What you see: A limited edition stainless steel Abilene rocking chair, made in 2008 by Wendell Castle. Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) estimates it at $80,000 to $120,000.
Who was Wendell Castle? The Kansas-born artist was a dean of the American studio furniture movement. He gleefully and deliberately erased the line between sculpture and furniture. He was an artist in residence at the Rochester Institute of Technology and kept a studio near Rochester, N.Y. His pieces are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Smithsonian Institution; and the White House. Castle died in January 2018 of complications of leukemia. He was 85.
Is the Abilene rocking chair a design that Castle originally made in the 1960s and revisited in 2008? “It’s purely 2008, but you can look at rocking chairs that he made in the 1960s, and you can see the through-line,” says Peter Loughrey, founder of LAMA. “Wendell Castle thought he was part furniture-maker and part artist. The soft curves of this are maternal and embracing, and at the same time, it’s masculine. The 1960s chairs have the same thing–big and bold, yet soft and curvaceous.”
What makes this a Wendell Castle design? What visual signatures mark the Abilene rocking chair as his work? “Wendell Castle emerged when designers and craftspeople were working in a reductionist aesthetic,” he says. “He reacted against the reductionist aesthetic, people who were paring down and reducing forms. He had the capacity to combine masculine and maternal shapes in part by broadening his materials. His work has a thickness that ran contrary to others of the era. Others thought, ‘How can I create with the least amount of material?’ Castle thought, ‘I want to make a leg thicker than normal if it’s closer to my artistic vision.’ This certainly has that. The rails of the rocker that swoop into the warmest are bigger and more massive than you would expect.”
How often did Castle work in stainless steel? Is this the only instance of him using it? “He worked in various materials,” he says. “He’s best known for working in wood, but he worked in metal. I don’t know if he did another stainless steel chair, but he did bronze stools.”
This is number four of the edition of eight. Where are the other seven Abilene chairs? The second from the series sold for $81,250 on an estimate of $50,000 to $80,000 at Christie’s New York in March 2014. Loughrey believes the edition sold out and the rest likely remain in private hands or institutions.
What’s the auction record for a work by Castle? The record-holder is a 1980 ‘Victory’ chair and desk sold at Christie’s New York in December 2015 for $221,000 against an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. The record for a single stand-alone work belongs to a 1963 rocking chair that sold for $204,000 against a $90,000 to $140,000 estimate at Rago in 2008. The next highest is a 2009 rocking chair that sold for about $180,000 against an estimate of about $134,000 to $201,000 at Tajan in Paris.
Do those results tell us anything about how this Wendell Castle rocking chair might perform at auction? “I would hope so!” he says. “The rocking chair is definitely a form he returns to. All three are completely different, but if you line them all up, you can see the Castle vocabulary flowing through them.”
What is it like to sit in? “It’s incredibly comfortable, and incredibly heavy,” he says, noting that it weighs about 400 pounds. “It takes two strong men to lift it. It’s a sculpture that sits in place. You can’t push it to another part of the room. When it’s set, it’s set.”
I imagine the Abilene rocking chair reflects Castle’s talent–he could make something so heavy look as light as a wisp of smoke and feel as comfortable as any other rocking chair. “Even as an artist, Castle understood the dynamics of the human form and how it interacts with the sculpture,” he says. “All his chairs are created to interact with the human form. It’s not something only to look at. It’s completely functional.”
Wendell Castle died in January 2018. How might that affect how this lot performs at auction on February 25, 2018? “It may affect it to some degree,” Loughrey says. “Typically, works are not dramatically affected when an artist dies. It may get a few more people’s attention. But it’s not easy to answer. It’s an old wives’ tale that if an artist dies, their prices immediately go up. If there’s a dramatic stock market selloff before the auction, that will affect it [the final price of the rocking chair] way more than him passing away.”
Why will this stainless steel Wendell Castle rocking chair stick in your memory? “To me, it’s exciting to see the arc of his career,’ he says. “Very early on, he created rocking chairs, and returned to the form and expanded on it and used his vocabulary in new and different ways. There’s distinct rocking chair progress over a 50-year period. This is instantly recognizable as a chair. At the same time, it’s functional as a piece of modern sculpture,” he says, adding, “And it will be memorable to me because I had a connection to him. I sat on panels with him, I interviewed him, and he was incredibly generous in helping me with cataloging things correctly. Now that he’s gone, it’s going to be a little emotional for me.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
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