Design [not equal to] Art
When Oscar Wilde pronounced that ‘all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful’, he captured the essence of utilitarian Modernism: a movement describing how contemporary artists, mainly sculptors, are inspired by archetypal functional forms with overtones of Bauhaus geometric simplicity. By mounting an exhibition of these furnishings by artists entitled Design [not equal to] Art, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum poses a challenging question to viewers within the domestic splendour of its galleries in the former Andrew Carnegie mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
Far from a simple exercise demonstrating how sculpture may or may not also be furniture, table services or lamps, this accumulation of objects represents the work of 18 artists from the late 1960s to the present, each employing the language of Minimalism as a complex means to a different end. Though the curator, Barbara Bloemink, looks to Dadaism, De Stijl and Russian Constructivism as antecedents, one need only recall Picasso’s revolutionary 1912 constructivist Guitar sculpture or David Smith’s 1950s Agricola sculptures based on farm implements to recognize the interaction between fantasy and function. Though actual functionality is often in question here, wit is plentiful. For serious viewers, who bring imagination and memory to the displays, the potential of inhabiting a chair, say, or a bed adds to the show’s enticement, much like children who can enter the make-believe world of the dollhouse. It is no accident that many of the forms are miniaturized.
While Donald Judd divided his pristine furniture from his pristine art (the straight-legged, squared-off desks, tables and chairs on view would never have been displayed in a gallery), Scott Burton saw his ‘furniture-as-sculpture’, albeit in luxurious stone or veneered wood, as pragmatic solutions. He once said of his chunky but elegant tables and seats of dark green granite that line West 51st Street: ‘What office workers do in their lunch hour is more important than my pushing the limits of my self-expression’. His Adirondack lawn chair on view with its slatted back reminiscent of picket fences was designed as a cultural icon from America’s past.
Richard Tuttle’s ‘total art’ takes another direction, less industrial and more personal. His quirky wooden-strip light fixtures with moulded or frosted glass shades and his mobile-like chandeliers of hand-blown glass cylinders suspended from irregular wrought iron frames, possess the energy and complexity associated with sculpture as art. The same applies to other notable lamps in the show: Isamu Noguchi’s Akari light sculpture merges Japanese and Western culture with seven washi paper cubes; and Robert Rauschenberg’s discarded automobile tyre, Tire Lamp, with a rim of light from the interior, is typical of his found-object art.
Even with functional elements, design by artists is still only a microcosm of their larger art. For example, in a graduated set of nested porcelain plates by Dan Flavin, the painted undersides suffuse colour onto the white surfaces below, reminiscent of his 1992 fluorescent-light installation on the spiralling ramp of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Perhaps the exhibition is best summed up by Joel Shapiro, whose table on view like Rachel Whiteread’s daybed is cast from negative space. ‘I am interested’, he said, ‘in any object that amplifies human possibility and transcends its form, regardless of whether it is furniture or art.’
Design [not equal to] Art–Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread, curated by Barbara Bloemink, runs at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum until 27 February 2005.
Both exhibitions are supported by excellent illustrated catalogues.
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