Wharton Esherick (1887-1970): American Woodworker

First Major Esherick Exhibition and Sale of Furniture and Prints at Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia: May 3 Through July 20, 1996


“Esherick taught me that the making of furniture could be a form of sculpture;

(January 1996)

Philadelphia, PA … For the first and perhaps only time, a major exhibition and sale of furnishings and woodcut prints by Wharton Esherick, deemed by many to be the most important American woodworker of the 20th century, will be presented in Philadelphia. The pieces on display represent a significant portion of Esherick’s entire output and display the full range of his artistry. Most have come from the original owners and have never before been exhibited or available for purchase.

“Wharton Esherick (1887-1970):  American Woodworker” will be on exhibit from May 3 through July 20, 1996 at the Moderne Gallery, 111 N. Third Street in the Old City section of Philadelphia. According to Robert Aibel, owner of the Moderne Gallery, this is an extraordinary opportunity to appreciate and purchase the work of Esherick, whose sculptural treatment of wood made him the ‘father’ of modern American craft furniture.

A retrospective Esherick exhibit was held at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York in 1958, several one-man print shows were held in galleries, and selected works have been included in major museum exhibitions over the years. However, there has never before been an offering of this scope. Approximately 35 pieces of his work, primarily from Esherick’s most influential period (the 1950’s and ’60’s), and more than 75 different print images (1923-1933) will be in the Moderne Gallery show.

This exhibition and sale has been made possible by a unique circumstance: many of Wharton Esherick’s one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture, lighting fixtures, household utensils, sculpture, architectural elements, paintings and woodcut prints have become available at the same time.

Since Esherick’s death in 1970, several of his most important patron/collectors have passed away, or have grown older and moved to smaller residences. In addition, interiors that Esherick designed for particular homes have been dismantled. In some cases, the furniture has been handed on to children and grandchildren. Now they (or their heirs) are offering exceptional pieces for sale through the Moderne Gallery.

I am excited that the Moderne Gallery will be presenting this show,” said Aibel. “I believe that Wharton Esherick, though well-known to museum curators nationally and to many in the Philadelphia region where he lived and worked, has not been given his due as the man Sam Maloof called ‘the dean of American craftsmen.’ We hope this exhibition will bring new light to his importance and influence in 20th century design.”

Robert Edwards, who is an acknowledged expert on Esherick and has served as a representative for Esherick patrons for many years, is collaborating on the exhibition with Aibel.

“Wharton Esherick’s pioneering influence on Wendell Castle, Arthur Espenet Carpenter, Sam Maloof and scores of today’s designer-craftsmen is profound,” says Edwards. “He provides the bridge between the Arts and Crafts Movement and modern Art Furniture. Esherick believed in a style that was a life style, and was one of the forerunners in maintaining the handcraft tradition in the 20th century, in the face of booming industrialization.”

The centerpiece of the Moderne Gallery exhibit will be the asymmetric hickory table with black phenol top and four hickory chairs with rawhide seats that Esherick created for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, for the “America at Home” play designed with architect George Howe. The suite is an exquisite example of Esherick’s use of geometry and space in his designs and is acknowledged as a masterpiece. Edwards refers to this suite as “the linchpin of Esherick’s career, linking his early geometric work to his later organic style.”

Other historically significant works on display at the Moderne gallery will be a large oak archway and a part of the library (with sofa and drop-lid desk) from the home of Judge Curtis and Nellie Lee Bok, located in suburban Philadelphia. In the 1930’s, Esherick designed and constructed the interiors of the Bok house, called “one of America’s outstanding interiors” by the Britannica Encyclopedia of American Art. Years later, elements of the Bok house were distributed to family members and, when the house was dismantled, some rooms were purchased by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Wharton Esherick (1887-1970):  American Woodworker” will include a broad collection of seating, table and chairs, cabinetry, lighting, sculptures, and bowls. There will also be examples of his famous three-legged stool, library steps and hammer handle chair. Most of these pieces are from the 1950’s and ’60’s, when Esherick had moved from the cubist shapes of his earlier work to the sensuous, flowing style that characterized most of his mature work.

“Some of my sculptures went into the making of furniture,” wrote Esherick. “I was impatient with the contemporary furnishings being made — straight lines, sharp edges and right angles — and I conceived free angles and free forms; making the edges of my tables flow so that they would be attractive to feel or caress.”

Prints will be a major feature of the show, including at least one copy of almost every Esherick woodcut. Individual prints as well as complete sets of the illustrations for Tristram and Iseult (1931), Walt Whitman’s Song of the Broad Axe (1924) and The Song of Solomon (1927) will be available.

Prices for the woodcuts will range from $1,000 for individual prints to $6,000 for complete sets. The furniture and decorative pieces will range from $3,500 for a three-legged stool to $150,000 for the World’s Fair suite.

Today Wharton Esherick is represented in major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the American Craft Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Delaware Art Museum, the Carnegie Institute, the Solfsonian, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. His home/studio in Paoli, PA (suburban Philadelphia), a national Historic Landmark for Architecture, parts of which he developed with the help of his friend the great architect Louis Kahn, was opened to the public in 1972 by his family and friends at the Wharton Esherick Museum.

Esherick received several prestigious honors, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Regional Sculpture Prize (1951), the Architectural League of New York Gold Medal of Honor (1954), and the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal (1971, posthumously).

For further information on “Wharton Esherick (1887-1970):  American Woodworker,” call the Moderne Gallery at 215-923-8536.

 

The Moderne Gallery is nationally known among designers, architects, collectors and museums for its top quality French and American Art Deco and Moderne decorative arts, and for its special presentations of classic and unusual 20th century design. In the past four years the gallery has received special recognition for its exhibits of Ruba Rombic art glass, French ’40’s and ’50’s furniture, furniture by George Nakashima, and a presentation illuminating the origins of Modernism in English Arts and Crafts. Owner Robert Aibel is a scholar and art historian who has been dealing in antiques since 1979. His own interest in Art Deco led to his current specialization.

Robert Edwards, who originated the idea for this exhibition, has lectured and written extensively about the Arts and Crafts Movement in America and is particularly knowledgeable about Wharton Esherick. He edited and published Tiller, a bi-monthly devoted to the study of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He was the furniture consultant for the exhibition and contributed an essay to the catalog for The Art That is Life: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America 1875-1920 (1987, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). He also curated Life By Design: The Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony (1984, Delaware Art Museum).

Photos are available
Interviews with Robert Aibel and Robert Edwards may be arranged through Resnick Communications at 215-893-0204