. These are heroic works but they lack expressive qualities.
Unlike modern painting and sculpture — where the experience of process is part of the excitement for the viewer — furniture, like architecture, can feel still and lifeless. Emphasis on the functionality of the “product” often prevents the viewer from considering artistic intent, inherent symbolism, or the psychology behind the work. It is when furniture, like architecture, is used and animated by people, that we experience its scale, the anguish in its design, and the drama in its craft.
Enter the world of dance and the young choreographer/performer Dylan Crossman who, commissioned by the museum, presented in November “Oscillating While Dreaming,” a site-specific dance piece created in response to the installation of two outdoor bronze sculptures by 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 street clothes and puffy jackets designed by Quinn Czejkowski, to form a line street-side in front of the museum. Crossman’s choreography is a mix of the pedestrian and technical. It’s emotionally vulnerable without the weight of narrative. Torso and legs work independently in pulsing bursts. Turns in flat shoes and colored laces seem ever-so-exciting, as crowds circle the dancers. With wide arms and in unison, the trio measures measured the space in combinations that at times were balletic and at others were merely ambling. At one point, each of the dancers, Boudreau in particular, takes took turns standing on “Temptation” (2014). In one moment, she struck a beautiful penche, leg high behind her, and with the next breath she takes took an allongé, extending her body backwards into the open palm of Lillie.
Sensitive to time and pace, Crossman offers real moments of pause to hear the sounds of the city and to study the bodies in motion and ponder our relationship to Castle’s works.
Crossman’s choreography isn’t prescribed by the sculpture and remains starkly independent. Which is refreshing. For when the dancers do 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 the concave seats in Castle’s “Wandering Mountain” (2014). It’s then that we understand completely Castle’s contours and relationships 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 early and recent work, just how inventive and innovative the artist continues to be today.
Wendell Castle Remastered continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan) through February 28, 2016.