Wendell Castle remembered as founding father of American art furniture movement

Posted on Jan 23, 2018 in Alumni News and News

Wendell Castle's Nirvana, on display at the Spencer Museum of Art. Photo credit: Ryan Waggoner, Spencer Museum of ArtWendell Castle, Nirvana (chair), 2007, Gift of Wendell Castle, 2013.0216

Wendell Castle, f’58, g’66, a sculptor hailed as the founding father of the American art furniture movement, died Saturday at his home in Scottsville, NY. He was 85.

Castle used sculptural techniques to creature modernist tables, benches, lamps, coat racks and clocks that were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Spencer Museum of Art and dozens of other venues, pioneering a new art form that applied the techniques of modern sculpture to furniture-making. Two of Castle’s works, a KU-blue chair titled “Nirvana” and a sculpture called “Hanging in the Balance,” are on view in the Spencer’s permanent galleries.

In 2015 the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City organized an exhibition that paired Castle’s early 1960s pieces with new work, highlighting the restless, inventive creativity that drove him throughout his 60-year career always to strive to accomplish something new.

“There have been times when I made something that has been very successful, and there would be buyers out there if I wanted to make a lot of them,” Castle told Kansas Alumni on the eve of the exhibition. “But I don’t want to make a lot of them. I want to move right on. … I don’t believe it’s true art if there’s no risk.”

Campus honors

The Emporia native returned to campus several times over the years, including in 2013, when he received an honorary Doctor of Arts from KU, and in 2008, when the Spencer organized an exhibition of his curious, whimsical clocks: “Wendell Castle: About Time.” The showstopper was a bell-shaped aluminum piece with a motor inside that caused it to roll slowly on the floor, tracing a complete circle every 12 hours.

“Because the sculpture is not perfectly round and the surface it rolls on is never perfectly flat, the piece occasionally encounters resistance, like a wheel caught in a rut,” Kansas Alumni reported. “At such moments the sculpture must build momentum to overcome that resistance, and it rocks in place before lurching forward.”

“It illustrates, in a primitive kind of way, one of Einstein’s thoughts about time, that time moves in fits and starts,” Castle said. “We all know that: If you’re waiting for something time takes forever. If you’re having a great time, time flies.”

—Steven Hill

The Spencer Museum of Art published this video in 2013 in anticipation of Castle’s honorary Doctor of Arts degree. In the video, Castle discusses his decision to study art at the University of Kansas. For more coverage of Castle and his achievements, click here.


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