Botticelli's Primavera, which condenses in sweet allegories the longings and the learnings of its age, would turn up on everyone's short list of Quattrocento masterpieces. So it is instructive that it evidently spent its first years adjoined to an elaborate settle, or lettuccio, in an alcove adjoining the bedchamber of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco in Florence, and that, in the view of current scholarship, settle and painting were designed together as parts of a single ensemble. Indeed, Ronald Lightbown, an expert on Botticelli, writes: "The fact that the Primavera was intended to be hung or fixed above a piece of furniture at or slightly above eye level explains the gently rising plane on which the figures are distributed:' Strictly speaking, then, we are looking at a fragment when we contemplate this gentle embellishment alone, in which the spring zephyrs of the Renaissance innocently stir. The fact that Lightbown refers to the other fragment as "a piece of furniture" testifies to a deep prejudice, long at work in our culture, in which art belongs on the other side of a line separating it from items of mere utility, as if the boundary between the bottom edge of Primavera and the upper edge of the lettuccio's cornice were the metaphysical boundary that divides spirit from crass body-as if, indeed, lettuccio and painting together compose a kind of monster, like the centaur, half beast and half human, that Botticelli painted with such compassion for that same Florentine chamber. Nothing could better demonstrate the conceptual distance at which we stand from the Quattrocento than our insistence on a borderline that artists and patrons in the Renaissance never thought to draw. In the larger scheme of life, after all, nothing could have been more overpoweringly utilitarian in that era than the altar of a church. And since the altarpiece was standardly conceived in terms of the practicalities of prayer and in the hope of holy intervention, something has been irremediably lost, even from the perspective of formalist aesthetics (like accounting for the "gently rising" ground plane of Primavera), when we remove the altarpiece to the museum as an object of disinterested contemplation. Aesthetics was a late-eighteenth-century invention: In the Renaissance, and long after, the beautiful and the practical were as much an undifferentiated unity as are, in philosophical truth, the body and mind. My sense is that we owe the invidious distinction between the fine and the (merely) decorative arts, as we do so many divisions both hidden and obvious that define our attitudes toward the things of life, to the French Revolution. It was Jacques-Louis David, functioning as artistic commissar, who decreed the division, classifying furniture-making as an inferior art in contrast with the high arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. He did so on two grounds. That order of furniture which might compete with painting in terms of skill, ingenuity, expressive power and beauty he associated with the discredited values of the ancient rigime. This, if true, means that aristocratic patrons did not especially discriminate between painters and furniture makers of the highest quality, and hence did not respect a boundary greatly attractive to David, which exalted artists as natural aristocrats, so to speak. Ironically, the values of the dispossessed nobility must then have anticipated the ones later endorsed by John Dewey and his mentor, Albert Barnes. They sought in their writings, and in the case of Barnes, in his strategies of exhibiting painting and sculpture in the same space as ornamental ironwork, to dissolve the distinction that David helped make canonical.
David's second ground of discrimination was that painting and sculpture were capable of serving the highest purpose of art as he conceived of it: namely, to give moral instruction to its viewers, making them better persons-and, incidentally, politically correct citizens-in consequence of their experiences in museums of art. His own paintings of the period were hortatory and edifying to a degree we find painful today. It is clear that David's second ground was somewhat weakened by his first: It was precisely because the bergeres and fauteuils and elaborately worked ormolu fittings for escritoires and gaming tables imparted the wrong sort of moral teachings that David impugned them. It is at the same time perfectly evident that the style of furniture David would tolerate in spaces over which he exercised any control must transmit the same order of moral meaning as the kind of painting in which he believed. Furniture condenses the values and moral gradations of its owners, and can be as eloquent or as tendentious as sermons. From the transformations in moral and political perspective of the 1880s, David came to be regarded as having been something of an aesthetic villain for having politicized the straight line when the curved line, which emblemized the rococo style, came to be esteemed as somehow essentially French. And in fact there was an intense effort to rehabilitate the rococo style not simply in terms of painting and decoration but in terms of the modes of moral meaning implied by the form of life for which the rococo stood. It followed as a matter of course that the Salon should open itself up to furniture-makers by 1890, and that the leading artists of the Belle lepoque should express themselves in the design of dinnerware, textiles, stained glass, wall coverings and screens, not to mention graphic design. In the early modernist vision of Vuillard, Lautrec, Bonnard and above all Gauguin, decorativity came to be the defining category of aesthetics. That "decorative" has reverted to a term of critical abuse is evidence that we have returned to the Davidian program of artminus, to be sure, the moral didacticism.
In the 1890s, the decorative arts generally went with an agenda of social transformation and an often utopian politics. Recently, when he was seeking a new sort of politically engaged conceptual art, Tim Rollins recalls coming to think, "The textile and wallpaper designs of William Morris and his workshop ... pointed a way to reconsider the languages possible for a new political art-an art political not so much in its form or content, but political in the very way it is made." If we think in this way of art as a language]" then it is irresistible to invoke the singular thesis of Ludwig Wittgenstein: "To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life." (Rollins goes on to suggest that "the greatest indictment of capitalism can be found in but a yard of Morris's perfect, beautiful materials.") In any case, by comparison with the great transformative visions of Art Nouveau in France, of Jugendstil in Germany and the Vienna Werkstatte-and of course Morris's Arts and Crafts movement in England-most explicitly political art has the dimension of cartoon. It was an early premise of the Museum of Modern Art in New York that the formalist aesthetic, as much embodied in articles of daily use as in modernist painting, should bit by bit transform the patterns of daily life and in consequence the moral character of those who lived those patterns. These attitudes weakened in the immediate postwar years. Artists turned from politics with a kind of loathing and heroized painting as a disengaged act of pure expression. But it was perhaps inevitable that by the late 1960s, there should be, as one aspect of the elimination of social divisions perceived as oppressive, an effort to erase the boundary between high and low art, or between the fine and the practical arts. It was part of the spirit of the times that furniture-makers should begin to claim that so far as art making was concerned, there was no conceptual distinction between what they did and what painters and sculptors did.
Until that demand for equal ontological rights, furniture-makers generally had been characterized by the essentialism that tended to mark the ideology of art in our century: to identify what it was that essentially sets furniture apart from everything else. Essentialism goes hand in conceptual hand with purism. Theorists of painting, for example, came to view picturing as not essential to their subject, and undertook in the spirit of pure painting to purge their art of pictorial content and the very space that made this possible, which meant that the truth in painting went with the absolute flatness and two-dimensionality of surfaces. Others came to identify painting with the very act of putting paint on, which then led to an aesthetic of the heavy brush stroke and ultimately the drip. Or painting became identified with the material basis of the art, which yielded paintings that drew attention to their own shape and that flaunted canvas and stretcher. When video art made its first tentative claims to aesthetic privilege, its makers looked spontaneously for what was essentially video, which then relegated everything else to the status of contaminant, and yielded the parameters of video criticism.
It was unavoidable that, when furniture-makers began to think of themselves as artists, their first effort was to essentialize their practice or their product, and various alternatives immediately suggested themselves. There was the mysticism of material, for example, the exaltation of the "woodiness" of wood, which impelled the entire art to celebrate and enhance grain, luster and, in radical cases, the natural shape of wood. And there was the parallel celebration of artisanship, in particular the virtuosity of joinery, of inlay, of veneer and of polish. There was even, at a certain stage in this itinerary of artistic self-definition, an effort to subtract what seemed to be that feature of furniture which keeps it from the precinct of high art-its utility-so that the furniture-maker who aspired to the higher calling might produce objects of beautiful material, exquisitely crafted, but almost flagrantly nonutilitarian, as with certain transitional works by Wendell Castle, who was among the first of those who wanted to be at once artists and furniture-makers.
There were other subtractions, once the movement was under way. Richard Artschwager, originally a furniture manufacturer, started to employ Formica, that most aesthetically despised of domestic substances, in a reaction against the effort to identify furniture, when art, with beautiful materials. Artschwager thus effected a double erasure: By dissolving th,line between fine woods and plastic, he overcame in an eccentric way the line between furniture and fine art. But the gesture I find most admirable in this singular history is a subtraction of subtractions-a negation of negations-achieved with a cabinet made by a California ebeniste, Garry Knox Bcnnett. It is made of padouk (a Burmese rosewood), artfully joined, with a craftsmanlike finish and elegantly designed fittings. And when it was done, Bennett drove a bent 16p nail into the facade, surrounding it with a halo of dents of the kind hammers make in unskilled hands. This Rimbaudlike gesture ("One evening I sat Beauty on my knees. And I found her bitter. And I injured her") repudiates three decades of essentialist quest, and is itself the very essence of the postmodern spirit in art. What Bennett hammered home was the truth that art, whether in painting or in furniture, is a matter of meaning. And that extends to high craftsmanship and rare materials as well as to their subversion, such as in the work of Bennett and Artschwager. Furniture can be an art when it is about its own processes or its own substances or even its own functions, as Wendell Castle demonstrated, though by no means is its vocabulary of meanings restricted just to these.
A few years ago, the Architectural League of New York sponsored an exhibition of chairs, an open competition they called "The Chair Fair" in which 397 entries were displayed with marvelous fanfare and enthusiasm. I was invited to deliver a lecture as part of the celebration, and it was then that the rich symbolism of the chair in human life began to impress me. I spoke first of the chair in art-the empty throne in a Buddhist work from Amaravati, Van Gogh's portrait of himself and Gauguin as chairs, and Warhol's electric chairs, with which, characteristically insightful into the language of symbols, Warhol raised the question of what dignity we feel ourselves according to the victim when we execute him or her in the sitting posture (rather than lying down or standing up). And then I tried to raise what it means for a chair as such to be art, pointing out, as I went, the way different chairs imply different philosophies of life: the wing chair, the sling chair, the salon chair, the BarcaLounger, the chaise longue, not to mention the fact that the President sits in a desk chair while the Pope permits himself the palanquin, intolerable in a democracy. Erica Jong has the heroine of an earlier book complain when Leila, the heroine of her new book, lies weeping on the floor: "Couldn't she weep in a chair for once?" To which Leila responds, " Could you? " What is implied about the depths of sorrow that is inconsistent with its being expressed while sitting, requiring at least that one lie in bed or, even better, that one sob from the lowest position available, on the floor, kicking to get lower?
The twenty-six contemporary furniture artists who were invited by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to produce a "masterpiece" for inclusion in an exhibition titled "New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furnituremakers" are alive to the referential powers of furniture as a bearer of meaning, and it would be rare to find an exhibition of contemporary painting or sculpture as radiant with a collective intelligence, wit, knowledge, expressiveness, skill and beauty as this set of brilliantly conceived and executed objects. I was taken through the show by Edward S. Cooke Jr., who conceived and curated it. He opened doors and pulled out drawers with an infectious gusto, explaining a good many things that he had described in great detail in the accompanying catalogue. Each artist selected a piece of furniture from the past-a seventeenth century trestle table, a New England trundle bed, a kneehole bureau table from about 1760, a Philadelphia high chest from about the same date and a wonderful chest by the American artist Charles Prender-gast, which is a descendant of the cassone that formed part of Botticelli's lettuccio. Each then constructed a piece that expresses something of the spirit of the one to which it refers, but at the same time carries the quite different sort of meaning that a chest or a chair meant to be integrated into contemporary discourse must transmit.
The Prendergast chest was selected as a paradigm by Judy Kensley McKie, whose work makes a boisterous use of animal motifs as decorative components. She did a couch once with a back made of leopards, nose to nose, their tails coiling out to form its arms. She also made a jewelry cabinet with inlaid Keith Haring dogs. For this occasion she placed a chest on corbeled legs and entwined on all its surfaces (including the undersurface of its cover) gold-leaf leopards, grinning amid plant forms. It was Wendy Maruyama who deconstructed and reconstructed the Philadelphia high chest. The upper cabinet is topped by a copper-leaf pyramid and buttressed by what look like giant commas. The lower chest is set into four heavy mahogany legs, which seem to want to be streamlined, as if to dissociate themselves from the awkwardness of the body of the piece, which is painted a funky green, accented with pink slashes, and is ornamented with cigar-shaped pulls. With its copper helmet and its rolls of pulls like buttons on a uniform, it stands like some sort of sentinel, amusing and imposing, full of good will, making a point of being useful despite its crazy charm.
Garry Knox Bennett has confected what looks like a kneehole desk out of an improbable assortment of materials, including aluminum and brick. It is at once sinuous and ponderous and conveys the authoritativeness that the owner of a desk so heavy must possess, and at the same time it projects a certain unrepressed whimsy through its shape and color. It would be ideal for the C.E.O. of a joke factory. Tom Loeser has built a chest of drawers consisting only of drawers, which, as if having escaped the rigidities of a confining frame, are of different sizes, shapes and colors, and stagger upward as if piled one atop the other. But they open with that same assurance with which the door of a new car closes, revealing the craft that their staggered disorder seems to mock. By contrast, Hank Gilpin has constructed a wardrobe whose inspiration was a chaste paneled door from a house in Massachusetts, and door and wardrobe alike are exactly the kind of furniture David would have endorsed had he cared to revise his thesis that, unlike painting, furniture is morally mute. There is, by Thomas Hucker, a high chest of drawers that refers to a chest of the William and Mary style. Its polished mahogany facade curves outward like the side of a cylinder, and is placed against a less dramatically curved black back panel. Both upper components are poised in an elegant dignity upon six precisely turned legs. It conveys a very different code from that which can be read in Gilpin's austere and almost Puritan piece, which in turn repudiates the lighthearted values of Maruyama's punk and rowdy artifact, which keeps its good craftsmanly manners hidden.
Boston has been something of a center for studio furniture. A good many of the artists originally set up shop in the area, and there are several galleries showing their work. On the other hand, a considerable political distance has been traversed since the first workshops were set up in the 1960s, at a time when woodworking seemed, by its own nature, to make a kind of political statement and crafts communes were much the order of the day. The attitude was resolutely anti-elitist, and the earlier pieces doubtless reflected, in style and matter, the place that furniture as an expressive art was to play in the form of life that the craftspersons themselves believed in (as did so many in the communes that sprang up across the nation in those years). It is perfectly plain that whatever the politics of furniture-as-art were originally believed to be, the work in the Boston show hardly could be more elitist. This order of skill, working upon rare materials, cannot come cheap, any more than it came cheap in the days of du Barry and Madame Pompadour. And, like painting, furniture that is art is made possible by the existence of a set of connoisseurs and collectors. Making these chests and tables and desks is finally as exacting as making paintings, perhaps even more so, and it is an interesting question why they should cost so much less than paintings of comparable power do. Perhaps it is because we continue to carry a romantic prejudice in favor of expressive fervor and there is no way in which a tortured furniture-maker can give vent to creative frenzy by impulsive dovetailing or expressive mortise-and-tenoning, the way the artistic Genius can wipe and swipe pigment, or her counterpart in sculpture hack away emotionally at stone or wood, or shape clay with fury and passion. The myths that support discriminating borderlines are tentacular. The contemporary world remains suspicious of skill and elegance in art.
The show closed in Boston on March 18, but the good news is that it will be at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art in Washington from April 20 to September 3, and after that at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati from November 9 to January 8, 1991. (There is no reason why it should not circulate further, so petition your local museum and see if you can't get it booked.) New Yorkers will be able to see an alternative version of the exhibition at the Franklin Parrasch Gallery at 584 Broadway. This will include pieces by Thomas Hucker and Garry Knox Bennett, as well as something by John Cederquist, whose brilliant trompe l'oeil appropriation of a Newport, Rhode Island, high chest was the hit of the Boston show. Titled Le Fieuron Manquant ("The Missing Finial"), it appears to be a three dimensional collage of colonial furnituremaking and packing cases with drawers, which it takes a certain enterprise to find but which, once found, open like silk. The show will be on from April 20 to May 26.