Wendell Castle: Shifting Vocabularies

On view at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art June 23, 2018 through Jan. 20, 2019

What is a chair? A seemingly simple question (with an even easier response), most would probably say a chair in its most basic form requires a seat, four legs, a back and perhaps arms. For artist and designer Wendell Castle (1932–2018), none of these characteristics are required since there is nothing basic about a chair. For Castle, the constant struggle was “trying to figure out where the legs go.” He stated that “they can go anywhere except the four corners — that’s not allowed.”

The special exhibition Wendell Castle: Shifting Vocabularies will feature selections from the artist’s latest and last body of work, as Castle passed away earlier this year. His forms fall outside of most contemporary seating in many ways, a trademark of Castle’s work. There is no soft upholstery, no legs or chair back, yet the pieces are seductive in their organic forms, evoking style and comfort.

Over a prolific 60-year career, Castle — a native of Emporia, Kansas — approached furniture design as a sculptor. He embraced sculptural form, extending his practice beyond traditional approaches and ideas about what furniture can and should be. Calling into question what we consider a chair and our expectations of furniture, Castle produced work in a vocabulary entirely his own. He considered form and function on equal ground and defied categorization by working just outside the boundaries of art and furniture.

Castle stated that he did not want his work “to be thought of as pretty, beautiful or nice. In fact, there should be a dark side, a questioning side, and most of all, the work must make the viewer think.” He abstracted the idea of furniture, rejecting traditional and more marketable styles. Instead, he embraced fantasy, metaphor and idiosyncratic forms with pieces teetering between surrealism and whimsy, capricious at times and macabre at others. Despite the variety of characteristics, all of Castle’s works maintain their functionality. All of the pieces on view can function as traditional seating, yet depending on how you approach them, they may appear as a chair from one perspective and sculpture from another.

Castle turned seating into an art form and an experience, both familiar and extraordinary, intentionally enigmatic. On view in the Bloch Building, you will see pieces titled 100% In, Remembering, and Intersection. Castle’s expressive and organic forms are made from stack-laminated wood, finished with polished smooth surfaces. Rather than assembling furniture from pieces of wood using various joinery, Castle glued planks of wood together creating larger blank forms in rough shapes and sizes to map out the projected piece. In addition to saving time and materials, this method allowed Castle to sculpt shapes unobtainable with conventional furniture techniques. Freed from the traditional restraints of size and form, Castle was able to think sculpturally with volume and shape. The technique also invites viewing the work closely, encouraging visitors to discern the layers of laminated wood and experience the subtle shifts of the undulating surface.

In addition to his work in wood, Castle also experimented with fiberglass, bronze, and steel, creating larger, more complex forms, including a new series of cast bronze works. Four of these works by Castle will be installed in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park. The exhibition will be on view from June 22, 2018–January 20, 2019, allowing visitors to view Castle’s works through summer, fall, and winter.

Wendell Castle: Shifting Vocabularies asks viewers the same questions Castle asked of himself: What is the relationship between form and function? When does structure become ornament? When is a chair not just a chair? Can a chair be a work of art?

–By Stefanie Kae Dlugosz-Acton, Assistant Curator, Architecture, Design, & Decorative Arts

About The Author: Contributing Writer

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