Monday, May 21, 2018

National Mobility Awareness Month

Kawasaki Kazuo (designer, born 1949, Japan) and SIG (Special Interest Group) Workshop Company, Ltd. (manufacturer, Ishikawa, Japan), Carna Folding Wheelchair, 1989. Titanium, rubber, and honeycomb aluminum, 33" x 22" x 35 ¼" (83.8 x 55.9 x 89.5 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Kazuo Kawasaki. (MOMA-D0865)

By the early 21st century, it is certainly no longer questioned that industrial design and art have learned how to go hand-in-hand. I think we also agree that most creative efforts—from chefs to designers of utilitarian objects—involve the work of artists, no matter what their background. I often hate disturbing a beautifully presented plate in a restaurant! Artists are involved in the design of cars, so it should be no surprise that they also design wheelchairs.

The fact that artists have been involved in beautifully designed everyday objects goes back farther back than I am old. The Jomon culture of Japan (flourished ca. 3000–200 BCE) is considered one of the first cultures to decorate ceramic vessels simply for the sake of decoration! The Arts and Crafts Movement of the mid to late 1800s only focused attention on a phenomenon—artists involved in the design of everyday objects—that had existed for millennia!

From depictions in works of art and from contemporary sources, wheelchairs have been around since as early as the 500s CE. This includes a tomb engraving in China that shows a person sitting in a three-wheeled sort of box. Basically, side chairs equipped with wheels evolved during the Baroque period (ca. 1600–1750) in the service of royalty, of course. These necessitated someone pushing them. The first self-propelled wheelchair (three-wheel with hand cranks) came out in the mid-1600s. However, most models into the 1800s were three-wheeled jobs that needed pushing. The first versions on which contemporary wheelchairs are based came out during the US Civil War (1860–1865), because of the overwhelming number of amputations from that war. They had wooden frames; adjustable wicker seats and arm rests; and large, spoked wheels.

Folding wheelchairs were pioneered in 1932 and 1937. Kazuo Kawasaki (born 1949) is a Japanese industrial designer who was born in Fukui Prefecture. He studied industrial design at Kanazawa College of Art, graduating in 1972. While he has worked on designs for portable computer systems for Apple, one of his abiding interests has been in medical technology. He has worked on a project for an artificial heart and the Carna form of collapsible wheelchair. The Carna wheelchair combined function with lightweight modern materials that make the chair perfect for athletes. 

Rainer Küschall (designer, born 1947, Sweden) and Everest and Jennings (manufacturer, firm 1933 to present, Los Angeles), Champion 3000 Adjustable Rigid-Frame Wheelchair, 1986. Aluminum, rubber, plastic and nylon, 31" x 24" x 34" (78.8 x 61 x 86.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Rainer Küschall. (MOMA-D0359)

Rainer Küschall (born 1947) is a Swiss engineer who suffered a serious spine injury when he was sixteen. After recovering, he discovered the limited feasibility of wheelchairs and formed Küschall AG in 1976 to produce wheelchairs that could serve a variety of needs. The 1986 model Competition (called Champion 3000 in the US) was unique in its use of tubular steel, fourteen instead of twenty-five kilograms (thirty pounds instead of fifty-five pounds), which made it lightweight, versatile, and available in both rigid frame and collapsible models. It was also particularly designed for the use of athletes.

Correlations to Davis programs: A Personal Journey: 3.1, 3.4; The Visual Experience: 3E 12.4

Monday, May 14, 2018

Furniture or Sculpture?

I took furniture history classes in grad school and even was a TA for the professor, so I learned to absolutely love studying the history of furniture. It seems to me, though, as our digital image collection of contemporary furniture design grows, the question marks pile up in my head. Has furniture design gone so far that it has transcended the traditional criteria that it be designed to conform to the human body?

I know that furniture design fell under the spell of combining “fine arts aesthetics” with industrial design starting with the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 1800s, and then the Bauhaus in the early 1900s. At first glance, it would seem that many designers have gone way beyond this battle cry in designing furniture that seems more like an aesthetic emphasis (i.e. sculpture) than something convenient on which to sit. And yet, there are stories behind a lot of these designs. You decide. 

Claudio Slocchi (designer, 1934–2012, Italy) and Sangiacomo (manufacturer, 1968 to present, Milan), Appoggio Chair, 1971. Fiberglass and steel, 46 ½" x 22" x 20" (118.1 x 55.9 x 50.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Claudio Slocchi. (MOMA-D1059)

Claudio Slocchi (1934–2012) was an architect and an industrial and interior designer. He studied at Milan Polytechnic and taught interior and furniture design at the University of Rome. He was also involved with the State Institute of Furnishings in Lissone. Apparently one of Slocchi’s aesthetics was minimalism, because this sit/stand stool sums that up.

The Appoggio Chair was designed by Slocchi to conform to tight spaces where regular sitting was not possible. I guess this would work in offices nowadays where we are encouraged to stand at our desks most of the day as “healthier.” Slocchi based his design to cradle the pelvis, basing the seat design on a bicycle seat. The chair is also adjustable vertically. That means that it adjusts for differences in human height, thus accommodating the human body. I wouldn’t be surprised if these chairs make a comeback!

Louise Campbell (designer, born 1970, Denmark) and Zanotta S.p.A. (manufacturer, 1954 to present, Milan, Italy), Veryround Chair, 2006. Laser-cut sheet steel, 27 3/16" x 41 ½" x 32 11/16" (69 x 105.5 x 83 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Louise Campbell. (MOMA-S1335)

Denmark has been a leader in contemporary furniture design since the middle of the 1900s. Louise Campbell (born 1970) graduated from the London College of Furniture in 1992 and studied further at the Industrial Design Department of the Danish Design School (1993–1995) in Copenhagen. Her emphasis is on furniture, lighting, and interior design.

This chair is a puzzle to me, because I can’t imagine it is either easy to sit down in or easy to get out of. Campbell’s designs are experimental, and she has stated that she is happy her chairs don’t look like chairs. Her designs are based on the aesthetic of repeating circles (240 in this chair) and an interest in positive and negative space. Interesting about this design is that it is precision cut from sheet steel. Theoretically, the layers blend together to be solid, at the same time giving it the appearance of paper. 

Mathias Bengtsson (born 1971, Denmark), Spun Chais Lounge, 2003. Carbon fiber, 34 ¼" x 33 7/16" x 82 11/16" (87 x 85 x 210 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Mathias Bengtsson. (MOMA-D0905)

Everything I’ve read about this piece indicates that the artist, Mathias Bengtsson (born 1971), wants it considered not only furniture, but also fine art. His website indicates that the artist feels issues of comfort and convenience in furniture design were established long ago, including the study of ergonomics in the 1960s. He wants his furniture to “challenge the senses.” He also challenges himself with the materials he chooses—such as spun carbon fiber—to accomplish in his designs. He prefers to think of his furniture designs as domestic objects made artistically, rather than a work of art made comfortable. The chair is machine-woven from a computer program using lightweight but strong carbon fiber, a clothing material.

Bengtsson, born in Copenhagen, studied furniture design at the Danish College of Design, the Art Center College in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the Royal College of Art in London. The Spun Chaise Lounge is just one of his innovative uses of materials. He also makes chairs out of stacks of used paper glued together. 

Thomas Heatherwick (designer, born 1970, Britain) and Magis S.p.A. (manufacturer, 1976 to Presenty, Treviso, Italy) Spun Seat, 2009. Polyethylene, 26" x 36" (66 x 91.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Thomas Heatherwick (MOMA-S1378)

The Hive commercial website of home design products advertises the Spun Chair as something good for people who don’t like sitting still all day, but rather spin and roll. It came out of research into the redefinition of the common elements of chair design (such as front and back) and its simplification into basic geometric shapes. And forget about such standard terms as “leg,” “arm,” or “stretcher.” These are not needed! The designer, Thomas Heatherwick (born 1970), is also interested in the use of nontraditional materials in his designs.

Heatherwick, born in London, was educated in three-dimensional design at Manchester Polytechnic (1988–1991) and the Royal College of Art (1992–1994). He established his own firm, Heatherwick Studio, in 1994, but has designed furniture for many firms, including Herman Miller in the US. His firm is primarily focused on architecture and public art that not only emphasizes unusual use of conventional materials, but the exploration of green technology and design. Some of his architectural plans, such as the Pier 55 on the Hudson River, New York (ongoing), are amazing in the way they incorporate green into the urban environment.

Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 6.35; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 1: 6.7; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 6.35-36; Explorations in Art 2E Grade 2: 6.9; Discovering Art History 4E: 2.2

Monday, May 7, 2018

Never “Pin” an Artist to One Art Form!

The word “pin” was entirely accidental in the title of this posting, but I’m sticking with it. In the 1980s, I received a broken-down version of Harry Bertoia’s (1915–1978) Diamond armchair as a gift from dear friends, and subsequently gifted it to an artist friend of mine who fixed it up and sold it. I never really liked sitting in it, and my mother couldn’t get out of it once she did. However, it is a beautiful design, so elegant and (almost) aerodynamic. My point is that when most people hear the name Bertoia, they think of his revolutionary furniture designs. But, like Alexander Calder (1898–1976), he was also a brilliant designer of jewelry. Did you know that?

Harry Bertoia (1915–1978, US, born Italy), Brooch, ca. 1947. Silver-electroplated gold, 3 ½" x 4" (8.9 x 10.2 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-8425btaars)

Bertoia’s most avant-garde chair designs were made during his period with Knoll, Inc. from about 1950 to 1953. Between 1953 and 1978, he produced more than fifty public sculptures, many of them commissioned to adorn architecture. However, his interest in metal sculpture and metalworking began during the 1930s, long before he ever participated in designing furniture or sculpture.

Born in San Lorenzo, Friuli, Italy, he was recognized as an accomplished artist while he was a young man. Some of his early work was designing wedding linen embroidery patterns for brides in his hometown. At fifteen, he moved to Detroit to live with his brother and further study art. A one-year scholarship to the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts was followed by the pivotal event for his artistic development: a scholarship to the Bauhaus-of-the-Midwest, the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills.

Although he studied painting and drawing, at Cranbrook he was asked by the director, architect Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950), to reopen the metalworking shop in 1939. Because of the scarcity of metal during World War II (1939–1945), Bertoia was forced to concentrate on jewelry. In 1943, he moved to California to work with furniture designers Charles (1907–1978) and Ray (1912–1988) Eames to solve the mass-production problems of Eames’ avant-garde molded plywood chairs. During the same period, doing war work designing airplane parts, he took a welding class.

Between 1945 and 1950, jewelry making was one of his main sources of income, while he continued his monoprinting, painting, and sculpture on the side. In the late 1940s, his jewelry had become part of the “art to wear” movement, which included such noted artists as Margaret de Patta (1903–1964) and Fanny Hillsmith (1911–2007). Along with these two artists, his work was featured in the second major “art to wear” exhibition (titled Modern Jewelry Under Fifty Dollars!) at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1948. The elegant, organic lines of his jewelry made it very popular, and Bertoia actually designed wedding rings for Charles and Ray Eames in 1941. 

Harry Bertoia, Brooch, ca. 1947. Silver-electroplated gold, 3" x 3 1/2" (7.6 x 8.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (PMA-8426btaars)

These post-war pieces of jewelry clearly owe a debt to his learning how to weld, but they also prefigure his welded sculptures starting in the 1950s. His first chair collection was introduced by Knoll in 1952, and his first architectural metal sculpture commission came a year later.

Here’s a reminder of the chair that made Bertoia a household name in the early 1950s. He designed many variations on the basic diamond (I used to call it “butterfly”), including open, non-upholstered versions that consisted of welded grids of steel wire. 

Harry Bertoia, “Diamond” Armchair, 1952. Chromed steel wire and upholstery, 30" x 33 1/2" x 28" (76 x 85 x 71 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Estate of Harry Bertoia/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (MOMA-D0084btaars)

Correlations to Davis programs:  Explorations in Art 2E, Grade 2: 2.7; Explorations in Art 2E, Grade 6: 5.7; A Personal Journey: 7.connections; The Visual Experience: 10.7

Monday, April 30, 2018

Architectural Sculpture or Architecture as Sculpture?

India, Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, Somnathapur, consecrated 1258 CE. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-10088)

When Western art history books talk about “architectural sculpture,” it is usually in the context of Romanesque and Gothic churches/cathedrals in Europe. When one is looking at temple architecture in parts of Asia, then we start to imagine that the line between architecture and architectural sculpture is very blurry. When studying temples in India, I am often struck by the observation that not only does the architecture aspire to imitate features of the natural world (like mountains), but the architecture is aspiring to be sculpture!

Chennakesava means “beautiful” (chenna) and “Vishnu” (kesava). This temple is one of the 1500 that were built during the Hoysala empire (1026–1343 CE) and represents the high point of the kingdom’s architectural style. Descriptions of Hoysala architecture always indicate that it was very ornate. Does this mean loaded with sculpture, so much so that the whole building visually takes on a sculptural feeling? Talk about “texture” on a grand scale! This temple is an example of one of the many regional variations on temple architecture that make the late medieval period of Indian architecture (ca. 1192–1526) so fascinating.

This temple is unique among late medieval Indian temple designs in that the mandapa (prayer hall, fronted by the half-hall, ardhamandapa) has a flat, rather than pyramidal tower, roof. Another interesting fact is that the vimana, the tower above the inner sanctum, is the same height and importance as the other sikhara (towers, literally “mountain,” for obvious reasons). This type of sikhara is called the vesara. It is characterized by a squat, pyramidal shape. These sikharas are totally enriched in sculpture that give them a compelling visual texture from a distance.

Hoysala architecture is generally more ornate than other southern styles. The temple is also unique in that it is dedicate to three deities: Vishnu, Krsna, and Siva, with sanctuaries under the sikharas. This temple is sometimes called a “star temple,” because the plan has a sixteen-pointed format.

The earliest Hoysala kings came from the hills northwest of present-day Halebid, which became their capital in 1060. The Hoysala acquired much territory from the Chalukya dynasty (543–753 CE) and the Chola dynasty (300 BCE–1279 CE). By the early 1200s, the Hoysala dynasty was dominant in southern India. Struggles with rival kingdoms and futile territorial ambitions with the Delhi Sultanate (1206–1526) led to the collapse of the Hoysala during the 1300s. They were succeeded in the region by the Vijayanagar dynasty that ruled from about 1366 to 1646.

India, Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, from entrance gate, Somnathapur. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images (8S-10089)
The vimana is usually visible from the approach to Indian temples. The uniform size of the sikharas at Somnathapur make it hard to distinguish.

India, Prasanna Chennakesava Temple, assembly hall (mandapa) wall with images of Siva and Parvati (left) and Laksmi and Vishnu (center), Somnathapur. Image © 2018 Davis Art Images. (8S-10091)
The two major gods, Siva and Vishnu, are found in their multiple incarnations in Hoysala temple reliefs. Some of these high reliefs depict Siva in action, such as slaying a demon or dancing on the head of an elephant. His consort Parvati or Nandin the bull often accompany him. He may be represented as Bhairava, another of Siva’s many incarnations. The sculptural program here, so rich and beautifully high relief, was created at roughly the same period of much of the Gothic sculpture programs in European churches. The sculpture also serves the same function as the Gothic: educating worshippers about their faith. Hello global village!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Is “Self-Taught” a Necessary Descriptive Term in Art History?

I was recently studying the insanely wonderful art of contemporary artist Carmen Cartiness Johnson (I posted about her back in February), and I noticed that her artist’s statement said right off the bat that she is “self-taught.” Now, except for a year and a half at an art museum school in Chicago, I am essentially a self-taught artist. But, unlike Johnson, my work is not exhibited in museums. Do you see where I’m going with this?

I have written biographies of hundreds of artists—about where they studied, who they studied with, and who influenced them. And yet, I feel as if the phrase “self-taught” often conjures up images of “visionary art” in the minds of some art historians (especially ones with PhDs).

Ever since the early 1900s, what was once considered naïve, self-taught art was reevaluated for what it truly is: art that responds to an inner vision that often is richer and more expressive than the work of artists who follow the academic path. This was especially influential on many well-known artists of Dada, Surrealism, and abstraction. I have personally resolved to downplay formal education and emphasize what inspired artists, and how they had the innate ability to express that, in future writings of artist bios. How about that?

How many museum walls would be noticeably bare without the work of “self-taught’ artists? I present to you the work of artists represented in major museums, all with “big names” who were essentially “self-taught” artists.

Sarah Goodridge (1788–1853, US), Sarah Salisbury Tappan, ca. 1830. Watercolor on ivory, 3 7/16" x 2 11/16” (8.7 x 6.8 cm). © 2018 Worcester Art Museum. (WAM-380)
When Sarah Goodridge (1788–1853) was growing up on a farm in Templeton, Massachusetts in the late 1700s/early 1800s, the few rights that were accorded to women did not include attending the limited number of art schools in the US at the time. Women who showed an aptitude for drawing at an early age were mostly trained by male relatives, if they happened to be artists. Goodridge honed her drawing skills when she moved to Boston to spend time with a brother who lived there. Although she may have taken lessons in Boston, she was largely self-taught. Portrait miniature painting was profession in which it was easier for women to succeed because the work could be done at home. In Boston, she became acquainted with the Grand Manner painter Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), whose work may have informed her own style.

Goodridge opened a studio in Boston in 1820 and became one of the most prolific portrait miniaturists of the first half of the 1800s. Compared to her contemporary miniature painters, Goodridge’s figures show more solid modeling, and an acute attention to physical detail. At the time this portrait of a woman from an elite Worcester family was painted, Goodridge was producing as many as two paintings a week and was able to support her family on her art.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910, US), Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), 1873–1876. Oil on canvas, 24 ¼" x 38 3/16" (61.5 x 97 cm). © 2018 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (NGA-P0230)
Winslow Homer (1836–1910) is by far—next to Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)—one of the supreme American realists of the 1800s. Homer was born in Boston and his parents encouraged him to draw at an early age. Drawing became the staple of his income for the first two decades of his life. He honed this skill by keen observation of everyday life. That genre became one of his strong points as an illustrator when he was hired by Boston lithographer John Bufford (1810–1870) (a rival to Currier and Ives) in 1855. He executed book illustrations and magazine and music sheet covers, which also honed his artistic skill.

In 1859 he became a freelance illustrator in New York for a number of publications and served as a war “correspondent” for Harper’s weekly magazine during the Civil War (1860–1865). During that war he concentrated more and more on painting. He translated many of his Civil War sketches into paintings after 1866, when he spent a year in France. Although Impressionism was budding in France at the time, Homer was drawn more to the Realism movement, particularly the Barbizon painters in their emphasis on painting outdoors and visual reality. He was also moved by the work of Dutch Baroque landscape artists whose work he saw in the Louvre museum.

As early as 1873, Homer became fascinated with painting scenes of the ocean and other bodies of water after a visit to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he produced a watercolor of this scene. Like Dutch Baroque seascape artists, Homer produced many outdoor studies of waves and light on water to produce his marine works, which were always painted entirely in the studio. For the effects of bright sunlight and deep shadow, Homer used the traditional academic method of tints and shades using black and white added to local color.

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991, US), Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 34, 1953–1954. Oil on canvas, 80" x 100" (203.2 x 254 cm). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2018 Estate of Robert Motherwell, Licensed by VAGA, New York. (AK-453movg)
Abstract Expressionism was the first indigenous modernist art movement in the US. It blossomed after a roughly twenty-year period in which realism, especially social realism, was ruler. The movement was influenced greatly by émigré artists from Europe during World War II (1939–1945), many of whom had a Surrealism and Dada background.

The Surrealist aesthetic of “automatic creation,” or the superiority of the subconscious in creation, was one of the motivating factors among the Abstract Expressionists. The Abstract Expressionists were also attracted to any European movement that advocated total abstraction, which included De Stijl and the Russian movements of Suprematism and Constructivism.

Robert Motherwell (1915–1991) was the youngest of the “first generation” of the Abstract Expressionists. His early education was in ART HISTORY, literature, and philosophy at Stanford University in California. As a painter he was largely self-taught, except for some brief formal study with the Swiss Surrealist Kurt Seligmann (1900–1962) in New York in 1941. He met a number of other Surrealists there, and he was most impacted by the idea of their aesthetic grounded in the intuitive, irrational, and accidental aspects of creating a work of art.

Motherwell painted his first version of Elegy to the Spanish Republic in 1948. It was his profound reaction to the defeat of the Spanish Republic by Fascists in the 1930s. He painted more than 150 versions of this theme throughout his life. In contrast to the bright palette of his other paintings, the Elegy series was dominated by black and white. Like Picasso’s (1881–1973) painting Guernica, Motherwell’s Elegy series equated black with death and white with life. By the 1960s, the series had become monumental in scale, almost mural-like. The artist intended the loosely brushed forms to symbolize universal tragedy. This particular version related to Motherwell’s feelings about the Korean War (1950–1953). 

Wong Wucius (born 1936, China), Towards Enlightenment B (Green), 1991. Color offset lithograph on paper, 30" x 21 5/8" (76.2 x 54.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Wucius Wong. (PMA-5258)
Artists of an independent or progressive mind were obviously not welcome in the China of Mao Tse Tung (1893–1976). After the formation of the Republic of China in 1948, many Chinese artists adopted Western artistic styles, but this was quashed when the Communists took over and advocated for Chinese artists to pursue “revolutionary realism.” This is the Western equivalent of social realism, a style that is meant to be uplifting to everyday life in a hit-over-the-head way.

The “Cultural Revolution” (1966–1976) was meant to bring society into conformance with Mao’s “progressive” ideas, but it ended up in the persecution of many well-known artists. The “failure” of Communism in the late 1980s, along with the opening of more dialogue with China by Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) in 1978, engendered a boom of the Chinese economy in the 1990s. Artists turned increasingly away from a political context and experimented within traditional subjects and forms, often in the realist aesthetic. Increasingly, however, modernist interpretations of traditional Chinese art became the norm.

Wong Wucius (born 1936) was born in Guangdong and moved with his family to Hong Kong in 1938. He initially pursued studies in literature, but gradually decided on a vocation as an artist, He began as a self-taught painter, and augmented his work with the renowned calligrapher Lui Shou-kwan (1919–1975) at age 14. His teacher’s circle included many artists who were pioneers in exploring Western modernism within traditional Chinese themes such as the venerated landscape.

Towards Enlightenment is an ongoing series in which Wong combines the traditional Buddhist search for Nirvana—always connected to landscape painting—with a modern concern for abstract design that he learned from the work of artists such as Zao Wou-ki (1921–2013), who were influenced by the late landscapes of Cézanne (1839–1906). In combining Western modernism with Chinese tradition, these works do not diminish the emotional connection to landscape that is so traditional in Chinese painting!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


Tejo Remy (designer, born 1960, Netherlands) and Droog Design (manufacturer, firm 1993 to present, Amsterdam), Rag Chair, 1991. Rags, metal strips, 39 3/8” x 23 5/8" x 23 5/8" (100 x 60 x 60 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Tejo Remy. (PMA-8493)

I read a very disturbing article recently, which stated that a large percentage of the clothes we could donate for reuse ends up in landfills. This is disturbing because a lot of the materials do not deteriorate naturally, and it causes a big problem where they are buried. Of the clothing that does get donated, much of it gets recycled for use in furniture fill and insulation manufacturing. I guess I was naïve to believe that the fashion treasures I donate end up making someone else look fabulous! I have discovered in recent years, however, that Dutch designers are, among many, very active in the area of recycled interior design. Tejo Remy (born 1960) is certainly a pioneer in this effort.

Simple solutions to structural problems are a feature of Remy’s designs. He takes everything available in the everyday world as “media” for his designs, and comes up with stunningly simple but also ingenious solutions to interior design. Imagine a living room with a set of these obviously comfortable side chairs. It sure beats the cold, soulless Barcelona furniture of Mies van derRohe (1886–1969), which has had a resurgence in popularity among those who weren’t around for the first incarnation of the style.

Although these chairs were called “rag chairs,” they are comprised mostly of discarded garments. Even though Remy no longer works for the company, Droog still markets these chairs and offers the customer the ability to add their own discarded garments as part of the chair. If this is not a comment on our throw-away society, I don’t know what is!

Remy studied at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Department of 3D Design. Sustainability is the guiding principle behind his designs, recycling everyday objects in his interior work since the early 1990s. This was the period just coming out of the “greed decade,” as I call it, or the Reagan Era. I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with another of his landmark designs, the You Can’t Discard Your Memories chest-of-drawers from the same year as his Rag Chair. It’s simply brilliant. 

Tejo Remy, You Can’t Discard Your Memories chest of drawers, 1991. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2018 Tejo Remy. (MOMA-D0490)

The only downside to “sustainability” and “recycling” is that one pays dearly for the cachet of the designer’s name. The same is true with the furniture designs of Philippe Starck (born 1949), who employs discarded industrial materials in many of his designs. Frank Gehry (born 1929) explored furniture made of corrugated cardboard, which are over the moon in price. The Rag Chair is listed on Droog’s website for €2694.21! May I just say something everyone’s probably thinking: Why is something so good for the planet (and so visually stunning) so expensive?

Monday, April 9, 2018

An Awesome “Find”

Yun Gee (Gee Wing Yun, 1906–1963, US, born China), Skull, 1926. Oil on paperboard mounted on wood, 11 1/8" x 15 ½" (28.3 x 39.3 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-337)

In the annals of art history—and I mean the standard art history texts used for high school and college—obviously thousands of significant artists are left out. Well, as I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, I’m here to correct these many oversights! When we discuss early American modernism, it usually involves artists from the East Coast. Well, surprise, there were pioneer modernists from the West Coast at the same time, and Yun Gee (1906–1963) was one of them.

The paintings of Yun Gee are such a wonderful interlude between the Armory Show of 1913 and Abstract Expressionism. And yet, it seems that they are seldom included in studies of early American modernism, because he spent a lot of his time in San Francisco and Paris. He was also active in New York.

Gee was born near Canton, China to a merchant father who spent much time in San Francisco. Gee joined his father in 1921 and settled near Chinatown, enrolling in the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). The most notable influence of Gee’s mature work was his teacher, the painter Otis Oldfield (1860–1969), whose own work reflected the influence of late Paul Cézanne (1839–1906).

This painting, Skull, was executed during a period when Gee helped form the Modern Gallery on Montgomery Street in San Francisco with a group of avant-garde artists. It was a venue that featured the works of abstractionists and would eventually become the San Francisco Art Center. In 1927, Gee went to Paris, where he immediately became intimate with members of avant-garde art movements from Cubism and Futurism to abstraction. He exhibited often at the Salon des Indépendants—the venue for artists considered too avant-garde for the mainstream art scene.

He returned to the US, settling in New York in 1931. Despite shows at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (1932), Gee struggled through the Depression years (1929–1940), due in large part to the preference for Social Realism at the time in the US, as well as discrimination against his Asian heritage. He painted murals and taught art for the WPA during the Depression, and his painting style ultimately was honed into a combination of Cubism and a more ironic (rather than “social”) sense of realism. A second stint in Paris (1936–1939) garnered him two one-person exhibitions at the Galerie à la Reine. After his return to the US, his painting style gradually drifted toward abstraction that reflected Abstract Expressionism.

Painting was not Gee’s only creative offering. He wrote poetry, which often accompanied his paintings, that reflected both Taoist tradition and the modern poetry of people such as Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) (whom he had befriended while in Paris). He also danced, designed sets, and wrote for the stage. Although he was known best as a painter, he expanded his search for beauty in the world through bird-watching and playing numerous Chinese instruments.

Works such as the following two paintings lead me to believe he may have been in contact with either Morgan Russell (1886–1953) or Stanton MacDonald-Wright (1890–1973), two American artists in Paris who pioneered the Cubism/Orphism-inspired movement Synchronism! Am I right?

Yun Gee, Sleeping Girl, 1926–1927. Oil on linen mounted on paperboard, 14 7/8" x 19 ¾" (37.7 x 50.3 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. (SI-481)
Yun Gee, Man with a Pipe (Head of a Man), 1926–1927. Oil on paperboard, 15 3/8" x 10 15/16" (39.1 x 27.8 cm). Image © 2018 Smithsonian Institution, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC. (SI-482)