WHARTON ESHERICK in LongHouse Collections

Acclaimed as the Dean of American Craftsman, Wharton Esherick (1887- 1970) was the quintessential woodblock printer and premier furniture maker of the 20th century. Stunningly novel, his furniture stands the test of time: handshaped and free-form, it’s curvilinear, modern and pure. With such talent, it’s no wonder that he and Jack Larsen were friends since 1952.

With his keen eye for design, Larsen began collecting Esherick’s work, leading to acquisitions of such substance and depth that the LHR Collection of Esherick’s furniture is considered most important after the holdings at the Esherick Museum. The LongHouse Collections include both World’s Fair tables, the monumental Arch from the Curtis Bok house, a rare bench of painted softwood as well as tables, a music stand, library ladder, and cubist mirror.

On loan from the Wharton Esherick Museum, where Larsen served on its board, are wood block prints, sculpture, Esherick’s finest library ladder, and a chronology of photographs.

To further appreciate the genius of Wharton Esherick, we urge you to visit the Esherick Museum in Paoli, PA, as our museums share reciprocal membership.

The exhibition is made possible with the support of BNY Mellon Wealth Management.
LHR thanks the Wharton Esherick Museum for its generous loan of the master’s work.
On view thru October 8, 2011.

Statement By Martin Puryear

I am pleased to offer a few words about Wharton Esherick, whom I’ve admired ever since I first saw photos, many decades ago, of the iconic spiral staircase he created for his home in Pennsylvania.

Esherick was a genuine American pioneer. Like a character out of Walt Whitman, (a poet he admired) he was a prodigiously gifted artist/craftsman who opened up a new frontier in the field of unique, innovative, hand crafted furniture.

During the eight-plus decades he was alive Esherick singlehandedly pushed American handcrafted furniture design into the modern age. With the eye and hand of a sculptor he moved the idea of what a chair or table or cabinet could be past the massively rustic, even clunky forms one associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, into an era of streamlined, flowing, (sometimes cubistic) forms, and novel approaches to structure.

And by always remaining steadfast in his vision as artist he succeeded in his stated goal of creating forms in furniture which are the aesthetic equal of his works of sculpture.

Indeed, in addition to being a furniture maker and a life long sculptor Wharton Esherick was also a painter, a graphic artist, and when the occasion demanded it, an inspired architect.

Despite his parents’ initial disapproval he trained as an artist, and moved early from painting to making woodcut prints, then sculpture in wood. Finally, out of necessity he began to build furniture for his own family, then for a few friends, and soon for a rapidly expanding circle of clients.

However much his furniture met functional and structural requirements Esherick was always first and foremost a sculptor, a form giver, and this is what gives his work its vitality and originality.

And it’s also why Esherick, who was a self-taught woodworker, began sometime in the 1920’s to work with a trained cabinetmaker named John Schmidt, a man who had the technical expertise to execute the often demanding forms Esherick created. This collaboration freed Esherick to concentrate on creativity while Schmidt took care of the execution of the more technically challenging work. And it’s responsible for one of the strengths of Wharton Esherick’s furniture – even at their most creative and free as design conceptions they have a structural integrity rooted in the demanding discipline of shaping and assembling solid wood boards and sticks into objects which are robust as well as beautiful.

Looking over Wharton Esherick’s career one can say that his early paintings, done in an impressionistic style, were accomplished, and his subsequent woodcuts were bolder and more original. His sculpture was where he began to find his voice as an artist, but it was in his furniture that his creativity found its fullest expression.

Wharton Esherick’s output was enormous, and enormously varied.

Like Alexander Calder, Esherick’s work was frequently whimsical. And like Calder, Esherick throughout his life made small things for domestic use – solutions on a minor scale to life’s necessities.

He could work with the most massive timbers in his sculpture and in his designs for interiors, but he also created furniture of extraordinary delicacy and lightness, exploiting the great tensile strength of certain woods, such as in his chairs of hickory and rawhide.

From coat hooks and woodenware for the kitchen to the design of

an entire house – and everything in between – his work always bears the trace of his unquenchable optimism and his endless search for new form.

All of this is evidence of a life immersed in deeply absorbing joyful daily work. The gift of that joy lives on in the pleasure we take in it today.

Especially today.

Martin Puryear