New York

Scott Burton

Max Protetch

The chair functions well as a metaphor for the dialectic between esthetics and function that forces all good design. Here the essential struggle and resolution must be crystallized in a familiar scale and object. Scale can make design appear impenetrable and incomprehensible (this is often the case in architecture), but the form of a chair is directly related to proportion and sensation. The design of a good chair is both ambitious and mundane; inevitably, one is going to want to stop looking at it and sit on it.

Some of Scott Burton’s pieces look like or seem inspired by chairs, others are in fact chairs. The difference is in the taut balance of idea and application. All Burton’s geometric granite furniture is meticulously crafted; placed around the gallery singly and in pairs, the pieces looked like small stone megaliths, rendered with patience and possibly endowed with collective meaning. Our culture suffers a great breach between iconography and utility, and it was a struggle for me, and for others in the gallery, to sit on the stone forms. Observation of viewers behavior confirmed this schism over and over again.

The most fascinating works are those composed of interlocking parts. One piece has six units which slide together to form a two-seated settee with a back and armrests. Carved from gray granite and polished to shimmering perfection, the piece has a stylish, minimal slickness appropriate for any forward-thinking C.E.O. It is an elegant, tongue-in-cheek construction. Three pink-granite, wedge-shaped elements can be assembled to make a reclining lounge; both lounge and couch are astonishingly comfortable as furniture once the psychological resistance to sitting in them is overcome. In these two pieces proportion works both esthetically and functionally, visually and tactilely. Other granite forms look very much like chairs as well, but are totalitarian in their esthetic precision and reject any lingering sitter. The psychological edge is so softened that the visual encounter is far more desirable than the physical experience.

Burton’s work is most interesting when he is making chairs that are also sculpture. A couch of unyielding granite is infinitely more charged than a sculpture that happens to look like a chair. The former anticipates and coaxes questions about the nature of furnishings, the conventions of beauty and utility, and the anxious relationship of art and design. The latter is an excursion into formalist composition lacking both content and comfort. Burton skis a slalom in which precision, agility, instinct, perception, and experience are all critical factors. It is this zigzag between what is presumed and what is desired that provides the interest in his best work. It is not enough to simply see and think about his work; physically touching it makes a difference, and perhaps all the difference. Without the perceptual gyrations between chair and sculpture, distance and intimacy, object and artifact, the work is austere minimalism. This exhibition had examples of both.

Patricia C. Phillips