Like a Gift for Someone You Love

The Furniture Art of Judy Kensley McKie by Arthur C. Danto (excerpt)

In the Fall of 1974, a group of New York artists, disaffected with what they perceived as mainstream art, began to meet in one another’s studios to discuss the status of decoration. The movement known as “Pattern and Decoration” – more slangily, “P&D” – produced a body of defiantly decorative art, and by time the movement waned in the early 1980s, the kind of art it had been opposed to had itself long since lost its energy. Mainstream art in the mid-seventies was largely understood in terms of Minimalism and Conceptualism, the last true movements of Modernism, as conceived by Clement Greenberg, the most influential critic of his day. Greenberg characterized modernism as driven by an agenda of self-criticism: each of the arts must purge its practice of whatever was not essential to the medium through which it was defined. “Thus would each art be rendered ‘pure,’ and in its ‘purity’ find the standards of its quality as well as its independence.” Interestingly, Greenberg’s program was as pertinent to high craft in the 1960s as it was to mainstream fine art. Furniture makers, for example, identified wood as their defining medium, and formulated an aesthetic based on its inherent properties – “the woodiness of the wood” as it was sloganized. The ceramist Peter Voulkos applied to clay the same attitudes he found in the handling of paint by the Abstract Expressionists, whose attitudes Greenberg’s own materialist aesthetic was felt to reflect.

In the end, the pursuit of purity proved to have less to do with the essence of art than with a particularly narrow style. The reductiveness of Minimalism, rather than an imperative, was merely an option for those with a taste for heavy theory and visual austerity. But that meant that the ideals of Pattern and Decoration were options as well. Many of the P & D artists were women, engaged by the fact that decoration characterized many practices traditionally regarded as feminine, like quilt-making. And many of them were impressed by the universality of decoration in cultures other than their own. Feminism and multiculturalism perhaps gave some artists reasons for making decoration central in their own work, but it was far too universal an aesthetic interest to require reasons. With the end of modernism, everything was open to everybody.

At the same time that the P and D artists were beginning to formulate their attitudes toward decoration, the Boston painter and furniture maker, Judy Kensley McKie, began to look for way to introduce decoration into the somewhat spare furniture she had been making, at first for her own use, and than as a kind of day job while she painted.

"When my husband and I got out of school, we were both painting and we were living in a completely bare apartment in Cambridge without a stick of furniture to sit on. There was nothing we could afford to buy. So I just started making things that we needed. It was very circumstantial, there was no plan to it at all. I did not originally plan to make a career out of it."

Her furniture was minimalist in substance if not in theory. It was utilitarian and functional, and though this was somewhat dictated by circumstance, one cannot discount the prevalence of an aesthetic of simplicity in the fifties and sixties, which was embodied almost as a moral injunction in modernism as a style. But then, around 1975, her work began to change.

"When I first started making furniture I was really doing it as a job. I wasn’t thinking about an audience. I was just thinking about who might need what. I made bookcases and kitchen cabinets, and that satisfied me for a long time. When the work started to change, when I wanted to make it more personal by carving and decorating, it began to move outside the area where I had been selling it, so I had to convince people who were coming to me for bookcases that they wanted decorated bookcases instead of plain ones, and I offered to make them for the same price. If they gave me the chance to decorate … [I] would give them the art for free!"

McKie clarifies the meaning she attaches to the term “personal” as follows. “Every once in a while I would see a small hope chest or something with a very intimate feeling about it. For example, a Pennsylvania Dutch box that was carved with a daughter’s name on it. Very, very personal objects. I said this is what I needed … more like a gift for someone that you love.” Her own work at that, she says, was very sterile, and “what I saw around me was very sterile.” The idea of art as a gift for someone you love, rather than an object that satisfies an abstract theory, is very powerful, and it recapitulates what I would suppose was the feeling of dissatisfaction that motivated the rather more ideological artists in P and D. When I asked her whether she had known about the Pattern and Decoration artists, she laughingly replied that she hadn’t known about anything! It is perhaps the mark of a true movement that artists begin to do the same kinds of things while unaware of one another’s existence.

It is very affecting that McKie began by making some simple pine boxes, and then drawing pictures on their tops, which she proceeded to carve – as if she were making gifts. And this may have seemed a way of combining her two interests, painting and furniture making: “I was suddenly doing the drawings on piece of wood.” The post-modernist architects, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown found reason to celebrate a kind of vernacular building they characterized as “decorated shacks.” In a way, Judy McKie had found her way to what one might call the “decorated case..” It was, however, a limited solution, falsely implying that decoration is something that is merely added to furniture. What she was seeking was a way of relating furniture and decoration internally to one another, and perhaps the box itself was too limited a form for such artistic purposes. In the work she went on to do, the object and the decoration were to emerge together as a single entity, to the point that they could not easily be separated even in thought. “Making a piece includes a lot of activity and process that artists would go through also, even though what I’m making is definitely furniture,” she said to one interviewer. “I don’t necessarily want art with a capital ‘A’ – whatever that is,” she told another. “But I want the art-making process.” Both as product and process, her work became art and furniture together.

In virtue of this, she found herself to be a member of a new generation of studio furniture makers, who were making furniture as an art. Nothing more decisively situates McKie as belonging to a new generation than her attitude to wood. “The wood is important, but the wood is not the idea,” she told Alfonse Mattia in 1983. “I think that if you’re going to make something powerful, it has to do more than say ‘Hey. I’m a beautiful piece of wood.” It at once goes with her natural pragmatism – and the pluralism of the times in which she came of age as an artist - that she uses many different kinds of materials, including bronze. “I can do things in metal I couldn’t do in wood. Metal gives a sense of permanence and age.” Metal of course also it makes it possible for her to make editions of her pieces.

I first encountered Judy McKie’s work when I was invited to participate in a panel at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, organized in connection with a remarkable exhibition - New American Furniture: The Second Generation of Studio Furniture Makers - which I wrote about in The Nation under the explicit title “Furniture as Art” in 1989. My title was intended to provoke. Despite the pluralism that made decoration artistically acceptable, there remained, a decade later, a certain conceptual resistance to functional objects as fully enfranchised works of art. Consider another exhibition of the same year: Making Their Mark: Women Artists Enter the Mainstream. 1970-1985. The show included a number of P and D artists - Valerie Jaudon, Joyce Kozloff, Miriam Schapiro, and others. Judy McKie was not included, nor were any of the woman furniture artists from New American Furniture – Wendy Murakama, for example, or Kristina Madsen. Many of the P and D women artists did in fact make functional objects – such as tiles and painted furniture. They were not chosen as part of Making Their Mark for these efforts, however, but for what would have been acknowledged as – well –art. The mainstream in 1989 was definitely open to decoration, but not quite open as yet to functional objects. The prejudice against functionality has an old and stubborn history. Like decoration, which has after all been so integral in so many artistic traditions including our own, it cannot for long impede the widest acceptance of the genre that Judy McKie and so many other artisan-artists have carried to such heights.