By DONALD KUSPIT, January 2021
The problem is that it’s not meant for sitting, but for viewing. You can buy a kit with its components, but when you put them together you realize you don’t have a chair but an object d’art, aesthetically interesting, even emotionally engaging by reason of the colors—the abrupt contrast of red and blue, antithetical and irreconcilable, as Kandinsky argued in “On The Spiritual in Art,” giving the work a dialectical flair, the touch of yellow adding a bit of spice, the blackness of the arms and legs giving the chair a certain regal, intimidating presence, suggesting that the chair is a kind of throne—a somewhat attenuated throne compared to the grandly ornamental thrones fit for traditional royalty, for the whole chair is minimalist, that is, composed of a few basic colors, planes, and lines, which is what the black arms and legs are in principle. Rietveld’s chair is not only minimalist, but uncomfortable, not to say “anti-body,” its inorganic geometry profoundly at odds with the organic body. It may be a modernist masterpiece, but it is not fit for human use, which it claims to be by calling itself a chair rather than simply a masterpiece of abstract art, worthy of a museum but not for a living room, for it is dead—the corpse of a chair, as its black arms and legs suggest, the red, blue, and yellow embalming it.
Originally designed in 1917, the colors added ca. 1923, Rietveld’s chair epitomizes De Stijl’s idealism, not to say utopianism, climaxing in Mondrian’s geometrical abstractions, Mondrian carrying De Stijl minimalism to a reductionist extreme, its visionary naivete—fortified by arrogance--epitomized by Mies van der Rohe’s paradoxical remarks “less is more” and “God is in the details.” I don’t know if God is in the details of Rietveld’s exemplary chair, although I do think that the few colors and planes give it more aesthetic punch and abruptness, sensational presence, so that it seems eternally immediate, all the more paradoxically so because the colors and geometry are timeless. But having sat in one I do know that it is unfit for human use--painful to sit in, all the more so because its robot-like look and shape are an insult to the human body, its essentialist aesthetic an insult to the existential truth of the human body.
The chair’s asceticism is an insult to the human body it is meant to support, above all to the back that leans against its back as well as the buttocks placed on its seat. The human back and buttocks are curved, the back and seat of the Rietveld chair are straight. The chair is altogether inhospitable, not to say a menace to one’s health, and as such oddly inhumane: a triumph of modernist abstraction, all the more so because it was innovative for its time, indeed, set a standard (which is why it has become standardized), but a disaster from a use point of view, indeed unhealthy, even life-threatening for the human being who sits in it regularly. It is painful to sit in—painful to one’s back, hard on one’s soft buttocks—even for a moment. At the least, it is not conducive to good posture, and thus to the general health of the body. It is upright and righteous, inflexible and ungiving, and as such peculiarly alienating however useful it claims to be, but it is not fit for human use. The human spine is curved and flexible, the back of the Rietveld chair is flat and inflexible. The human spine has five sections, the back of the Rietveld chair is one inflexible section. The human spine has 33 different bones—vertebrae—that interlock with one another to form the spinal column. The back of the Rietveld chair is one seamless, undifferentiated plane with no character—no complexity. It is a failure as a chair, however much it may be a success as art—of a certain kind of art, art claiming to be the one true art but false to the human concerns innate to art since antiquity, and even before. As such, the Rietveld chair exemplifies what Ortega y Gasset famously called the dehumanization of art, more pointedly what I would call its narcissistic insularity and with that its tendency to hermetic isolation, masquerading as transcendentalism, that is, so-called transcendental abstraction. As its impersonality suggests, the Rietveld chair is not really meant for personal use.
And it is anti-bourgeois—the hard-assed uncomfortable Rietveld chair was a cruel slap in the face of comfortable bourgeois furniture, more particularly the soft, comfortable Biedermeier sofa. The Biedermeier period in art lasted from 1815 to 1848--after the end of the Napoleonic Wars and before the Revolutions of 1848, the year the Manifesto of the Communist Party was published by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It was time of peace and contentment and security, at least for the bourgeois class. Private life and home comforts became seriously important. Biedermeier furniture, especially Biedermeier sofas, with their soft cushion pillow-like seats with their ornamental designs, became fashionable. They were at once decorative and useful, and as such homey. Biedermeier art was a domestic art, with no pretension to universality—which is what De Stijl, more broadly so-called pure abstract art, had. The Rietveld chair was a deliberate nihilistic attack on bourgeois art and domestic intimacy: it substituted a homeless art—an art claiming to be universal and utopian and so at home nowhere—let us recall that “utopia” means “no place” and “nowhere”—for a bourgeois art that helped make a space a home, and a comfortable, happy one at that. The Rietveld chair’s uncomfortableness and anonymity epitomized modernist rejection of bourgeois private values. It was a revolutionary declaration of independence from the bourgeois life-style, a dismissal of the comforts of home for the homeless independence of the modern artist, his abstract art emblematic of his alienation from society in general let alone the bourgeois in particular. It seemed classless—above the tribulations of class warfare. But in social fact it was a new upper class art—an art not for the petite bourgeois nor for the working class on the revolutionary march since the failed revolutions of 1848, but for the new capitalist aristocrats that emerged from the industrial revolution. One only has to look at the ultra-modern house—essentially a three-dimensional geometrical abstraction--Rietveld designed and built for the well to do socialite Truus Schröder-Schräder in Utrecht. Similarly Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, 1928-1930 was designed for Fritz and Greta Tugendhat. The Tugendhats were a family of textile and oil industrialists. Only the rich can afford avant-garde architecture, not to say high modernist art.
Rietveld began his career as a furniture maker, but was also an architect who exhibited at the Bauhaus; the Red Blue Chair is a constructivist sculpture meant for exhibition in a museum however nominally a chair meant for a home. The Schröder-Schräder House and the Villa Tugendhat have become museums, perhaps because they weren’t exactly homes—homey and comfortable to live in, and with that emotionally comforting. Mies also designed furniture for the upper classes—furniture meant to be showpieces rather than domestic-friendly. The house became a total work of abstract art—indeed, a tour de force of avant-garde art, not to say publicity for it--rather than a place to live in privately. So much for the avant-garde artist’s anti-bourgeois attitude—rejection of bourgeois values—and the superficiality of the idea that the avant-garde revolution had something in common with a social revolution. Only the rich can afford avant-garde architecture, not to say hermetically superior modernist art, confirming their sense of separateness and superiority. Rietveld’s chair has the same minimalist trimness—predicts it—and designer quality as the cellphone, the same look of efficiency and spareness. But the cell phone is a means of communication, Rietveld’s chair has no instrumental value. Form supposedly follows function in such modernist works, but Rietveld’s chair has no function. however formally ingenious and aesthetically exciting, dynamic and dramatic, indeed, self-dramatizing. It’s a self-conscious actor on a social stage—a sort of stage prop in the theater of the rich, famous and notable and newsworthy as they are by reason of association with them—by reason of the fact that they are their property--toys for the rich, trophies testifying to their success. Like a glamorous Hollywood actress, Rietveld’s chair looks sexy but is frigid. WM
Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.view all articles from this author