by GLENN ADAMSON
Wood Turning in North America Since 1930 was the first proper exhibition I worked on. At the time I was a graduate student at Yale University, working under the supervision of Edward S. Cooke Jr. (known to his friends and students as just plain Ned). As part of my studies, he had arranged for me to take up an internship at the Yale University Art Gallery with the curator of American decorative arts there, Patricia E. Kane. By that time, my third year of graduate school, I had already learned a great deal from both Ned and Pat, particularly about early American furniture. It was fascinating to find out about regional variation, construction, wood selection, ornament, condition, and a hundred other relevant considerations. I could compare the experience, perhaps, to learning another language. I gradually came to understand the vocabulary; what had seemed nothing more than chairs, tables, and cabinets spoke to me now of the richness of human experience.
I guess I had hoped for more of the same when I took up the internship—that I would remain rooted in the eighteenth century. To my surprise, however, Pat revealed that I would be working with a fellow named Albert LeCoff from Philadelphia. He was, apparently, the world’s most enthusiastic advocate of something called wood turning, and we were going to do an exhibition about it. I was sent down to the International Turning Exchange (ITE) program to learn what it was all about. Before I knew it, I was swept up in Albert’s world. As with historic furniture, it was a world I’d known nothing about just a few months before. The difference was that this was a world of living people.
After I came back from the ITE, having managed to produce a couple of simple bowls, Pat, Ned, and I began working on the show. We were joined by the distinguished decorative arts historian Charles Hummel, who was then based at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library in Delaware. Albert took us all under his wing, explaining everything he knew about the recent history of wood turning from firsthand experience. I quickly came to realize that he was a major part of that history himself, not as a maker but as a tireless convener and organizer. I had heard the word impresario before, but I don’t think I had ever met one. One marker of his instinct toward collective endeavor is that Albert often talks about wood turning as a “field.” I took this for granted at the time, but now realize that this had been a leap of the imagination. Before Albert started to put people together, there was no field, really—just a few turners out there on their own. From him, I was learning about something social as well as artistic.
There were also, of course, others to learn from. The makers were particularly fascinating. I remember how intimidated I felt before meeting turners that Albert had described to me as great luminaries—Michelle Holzapfel, Mark and Mel Lindquist, Robyn Horn, David Ellsworth. Again and again I found these artists completely approachable and friendly (fig. 1). The turners were eager to welcome me, happy to talk. The same was true of the collectors and gallerists that I met, people who were not makers themselves but surrounded themselves with the material creativity of others. I formed friendships then that have lasted to today, through my various post-Yale moves to different jobs and different cities—Milwaukee, London, New York. As I have made exhibitions in
these places, I have often looked back on Wood Turning in North America Since 1930 as a model and an inspiration. In fact, looking back on it, I realize that I learned most of what I know about curating from that project. Since then it has mostly been a matter of refining, expanding, and applying those early lessons. The show opened up territory for others, too, not only for me. It gave a shapeless “field” a sense of its own history, a critical framework, and overdue recognition.
So I hope you will understand, despite what I am about to say, what a positive experience I had twenty years ago. I was truly fortunate. All the same, I have a bone to pick: I wanted that show to have a different title! Wood Turning in North America Since 1930 … it’s a mouthful, no? Admittedly, it’s descriptive. People knew exactly what the geographic and chronological parameters of the show were, and even if they did not know quite what wood turning was, they at least knew to ask. But I had another idea. I wanted to call it Circular Logic. Less to the point, certainly, but to me it felt more evocative, more magical. And it had some other things going for it too. The phrase would have emphasized the degree to which the dynamics of rotation determined artistic possibilities. The word logic I especially liked, for its suggestion of rigorous exploration.
I could see the counterarguments. Circular logic isn’t usually considered a good thing, for starters. It is something you point out during an argument, a structural fallacy, a way of knocking down your opponent. Also, as Albert noted at the time, wood turnings don’t actually have to be circular. Ornamental and multiaxis turning can produce elliptical and angled effects. But, what can I say? I was young, and I liked my title. I wanted to see it plastered on the front of the Yale University Art Gallery (not to mention the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Renwick Gallery, where the exhibition was also displayed). I satisfied myself with using Circular Logic as the title of my essay in the book, and there the matter rested.
Until now. Early this year, Albert called me up and informed me that it was the twentieth anniversary of WTINAS1930 (see what I mean about that title?). Apart from making me feel old, this immediately gave me a warm feeling of nostalgia and camaraderie. We chatted for a bit, and by the end of the conversation, we had agreed that we should celebrate the occasion with a new exhibition. I suggested a title, and this time Albert went for it: Wood, Revisited. Only two words, you’ll notice. It also has a nice double meaning, not only referring to the anniversary but also to the general idea of artistic reinterpretation of this most essential of artistic materials.
We also decided to offer a graduate student the chance to occupy a similar role to the one I had in 1996. Enter Anne Carlisle, currently working toward her master’s degree at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture (a title that makes WTINAS1930 look concise, but a great school nonetheless). Working closely with Albert and myself, Anne developed a theme for the show, concentrating particularly on processes that had not even existed twenty years ago. This brought a third meaning to the title. Equipped with new technology, today’s artists are revisiting the very possibilities of wood as a medium.
As the exhibition came into focus, Albert had the inspired idea of collaborating with the Clay Studio on a symposium entitled Technicalities (my title again—only one word!), which would look at the role of technique in contemporary practice. I have long felt that the material and conceptual aspects of creativity are inseparable, and that there is a long-standing prejudice—a kind of blind spot—when it comes to craft. The physical aspects of art and design, whether established or experimental, deserve equal consideration to purely intellectual and philosophical considerations; indeed, for most practitioners, they are inseparable, the one domain constantly informing the other.
Ironically, people working in fields like wood turning—which suffer from a feeling of exclusion from the art world—are often the most sensitive about discussions of technique, feeling that emphasizing the “how” of what they do can be marginalizing in itself. I hope that we may be getting past such attitudes. In my view, the ideal creative practice (in any medium) mixes craft and concept so completely that they feel like a single, unified act. Our collaborative symposium would explore these themes, not only in clay and wood, but across the board artistically. We would look particularly at how new techniques, such as digital fabrication, affect the relationship between idea and form.
This brings me back, full circle, to the lessons I learned from Ned, Pat, Charles, and Albert twenty years ago. In the process of putting that show together, I came to understand the value of focusing on a particular technique. Looking at wood turning became a way to investigate a diversity of issues, above and beyond the history of a field. It also taught me just how expansive the curator’s role is. It’s not just picking things out and putting them in a gallery. It requires organizational and diplomatic skills. It offers the opportunity for connoisseurship, by which one really understands a specific work in its depth. It demands interpretive skills—I often think that the best curators remember what it was like not to know anything about their subject, because that is the state of most of their visitors when they arrive.
I’ve been gratified to see Anne develop Wood, Revisited over the course of the past few months. I suspect she is a lot farther along than I was at her age, but apart from that, as I have seen her give confident shape to the exhibition, I’ve felt a strong sense of déjà vu. Whether Circular Logic was a good title or not—these things are subjective—there is one thing that I know for sure: Sometimes it’s wonderful when history repeats itself.