New York

Ettore Sottsass

Blum Helman Gallery

Ettore Sottsass is 70 years old this year. Normally, this kind of biographical data is of only secondary importance. But there is prejudice against age in our culture, along with a widespread misapprehension that creative force is compressed into a brief, early period in what is often a very long life. When a remarkable individual such as Sottsass comes along, he stimulates in us a sense of guilt for our biases as well as a genuine desire to reform. As demonstrated by this exhibition, Sottsass is still filled with vigor and vitality. Unfortunately, he is also susceptible to the same seductive impulses as younger artists and designers. The wonderfully inventive and rebellious work that Sottsass did for Memphis and Studio Alchymia in the late ’70s and early ’80s has become formulaic. This process of devolution happens all the time but is particularly noticeable when an innovator temporarily takes this route. The sensibility that generated the spontaneous iconoclasm of Memphis is not completely absent in these works. The use of collage, the juxtaposition of unusual materials and forms, and a delight in contradiction are still in evidence here, but the maverick spirit has softened. Moreover, his commitment to mass-produced objects has yielded to the desire to make one-of-a-kind pieces.

Sottsass’ new furniture designs (all 1987) are extraordinary objects—tables, chairs, desks, curio cabinets, mirrors, credenzas, and sideboards, with their function minimized and their form and esthetic aspirations maximized. Some of these, because of their complexity, enormous scale, and presence, are more like environments than furniture; they occupy the space in a room like formidable and aggressive roommates. Martin Filler insists in his catalogue essay that Sottsass is a designer who would like his objects to be perceived and used not as precious, sculptural elements but as furniture. However, the disclaimer seems too strong; it comes across as a veiled admission that the opposite may be true. (The fact that Sottsass has given each of the new pieces a title, frequently tongue-in cheek or literary, only reinforces their status as art objects.)

A writing desk entitled I Designed It for Pitagora combines a variety of materials in a constructivist collage, with writing surfaces consisting of partly overlapping planes of wood (natural pear and a reconstituted wood-burl veneer called Alpi Radica) set at various angles to one another. They rest on lacquered wooden columns (ash) that vary in length and circumference and that stand on rectangular and cylindrical marble pedestals. The color scheme is rather subdued, with red, maroon, and natural wood planes and black, gray, and white supporting elements. Just Back from New Guinea is a combination desk/sideboard in which the desk (with built-in side drawers) supports a heterogeneous collection of shelving units and cabinets, complete with its own zone lighting. The desk is of ash stained pale blue, with the other elements in yellow, red, brown, and gray. Two of these are lacquered wood, and the other two are of different kinds of Alpi veneers with marvelous contrasting wood grains. There is a robust arbitrariness to this composition, as if its configuration were based on happenstance rather than on calculation. Sottsass’ chair designs seem more moderate in comparison. One entitled In Praise of Epicurus, made of large-grain Alpi, vat-dyed either red or gray, is clear and precise, and achieves complexity in an entirely different way.

Breakthroughs and revolutionary ideas almost always become conventions—some more quickly than others. This exhibition is the apotheosis of Memphis and Studio Alchymia. Although their trademark vulgarity and plastic laminates are all but gone here, many of the forms are the same. However, without the clashes of bold patterns, of plastic and precious surfaces, the visual experience seems tame and slightly compromised. This work is not a turning point but a turning in. The exploratory agenda of Memphis has crystallized, and there is stillness where there was once animation and tension. In the past, Sottsass’ work has tested assumptions and raised expectations; it has been a forum for critique. With this exhibition of furniture, the critique has been temporarily suspended.

Patricia C. Phillips