PRINT December 2006

Lynne Cooke

GIVEN HOW OFTEN emerging artists today take their cues from the ’60s generation, it was reassuring that there were several major exhibitions this year of work by artists who came to prominence in that period. Among the most memorable shows I saw were the well-researched, comprehensive Lee Lozano retrospective at the Kunsthalle Basel; Jean-Luc Godard’s enthralling intervention at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; the gemlike Eva Hesse exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York; and two standout contributions by Yvonne Rainer—namely her Dance Theater Workshop performance of AG INDEXICAL, with a little help from H. M., which melded dance, archaeology, and reconstruction in singular fashion, and her book Feelings Are Facts: A Life (MIT Press). A retrospective of the work of Poul Kjærholm at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, however, failed to garner the kind of attention and discussion generated by Lozano, Godard, et al. Yet their contemporary Kjærholm, who preferred the designation “furniture architect” to “designer,” is arguably as much a key figure in his field as these practitioners are in theirs.

If “Poul Kjærholm: Furniture Architect” was a sleeper it may in part be because many of his works are in fact too well known for a retrospective to arouse much anticipation. A classic of their kind, his leather upholstered daybeds (PK80, 1957), which have for decades served as benches in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (even after its expansion), are a case in point: They’re so much a part of the period style that they’re barely noticed, and their designer seldom identified. This combination of familiarity and ubiquity reinforces the impression that Kjærholm’s work was somehow predetermined, the deft resolution of a distinguished aesthetic lineage. The sense of an almost predictable rightness, though a prerequisite for his furniture’s cult status, ironically contributes to a widespread undervaluing of its maker’s accomplishment. Among the achievements of this extensive show was the undermining of such routine responses.

Intermingling sketches, technical drawings, prototypes, and finished models in diverse materials with video interviews and other forms of documentation, the exhibition, organized by the American architect Michael Sheridan, spanned Kjærholm’s career from his first designs in the early ’50s until his death in 1980. It began by tracing the two parallel tracks that distinguish his early work, in that he was at once artisan and industrial designer, as the contrast between his finely wrought customized furniture for the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and his concrete outdoor seating intended for mass production makes clear. Later, combining these two approaches, he evolved his own pared-down, refined idiom by reading the legacy of modernist giants such as Mies van der Rohe through the lens of his native Danish Arts and Crafts tradition. An initial preference for wood, in the tradition of his teacher Hans J. Wegner, soon expanded to encompass metal, in combination with such varied materials as canvas, flag halyards, leather, and woven cane. Whether working with metal or wood, he capitalized on thematerial’s pliancy and tensile strength, reducing the joints to a minimum, and making comprehensible and clear the simple connectives.

This delight in elegant technical solutions was accompanied by a keen eye for the ways in which the finished product was to be presented, and represented, in public. Among Kjærholm’s earliest commissions was a brief to design the exhibition layout for a show of work by the photographer Keld Helmer- Petersen in what seemed an entirely unsuitable space (an oversize, oddly shaped room in Copenhagen’s Charlottenborg Palace). The experience was transformative: Not only did Kjærholm solve the problem ingeniously and inexpensively, but he also came to realize the enormous potential offered by display techniques for staging and framing not just artworks but design objects. He introduced a simple linear structure whose intimate scale and staged sight lines enabled the exhibits to take on a degree of presence and purpose again. (And Helmer-Petersen became a friend, who would contribute to Kjærholm’s pioneering displays over the remainder of his life.)

Far from mystifying the working methods and conceptual premises of this exacting maker, the Louisiana Museum exhibition tried to make them as legible as possible. Its best feature, however, was its foregrounding of the exceptional degree to which Kjærholm cultivated the visual presentation of his finished work. In Poul Erik Tøjner’s preface to the generously illustrated catalogue, he argues that Kjærholm was motivated by a notion of site specificity, however paradoxical that might be, given that furniture normally fits more than one context: “Kjærholm had a fundamental belief that furniture should intervene as a defining factor in existing spaces and transform them into Places; rooms . . . where human relations can be clarified and rendered visible.” From 1959 to 1972, Kjærholm designed presentations, in the form of tableaux featuring his key works, for the Kold Christensen showroom in downtown Copenhagen, which served as a laboratory for distilling many of his ideas. Typically, his decor for this glass-fronted box, some thirteen feet deep, consisted of a large photomural (by Helmer-Petersen) of an abstracted natural scene plus a chaise or a sofa, a plant, and, perhaps, a light fitting. With their graceful refinement, these mise-en-scènes bring to mind certain settings in Antonioni’s films, minus the enervating languor.

More than most exhibitions of this kind, this retrospective sought to embody the vision of the designer in its own display techniques. It installed Kjærholm’s furniture, much of which is still readily available, directly in the viewer’s space, arranged as if for use, even in some cases with that generous degree of fluid space its ethos presupposes. But it was above all the focus on contextualization, provided by means of the photographic documentation of the great Danish designer’s innovative displays, that made this show so engaging, and so prophetic—except that today’s equivalent representations, are a debased decor, lacking the subtle simplicity and modesty that were Kjærholm’s hallmarks, and used to manufacture ersatz experiences.

Lynne Cooke is the curator of the Dia Art Foundation in New York.