The Art of Simplicity

Posted on June 26, 2019 by Lily Allen | Comments (0)

A new arrangement in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art features a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol and furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright and Donald Judd. All three artists used the rectangle to achieve stripped-down, straightforward works that, when placed side-by-side, reveal how complex, personal, and historically contingent “simplicity” can be. In the background are Ed Ruscha’s Radio (1964) and Kenneth Noland’s Par Transit (1964). Photo by Deborah Miller.
A new arrangement in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art features a Brillo Box by Andy Warhol and furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright and Donald Judd. All three artists used the rectangle to achieve stripped-down, straightforward works that, when placed side-by-side, reveal how complex, personal, and historically contingent “simplicity” can be. In the background are Ed Ruscha’s Radio (1964) and Kenneth Noland’s Par Transit (1964). Photo by Deborah Miller.
 

They sit on a rectangular piece of plywood that rises mere inches off the ground—more like a dance floor than a platform. A chair by modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a desk by minimalist Donald Judd, and what appears to be a box of Brillo scrub pads: the work of pop artist Andy Warhol. The trio occupy the center of a recently reorganized room devoted to works of the late 20th century in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, but they are not the only new additions to the space. In the same room, a reflective, cobalt blue "stack," also by Judd and on loan from the Norton Simon Museum, extends from floor to ceiling like a giant Jenga set that is missing every other row.

It takes time, teamwork, and energy to rearrange a gallery—but it is worth it. Add an art object, or change the relation of those on display, and you change the dialogue that occurs between pieces. So, what could Wright’s chair, Warhol’s Brillo Box, and Judd’s desk and stack be saying? And why are three of the four of them exhibited, essentially, on the floor?


The grouping of works by Warhol, Wright, and Judd piques curiosity about the relations between the objects, as well as the curators' choice to display them on a giant, plywood sheet more reminiscent of trips to Home Depot than fine-art pedestals. At right is Judd's Plexiglas "stack," on loan from the Norton Simon Museum. At left is Helen Lundeberg's Aegean Light (1973). Photo by Deborah Miller.
 

One way to enter the conversation is through the rectangle. It was the basis of Wright’s iconic spindle-back chairs, of which The Huntington’s 1909 chair for the Avery Coonley House of Riverside, Illinois is an example. On the back of the chair, rectangular slats create a play of positive and negative space that evokes harp strings, or an abstract waterfall. By restricting himself to one shape and forgoing surface detail, Wright conjured elegance with simple geometry—a novel idea in the Victorian era in which he came of age—a time when sinuous, complex, and richly-ornamented furniture was the rage. The architect followed the same principle when designing buildings, believing that a truly “American” architecture should echo what he perceived to be the simple beauty of the Midwest, his home region.

Judd used rectangles in the Untitled stack of 1969 and desk of 1979–80, not for beauty, but for the sake of “specific objects”—his term for his work. Based in New York City and rural Texas, Judd did not consider himself a sculptor; he wanted his pieces to be related to, like additional personalities in the room, rather than read like a statue of Cleopatra or a bust of George Washington. Rectangles and other shapes were effective for Judd because they were non-narrative. Helpful too were scale and material: unlike Wright’s understated, fine-oak furniture, Judd’s behemoth Plexiglas stack and plywood desk demand attention. Judd did not consider his art and furniture one and the same. The Huntington desk, which he made for his son Flavin, has scratches, water stains, and a splotch of blue paint. The stack, in contrast, was built by fabricators and remains pristine. Yet the two share a modular quality (the shape of their parts mirror the form of the whole) and transparency (you can look through the desk from most angles, while the stack’s blue Plexiglas is clear). These are characteristics also noticeable in Wright’s spindle-back chair.


The number of units in a Judd stack will vary depending on the height of the ceiling where it is installed, as Judd desired that the space between each unit equal the height of an individual unit. Here at The Huntington, the cobalt stack reaches its full extension of 10 units. Warhol also stacked his Brillo Boxes at their first exhibition in 1964. His method was haphazard, aiming to replicate a supermarket stock room. Photo by Deborah Miller.       
 

Warhol’s Brillo Box was one of nearly 100 made for a 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York City, where visitors encountered them imprecisely stacked like cartons in a stock room. The artist had been silk-screening images of commercial goods, such as Campbell’s soup cans, onto canvas for some time, but this was new. The product was now in 3-D, distinguishable from the real thing only when viewers got close enough to see that the boxes were wood, not cardboard, and that their hand-applied, silkscreen logos contained imperfections that would never pass factory inspection. Did Warhol choose rectangular packages simply because he liked the Brillo brand? If that is the case, then one wonders why we have no Campbell’s soup sculpture. Or is it possible that he chose the boxes knowing the significance the form held for artists like Wright and Judd? If so, what does it mean that the architect’s rectangle—a source of purified beauty—and the Minimalist’s rectangle—a means of autonomy for the art object—are now plastered with logos? By basing his work in everyday items that all can recognize, did Warhol share Wright and Judd’s goal of transparency, or confound it?

The questions above are open to debate, but I can clarify one thing that has been frequently asked about the recent changes in The Huntington’s post-war galleries. That is: What’s with the rather unconventional slat of plywood on which the chair, desk, and Brillo Box are displayed? This low-lying installation was the Art Collection staff’s attempt to amplify one branch of the conversation detected between the pieces. This conversation starts with the rectangle, and broadens into the artists’ mutual concern with, and varying definitions of, simplicity and straightforwardness. In deference to this dialogue, it felt best not to elevate the objects—physically or otherwise—by placing them on a pedestal, when we know they were intended to sit on the ground. We hope this helps visitors relate to the objects’ original contexts, as well as discover additional strands of their wordless dialogue.

Lily Allen is a curatorial assistant at The Huntington.

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