By JONATHAN GOODMAN December 14, 2023
Ettore Sottsass, the highly gifted Italian artist and designer active during the 20th century, was the subject of a show at Friedman Benda, the noted design gallery in Chelsea. Sottsass, an inspired jack of all trades, is represented in this show by furniture–wall dividers and bureaus–and by paintings and drawings,some of them of a schematic nature. Sottsass worked at a time when the connections between fine art and design were relatively loose and echoed each other in unusual, and successful, ways, as classically modernist form. Even so, it is rare to come across so strong an artist, whose output was formally successful across several genres.
In truth, the gallery is slightly small for the installation, whose walls and elegant furniture tend to take over the space. At the same time, we must remember Sottsass’s double role as fine artist and interior designer; the sculptures and two-dimensional works lead to an amalgam in which the smaller creative works fit nicely into the large niches of the dark-brown furniture creations, which, in a creative sense, hold their own against the more artistic innovations of Sotsass’s innovative, creative mind. By combining the two genres, the artist finds a context for his drawings, which benefit from a context at least as original as the work oriented onward the fine art.
The artist's drawings can be patterned; there is one work. A drawing made in April 1967 is divided into five segments by simple lines. Set horizontally across the lines are roughly identifiable tower-like figures presenting an uncomplicated form, drawn in rather unkempt fashion. Simply rendered hydrants, glass tower forms, and even a ziggurat line occupy the five levels (the images are produced by pen). The examples of works that move upward, whose force depends on height to volume ratio, point to an artistic bearing whose origins may well be functional. The objects are straightforwardly offered, in their presentation, almost as if they were illustrating a small dictionary of discrete forms.
A beautiful furniture piece consists of a walnut stand of six drawers.In the middle of each drawer is a small, rounded handle, giving proportion and regularity. “Eliadue” Bed of the Mobili Grigi Series (1970), made of resin reinforced with fiberglass, consists of two white pillows, supported by dark green bolsters, with a very grassy-looking green throw over the body of the bed. The sides are gray; thin, diminutive steps rise up like miniature stairs. It is a modernist work of art that retains its newness as a practical design, even though it is more than a half-century old.
Sottsass’s Yantra 20 (1969) is a beautifully designed, frontally oriented ceramic work; its pattern consists of a set of “V’s” moving downward to a square pedestal. The work is then set on a white wood base that lifts the sculpture waist-high. Half a nod to archaic culture, likely the Middle East, half a nod to the Art Nouveau period, in which pattern took precedence, Yantra 20 reminds the visitor that reticulated form has been active, and effective for a long time.
One of the best pieces in the show is the relatively simple Vase 635 (1969), a piece of red earthenware 20 inches tall. It consists of red circles that then indent less than inch to form another circle; this process takes place for the entire height of the piece. Occupying a space that is neither design nor fine art, Vase 635 does what Sottsass does best–arrange a middle ground, in which the art partakes of a kind of patterning and also suggests functional form. It is best seen as something decorative or functional, rather than esthetic in the usual sense. It is an excellent work of art..
Sottsass was the kind of artist we don’t find much now. Josiah McElheny’s glass works are terrific creatively, but his rigors take on an abstract bias, in which conscious design plays a large role. This happens even though he uses glass, traditionally accorded a decorative function.
But, over time, it becomes clear that Sottsass was a variously gifted artist, being genuinely accomplished in design, furniture especially, and painting and sculpture. It was a different moment when the artist worked; the previous century had introduced abstraction to the world, and it was dazzling. Then, elegance was key. The transformation of both linear and organic cohesion has been taken over by an anti-esthetic. Nuanced form is mostly gone. Of course, tastes change, but it was very nice to see a highly skilled designer, someone who found form and materials as a means of inspiration, and showed him at his best. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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