When a Chair Is Not a Chair

In the art world, Chelsea gallerist Barry Friedman is known as something of a market-timer, dealing in Chinese contemporary art, Dale Chihuly glass and Tamara de Lempika paintings as collectors like Madonna and Steve Wynn move in and out of those fields. This month, he’s showing Wendell Castle, an artist who is, to say the least, peaking late in life. In the past few months, works by the 77-year-old carver have been purchased by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Kansas’ Nelson-Atkins Museum and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. In recent sales, Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., set a record for his work at $204,500, and a piece Sotheby’s expected to bring $25,000 soared to $110,500 instead. What was it? A coffee table.

The Kansas-born furniture maker, who works today in a workshop in upstate New York, has long been scrunched into the craft world. But that appears to be changing. At Friedman, which has already reported several sales, his 2010 Ghost Rider rocking chair, all sensuous curves in rich Bubinga wood, went for an art-world-size $135,000. The recognition, and these six-figure prices, is a recent phenomenon. For years, Mr. Castle was under the radar of the high-powered art world, after first breaking through at the Milan Triennial back in the ’60s with a music stand that ended up being featured in Time and Life magazines.

The Observer caught up with the artist at his studio in upstate Scottsdale, N.Y., just prior to his show opening.

 

The Observer:

What was the field of design like in the ’60s, when you first began?

Mr. Castle: The entire field didn’t exist. No specialty dealers, no fairs at all. Most people thought of design as in the craft world. Now, design is at the leading contemporary-art fairs.

Don’t most people still see art as totally separate from design?

Well, the people who have been acquiring my work have long bypassed that thinking. That argument isn’t on the table anymore.

But, since you trained as a sculptor, why did you move to furniture?

To me, furniture was about inventing new forms.

 Why the focus on chairs?

They’re part of social history and they’re totally three-dimensional. Unlike tables, which always have a flat surface, with chairs I can explore space in new ways.

Your outside-the-box designs?

I was captivated by Jacques-Henri Lartique’s early photos of a Bugatti racing cars. I wanted to convey a similar sense of speed and complexity, only translated into wood. With some, there’s a sense of risk. Will it tip over?

You have something of an unlikely collecting cult in Korea. Tell us about your Korean clients.

They’ve bought a great deal. When I went to Korea a year ago, they had in their homes Damien Hirst-type stuff. You name it. Even a lot of Andy Warhol. Kind of surprising. 

What’s late-in-life fame like?

I’ve had acclaim before. I’ve been picking up awards and honorary doctorates for quite a while. Museums have been acquiring my work for a long time. Now it’s just more focused. What’s also different lately is my gallery representation in Europe. Carpenters Workshop Gallery in London had a successful exhibition recently, and now the Zurich Galerie Kassler is showing my work during the Art Basel fair in June.

editorial@observer.com

When a Chair Is Not a Chair