Two Shows Honor Innovative Sculptor Wendell Castle (1932-2018)

Wendell Castle’s “Lost in the Woods” (2017) appears in the foreground of this installation view of “Wendell Castle – Progression” at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art through Oct. 21. (Courtesy Wendell Castle Studio and Friedman Benda, New York photo by E.G. Schempf )

Fall brings two exhibitions of Wendell Castle, internationally renowned pioneer of furniture as sculpture, who passed away in January.

Considered the father of the fine art furniture movement, Castle was the first artist to imagine furniture as sculpture. From craftsmanship to construction, Castle rewrote the rules of traditional furniture design.

“Wendell Castle constantly pursued new ways of approaching art, making major conceptual leaps in the worlds of sculpture, design and craft,” said  Julián Zugazagoitia, Director/CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Born in 1932 in Emporia, Kansas, Castle, whose work is represented in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and other major collections around the world, is well known to KC area arts viewers. The Nelson-Atkins, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art and  the John and Maxine  Belger  Family Foundation  collection all own pieces by the artist. A bronze bench commissioned by the City of Leawood was installed in Brook Beatty Park at 86th Street and Lee Boulevard in 2002; in 2011, the Belger Arts Center featured a one-person show of the artist’s work.

In this year of his passing, the Nelson and the Nerman have collaborated to present two exhibits of Castle’s work, both focused on pieces he created near the end of his prolific career.

At the Nelson, “Wendell Castle: Shifting Vocabularies” features chairs sculpted from wood, along with four cast bronze works installed in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park.

The Nerman show, “Wendell Castle – Progression,” explores the artist’s working process, through a display of his chair sculptures and artist maquettes. Based on pencil drawings Castle felt had the most promise, the three-dimensional maquettes served as prototypes for fully realized works.

“The maquettes exert a beauty and haunting presence uniquely their own,” said Bruce Hartman, executive director of the Nerman. “They exist as intimate sculptures, addressing Castle’s imagination and expressive sensibilities.”

Trained as an industrial designer and sculptor at the University of Kansas, Castle taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology from the 1960s until his death. At his studio in nearby Scottsville, Castle made his first sculptural furniture using a chainsaw nearly 60 years ago.

Wendell Castle’s “100% In” (left) and “Remembering,” both from 2016, can be seen in this installation view of the exhibit “Wendell Castle: Shifting Vocabularies” at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through Jan. 20. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / photo by Dana Anderson)

Initially, Castle’s tools included pencil, paper and traditional woodworking equipment. Later, he incorporated 3D modeling, robotic carving machines and computer-guided lathes and milling machines in the process.

One of his key innovations was the development of a stack lamination process. Pieces of wood were glued together into a large mass, allowing him to carve virtually any shape.

Though he created sculptures in plastic, bronze and stainless steel, Castle’s preferred medium was wood.

“Wood, I realized, could be shaped, formed and carved in ways limited only by my imagination,” he said.

Installed in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park, “Fallen and Risen” is a chair supported and seemingly nurtured by a fallen tree limb. Though cast in bronze, the work epitomizes Castle’s connection to his favored medium, as he gives new life and purpose to the fallen limb.

Castle’s enigmatic forms are simultaneously sleek and organic, playful and thought-provoking. Finished with highly polished surfaces, the muscular, yet lyrical forms are expressive and energetic at every turn.

Castle was particularly intrigued with ellipsoids, as seen in the chair titled “Motown” at the Nelson-Atkins. He believed this shape gave the work a sense of motion, and it figures prominently throughout his designs.

Yet Castle did not want his work viewed as ornamental or pretty. “There should be a dark side, a questioning side, and most of all, the work must make the viewer think,” he said.

“Wendell Castle: Shifting Vocabularies” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., Kansas City, Missouri, through Jan. 20. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. For more information (816) 751-1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

“Wendell Castle – Progression” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, through Oct. 21. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday. For more information (913) 469-8500 or www.nermanmuseum.org.

Anne Marie Hunter

Anne Marie Hunter is a writer and photographer who holds a B.S. in speech and art history from Northwestern University and a M.A. in Art Education from Southern Oregon University. Her work includes newspaper, magazine and corporate photography and writing assignments and projects. You can view and read her work at annemariehunter.com.

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