The Critical Mass

Wendell Castle’s assault on the standard definition

The standard definition of a chair or a table was merely a starting point for Wendell Castle. He had no interest in the school of “form follows function.”

The Rochester creator of the art furniture movement died Saturday afternoon at his home in Scottsville. He was far beyond a furniture designer. At the December opening reception of his retrospective, “Wendell Castle Remastered” at the Memorial Art Gallery, he was his usual artful figure. He cultivated a trim, designer-professor look in round eyeglasses and, as always, a superb jacket. Everyone wanted to talk to him, of course, and at 85 he was wearing down a little by the end of the evening. “That would never fit in my house,” I said to Castle, pointing to a nearby piece, a lamp that looks to be about 15 feet tall.

“It won’t fit in mine, either,” he said.

OK, so neither one of us lived in an airport hangar. The piece was made of a beautifully polished wood that bent upward at odd angles, like a paper clip that’s been twisted into a new shape, which is exactly how Castle came up with the form.

He’d worry about where it fits later. It’s all about the art of the piece. The anti-Ikea.

Don’t sit still. Art, and artists, keep our culture’s conversation moving forward. They embrace new ideas, study how to use new technology. Deep into his career, the woodworker was using robots to create his pieces.

A Kansas native who moved to Rochester in 1962 to teach at Rochester Institute of Technology, Castle wore life well. Besides his personal style, it could be seen in his collection of vintage automobiles, heard in his singing and guitar playing. And in his family. His wife, Nancy Jurs, creates ceramic and stoneware sculptures. Their son, Bryon Castle, is also an artist, and is in charge of the finishes on the furniture that emerges from the Scottsville workshop. Their daughter, Alison Castle, lives in Brooklyn, where she writes and makes films, including a documentary she’s completing on her father.

So the creative spark is passed on. Not just in the family. We are exposed to it as well, and are not even required to think about it hard if we don’t have the time, as we go about our daily tasks. Because the scale of the artistry of Castle and Jurs can be startling. Castle’s chairs that look like giant fungi stumbled upon during a walk in the woods. Jurs’ pieces that ooze the ancient vibe of ceremonial things dug out of the earth. This stuff challenges the imagination.

Too much for some institutions. To the dismay of many people, a few years ago Castle’s “Lunar Eclipse,” a towering abstract clock and Jurs’ monolithic “Triad,” both of which greeted visitors to Rochester International Airport, were quietly moved to a warehouse. And replaced by the standard definition of public-space messaging. Advertisements for Wegmans and law offices.

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