New York

Robert Wilson and Scott Burton

Multiples/Goodman Gallery

When Matisse compared the appeal of his art to a soothing armchair he certainly had a very different kind of furniture in mind from the pieces exhibited recently by Robert Wilson and Scott Burton. Disquieting as “art,” their “furniture” occupies thought as it occupies space, confounding domesticated expectations of artifacts of repose and repast.

Pictorially, chairs and tables are no strangers to the history of art, as elements of genre representation or iconographic emblems. In recent years the actual objects have functioned narratively or anecdotally in the tableaux of Kienholz, Segal and numerous Pop artists. Lucas Samaras’ hallucinatory Chair Transformations seem to have fulfilled the destiny of furniture as magical object, within surrealist canons. And Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” have materialized the tables and chairs of Cubist collages as an eccentricity of the formalist tradition. If the pieces of Wilson and Burton do seem to have a lineage, however, it is in the “problematics” of “objecthood” in Minimalist sculpture.

Robert Wilson’s work is properly identified with theatrical history, particularly that early moment when ritual became spectacle and ceremonial instruments became “esthetic” relics. Displacing his furniture from the stage, for which it was created, to the gallery intensifies this ambiguity. Losing the specificity of their role in an event his pieces become detemporalized psychodramatic props—an occasion for an Experience, so drenched are they in aura. The cubelike wooden Overture Chair rests upon a square pedestal in a shallow square formed by large beams. Attached to the side of the chair, a sleek torch apparatus emits a blue propane flame like an eternal light. The squat architectonic purity and emphatically stable symmetry of the piece, with elemental associations of fire and water, project an image of archaic authority. But to the very extent Wilson’s hieratic imagination invests forms with atavistic resonance, it makes them unstable as objects, vulnerable targets for the viewer’s own imaginative dramatizations. From one moment to the next the illusion of Meaning may deflate, leaving the Overture Chair looking merely bombastic—a Bauhausian caricature of a pharaonic throne.

Less volatile in their aura are the two matching wooden Victoria Chairs. Similarly thronelike, they are more conventionally regal with their high back supports. Wilson has animated them with headlights inset in the tops of the vertical back posts and the four feet of each chair. Illuminating as they face each other across a room, each keeps the other covered in an adversary stand-off, like stalemated chess kings. Their dangling electrical cords and racklike rigidity convey the aspect of instruments of torture—an electric chair, or more macabre device. Such foreboding impressions are sustained as one continues to view the pair, seemingly signaling each other and sustaining their own circuit of hermetic communication.

Equally powerful, but wittier and more economical in achieving their effects, are the pair of Stalin Chairs—modestly scaled armchairs draped to the floor in clinging lead. Wilson fluently manipulates both the properties and associations of this base alchemical metal. Funereally shrouded, weighty and dimly reflective, the chairs exude a grave and malevolent air. The Stalin Chairs are, like the others, sacerdotal repositories—a menacing, anthropomorphic furniture which invests those ensconced in it with unearthly power. The viewer’s imagination is enticed to trespass in the unoccupied seats.

Other more recent stage furnishings in Wilson’s show predate the most sumptuous and lengthy spectacles. Generally smaller, lighter, airier, these are more secular constructions of banal industrial materials. Wire mesh, metal pipe, and plate pieces retain the archaic boxiness of the earlier mythopoeic contraptions but are fragile in their spareness. Just as Magritte made marvels of the mundane, Wilson suspends the relation of this furniture to gravity, rigging pieces to the ceiling and walls, approximately as they are named—Hanging Table, Flying Bench, etc. They derive a wholly visual metaphorical life from their appearance and presentation in the gallery, whereas the earlier, monumental chairs gain their poetic life metonymically from the imagined magic of sitting in them. As art forms in their own right the later pieces are stronger, but not necessarily as sculpture—rather they are a species of drawing, or sculptural ideogram. The lumbering grandiosity of Wilson’s earlier theater ideas achieves a kind of apotheosis in these later dematerialized structures. Inchoate with wonder, miraculous in staging, his gesamtkunstwerk performance art of the ’60s and early ’70s has yielded to more diagrammatic and visually compact theatricalizations of concepts. The evolution of his furniture is very much a measure of this transition.

If it can be said that Wilson’s furniture is rhetorical then Scott Burton’s tables and chairs are surely laconic. Known also for his performance art—spare, socio-conceptual enactments, such as the Behavior Tableaux—Burton has conceived and designed his furniture specifically for gallery display, public acquisition, and, according to the gallery dealer, for conventional use as furniture. What is one to make, then, of his shiny black, oversized scallop-legged table with 14 coats of lacquer, so virtuosic in its artisanship and irreducible to anything but furniture? One possibility is that Burton is apostrophizing the identity of artifact as art. He exploits our functional recognition of furniture while forcing our awareness of the object’s caricaturelike distortion of proportions and exaggeration of surface.

In the free thought zone of the art gallery context Burton’s pieces also provoke ruminations on furniture as a category of thought. Concepts themselves are like a kind of mental furniture, very much cerebral “movables,” according to the dictionary, “used for making a room [the mind?] ready for occupancy or use.” Yet other furniture pieces by Burton, not in this show, have expressed ideas better. A very archetypal table in a Whitney Museum exhibition was so essentially the thing in itself that it ceased being a thing—Plato might have decreed it Tableness.

But Burton seems to have lost patience with this post-Minimalist dialogue between “art and objecthood.” His epistemological realism has digressed into trivial considerations. Another work in the show, a runt-sized oblong table spattered and speckled in multiple hues, calls too much attention to its surface, and hence the irrelevance of the form as object. As with the elaborately finished black lacquered table, Burton is infatuated with a manner of crafting, a display of effect. Restless, perhaps, with the rigor of the concept of the irreducible object, his mannerism now passes for the idea of his form. That is, the art concept of this furniture (and presumably the reason it is in a gallery rather than a showroom) is a setting in relief of artisanship as end-in-itself behavior.

The great weakness of Burton’s work in this show (though less so of two handsomely too large, subtly anthropomorphized lawn chairs called Chair, Edition of 2) is a traditional feature of most mannerist art—a self-conscious attempt to charm. Much as the black and speckled tables do intrigue as objects, and raise some interesting questions as to why they exist (though this is interesting mainly because one usually doesn’t ask such questions of commonplace furniture), the pieces are preciously and weakly contrived. As “furniture” or “art,” they inspire mistrust of any concept that may account for their presence in a gallery. Engaging the mind without cloying the senses seems to be a most difficult course for Burton, now that the making of the furniture has become a parameter of meaning as well as behavior.

Richard Lorber