Review by Gerald W. R. Ward
Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind

Mansfield Bascom. Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind. New York: Abrams, 2010. 275 pp.; numerous color and bw illus. $80.00.

Paul Eisenhauer and Lynne Farrington, eds., with an essay by Paul ­Eisenhauer. Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer in cooperation with Penn Libraries, 2010. 160 pp.; numerous color illus., bibliography. $29.99.

Andrew Spahr, with an introduction by Wendell Castle. Jon Brooks: A Collaboration with Nature. Manchester, N.H.: Currier Museum of Art, 2011. 56 pp.; color illus., checklist. $18.00 (pb).

Wharton Esherick was a nudist. Who knew? I didn’t, although given the innovative spirit and adventurous nature of this important Pennsylvania artist, I perhaps should not have been surprised.

Esherick’s penchant for answering the front door in the altogether is only one of many personal insights provided by Mansfield Bascom in Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind, the first full-length biography of this major twentieth-century artist. Bascom has been married for more than fifty years to Wharton’s daughter Ruth and as Wharton’s son-in-law has enjoyed a unique perspective on the life and times of the man generally acknowledged as the founder of the American studio furniture movement. Moreover, until his recent retirement, he has also served as the director and later the curator of the Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli, Pennsylvania, founded in the 1970s as a means of preserving the artist’s home and studio as a shrine to his career. More than forty years in the works, Bascom’s biography was undertaken with the reluctant blessing of Esherick, who preferred to let his work speak for itself but who eventually assented to the project.

Utilizing his full access to the Esherick papers, interviews, and works, as well as his lengthy personal relationship with the artist, Bascom leads us chronologically through Esherick’s long and rich life, starting with his upbringing in a well-to-do Philadelphia family early in the twentieth century to his eventual standing as the grand old man of studio furniture in the 1960s, before his death in 1970. Elegantly written and beautifully illustrated, Bascom’s text presents Esherick as a human being as well as a craftsman. Given Bascom’s matchless personal knowledge and long familiarity with his subject, his biography will undoubtedly remain the starting point for all future research.

Bascom’s biography can be read in conjunction with Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Kamin and Kroiz Galleries at the University of Pennsylvania (September 7, 2010–February 13, 2011). Paul Eisenhauer, current curator of the Esherick Museum, organized the show with Lynne Farrington, Curator of Printed Books in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Penn. The bulk of the attention here is to Esherick’s “flat” work—drawings, paintings, woodcuts, book illustrations, and the like—with his furniture receiving less attention. In his lengthy introduction, Eisenhauer firmly places Esherick within the modernist art movement, seeing him as a vigorous, active participant, rather than as a nearly hermetic Thoreau-like figure laboring away in the wilderness. This is a healthy perspective to maintain, and it anchors Esherick in the context of his time in an invaluable way, seeing Esherick and his circle of artistic and literary friends as part of America’s contribution to modernism as it unfolded in all its ramifications. The introduction is followed by illustrations of some 267 objects accompanied by what appear to be the gallery labels and text panels.

Both of these Esherick-centered works, however, as detailed as they are, do not deal with Esherick’s furniture qua furniture, for the most part, in the detailed manner that many readers of American Furniture get pleasure from. But they do provide an enormous amount of material that furniture historians can sink their teeth into for many years to come, as Esherick’s furniture will inevitably continue to be better understood and as his reputation grows. They have laid down a baseline of research and cleared the way for scholars in the future to develop and refine more specific areas of investigation.

The world of studio furniture, like all aspects of the art world, is a tangled skein of relationships and bonds both personal and professional, linking masters with apprentices, teachers with students. Wendell Castle, himself an acknowledged leader of the field today, provides a thread that ties Esherick together with Jon Brooks, a New Hampshire furniture maker whose life and art were recently surveyed in an exhibition at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester organized by Andrew Spahr. Castle, who “discovered” Esherick in 1958, once observed, “Esherick taught me that the making of furniture could be a form of sculpture; Esherick caused me to come to appreciate inherent tree characteristics in the utilization of wood; and, finally, he demonstrated the importance of the entire sculptural environment” (as quoted by Bascom, 255). Castle, in turn, had his own impact on Brooks, who early in his career served as Castle’s “first paid help” in his studio in Rochester, New York, in the mid-1960s. Castle, as he notes in his introduction to the Currier exhibition catalogue, recognized Brooks’s talent when Brooks was still quite young.

Those elements that Castle found appealing in Esherick’s work—specifically the attention to sculptural form and the deft handling of wood—are also reflected in Brooks’s furniture, as revealed in Spahr’s text and in the illustrations of many of the forty-three objects included in the exhibition. For more than forty years, Brooks has created impressive, often colorful objects that take advantage of the properties of wood, utilizing both large, trunklike pieces to create massive seating furniture, for example, and smaller branchlike members, often painted, to fashion table legs, ladder-back chairs, and other forms. Combining his passion for art and for nature, Brooks, as Spahr notes, “has produced a body of work that balances craftsmanship with poetry and humor, function with imagery and dynamic abstract forms, and natural wood finishes with colorfully decorated surfaces” (p. 37). This retrospective at the Currier is a most fitting tribute to one of New Hampshire’s finest grand masters, one made more poignant in that Brooks, a Manchester native, first studied art as a young boy at the Currier Museum Art Center.

Gerald W. R. Ward
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 

American Furniture 2011