Notes from the Field

  • by Ken Ames
  • February 25, 2014

The Great Chair Exhibition

The great chair exhibition has come and gone. I am referring here to the exhibition of sixteen mid-eighteenth-century chairs that took place at Bernard & S. Dean Levy on East 84th Street from January 20 through February 3 of this year. Organized by Philip D. Zimmerman, a familiar name in American furniture studies, the show was both a response to recent claims about the regional origins of the chairs and an exercise in the rigorous use of evidence. In other words, it dealt with matters both specific and general, microcosmic and macrocosmic.  Exhibitions like this should happen more often. 

The immediate impetus for the installation was an article published in the journal American Furniture arguing that a group of chairs sharing certain design and construction characteristics and long associated with New York actually emanated from Boston.[1] Zimmerman and Frank Levy did not find arguments supporting the claim persuasive and thus this exhibition. Zimmerman’s slender text written to accompany the chair display refutes directly if perhaps too briefly arguments laid out in the article.[2] Those who wish to follow the entire exchange should read the article and Zimmerman’s essay and decide for themselves, although now that the exhibition is over, much of the visible evidence assembled on 84th Street has been dispersed. For myself, I found the exhibition at Levy’s persuasive, although I may not have been an impartial judge.  

Beyond the specifics of the argument about origins, however, several aspects of the event merit mention. First, it is surprising, at least to those outside the inner circle of furniture historians, that the origins of a significant body of American eighteenth-century furniture can still be in dispute. Weren’t such matters resolved decades ago? Irving Lyon published Colonial Furniture of New England in 1891; American furniture scholarship is well into its second century. Yet knowledge remains partial. Lyon focused only on New England.  Others have concentrated on Philadelphia. Early New York, for a variety of reasons both historical and contemporary, has been comparatively under-studied. To outsiders, the emphasis on determining origins may seem a strange fixation, considering that other areas of material culture study have taken different routes. Yet unmoored objects, adrift in time and space, are of limited use as historical documents and provide unstable foundations for historical narratives. Perhaps more to the point, objects that cannot be named cannot, in a sense, even be thought. Until these objects are definitively fitted into the intellectual structure of furniture scholarship, they will remain more or less hidden in plain sight.       

Second, it is worth noting that the event provided an occasion not only for critically reviewing the evidence for the origins of the chairs but also, more generally, for providing an exercise in evidence analysis. Needless to say, such is not the normal fare of exhibitions. It isn’t even the normal fare of furniture scholarship. One might think that testing claims and hypotheses would be routine, but in this small field of study opinions often go unchallenged and declaration too readily becomes truth. Again, less important than the details of the evidence in this particular exhibition was the demonstration of method, subjecting each claim to careful, even cautious scrutiny and critically analyzing underlying assumptions.

Third, as an essential part of that process, the exhibition juxtaposed like objects with like. Actually, it juxtaposed nearly like with nearly like, since there were no identical twins in the mix. There is nothing new here, to be sure. The effect of this strategy in this particular instance was that similarities and dissimilarities within the group both became more pronounced. It was apparent that these chairs were members of a distinct and extensive group of furniture. The numerous variations, some subtle, some less so, suggested many hands at work, perhaps over a period of years. In any event, the installation of the chairs invited close examination and easy comparison, setting the stage for the little epiphanies that come with this kind of visual experience. Although I hadn’t recognized it before, I now see that part of the success of the exhibition was due to the way it enabled me and every other visitor to become an active participant in the inquiry. The exhibition did not preach or talk down. I now understand that the light touch of Zimmerman’s essay may have been strategic. A polemic, even if intellectually defensible, could have changed the nature of the exhibition experience, most likely in negative ways.

Fourth, the exhibition took place at a commercial site rather than a museum. Yes, this has happened before but it is nice to see it happen again. Although some fastidious souls might like to think otherwise, museums and the trade are parts of the same larger phenomenon and dealer/scholars have long made important contributions to study. It is a credit to the reputations of the Levy firm and Zimmerman that Winterthur, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, New York State Museum, and Van Cortlandt House Museum, as well a few private owners were willing to loan objects. (Four chairs and a mahogany desk and bookcase came from Levy inventory). Levy’s Upper East Side premises, somehow both cozy and opulent, provided a welcome alternative to the sometimes austere impersonality of museum installations. The space given over to the chairs was small, comfortable, and agreeably dense, framing an intimate encounter with a collection of intriguing objects.  Exhibitions don’t all have to conform to the same template or appeal to visitors by the thousands. Sometimes a special experience crafted for those most likely to appreciate it is just fine. The chair exhibition, I hasten to add, was open to the public. And admission was free.

Fifth, guess what? More chairs have turned up. Publish–or exhibit–and ye shall find. Zimmerman thought that he had located all relevant examples but it turns out that he did not. And so the plot may thicken. Perhaps some of the recently discovered chairs will hold clues to understanding the entire group. Or it may be that there are still more chairs out there somewhere that will. Perhaps what is now strongly likely may someday become certainty.


Kenneth L. Ames is professor of American and European decorative arts and material culture at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City.

 


[1] Leigh Keno, Joan Barzilay Freund, and Alan Miller, “The Very Pink of the Mode: Boston Georgian Chairs, Their Export, and Their Influence,” American Furniture 1996: 266-306.

[2] Philip D. Zimmerman, Boston or New York: Revisiting the Apthorp Family and Related Sets of Queen Anne Chairs (New York: Bernard & S. Dean Levy, 2014).  Zimmerman’s essay includes a bibliography of relevant studies, including a forthcoming article that lays out his argument in fuller detail.   

 


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