Wharton Esherick: Birth of the American Modern

Artist Wharton Esherick may be best known for his prismatic furniture, handmade spiraling staircase and iconic cherrywood music stand that now sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But how did Esherick go from being an illustrator and painter to becoming a world famous wood sculptor?

A new show considers Esherick’s artistic evolution, detailing his experiences with dance and the theater, his first attempts with wood—which would become his signature medium—and his friendships with some of the most creative people of his day, including writers Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser; print curator Carl Zigrosser; theater director Jasper Deeter; painter and ceramicist Henry Varnum Poor; and photographers Consuelo Kanaga and Marjorie Content.

Titled “Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern,” the show, on display through Feb. 13, 2011, is a collaboration between Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Architectural Archives, in conjunction with the Malvern, Pa.-based Wharton Esherick Museum and Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, Pa. The exhibit began as a small collection of lithographic prints—a show highlighting the relationship between Esherick and Dreiser, whose papers are archived at Penn.

“As we started to explore, we found more connections, more materials here,” explains Lynne Farrington, curator of printed books at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. “All of this turned into something much larger.”

Located on the ground floor Kamin Gallery, the show features some of Esherick’s carved wood blocks, book illustrations, sketches and sculptures from the 1920s and 1930s. Original photographs place Esherick’s work in a historical context. The show is organized by places and people most important and significant to Esherick—Fairhope, Ala., rural Pennsylvania, the shore, the Hedgerow Theatre and Dreiser’s house in New York.

Esherick worked in a wide variety of media throughout the decades, but often repeated images throughout his work, including a monkey that appears on a book jacket from the early 1920s, and then as a whimsical green sculpture; a centaur that appeared in signs, logos and as a sculpture for a bookstore; and whirling circles of dancers, influenced by Esherick’s time at the Gail Gardner-Ruth Doing Rhythms Camp in the Adirondacks.

“He seems entranced by certain images and things he comes back to,” says Andrea Gottschalk, exhibit designer for the Penn Libraries.
Esherick’s whimsy is also on display in the show. A colorful pink and green hand-drawn map of Barnegat Bay chronicles a trip that Esherick and Dreiser took to the Jersey shore.

“What a day it was for two overgrown children at the seashore,” reads one annotation. The piece is one of Gottschalk’s favorites: “It shows his sense of playfulness, but it’s art.”

That sense of playfulness is also evident in some pieces for which Esherick may be more well-known. The Kroiz Gallery features a handful of Esherick’s most beautiful and celebrated pieces, including the stunning Victrola cabinet from 1930 and accompanying sculpture from 1929, the 1928 Farmhouse Dining Set and the Dreiser table that is part of Penn’s collection. In Esherick’s 1930s work, “he’s using recycled materials—hammer handles, fragments from a bankrupt wheelwright—and is turning them into furniture,” says William Whitaker, curator and collections manger for the Architectural Archives. While Esherick doesn’t do this throughout his entire career, it helps to create, Whitaker says, a certain character of form that influences both his and others’ later work.

“This is an individual who really responded to what Philadelphia architects were exploring in the 1920s in terms of what it meant to be modern,” he adds. In fact, people like architect George Howe, who was at the center of this modern movement, sought out Esherick for his work and craftsmanship; Howe even asked Esherick to create an interior for the 1940 World’s Fair.

Esherick is being celebrated throughout the entire Philadelphia region, including at the Hedgerow Theatre—a frequent source of inspiration for the artist. Now through Oct. 10, the Theatre is performing Dreiser’s work, “An American Tragedy.” The Philadelphia Museum of Art, whose long-time director, the late Anne d’Harnoncourt, was a fan of Esherick’s work, has installed several examples of his furniture next to the permanent display of Esherick’s fireplace and doorway from the library of the Curtis and Nellie Lee Bok House. The Malvern-based Wharton Esherick Museum is also offering a host of special tours in conjunction with the Penn exhibits.

In addition, Penn is hosting special tours of the campus shows with guest curator Roberta A. Mayer and Esherick Museum Director Paul Eisenhauer. The University is also hosting the Second Annual Anne d’Harnoncourt Symposium, which runs Oct. 1 and 2.

“People thought of [Esherick] in terms of a furniture maker, but they don’t see how that happened,” says Farrington. This show, it’s hoped, will reveal more about the man and the artist renowned for his place in the modern movement.

For more information, go to: www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/esherick.html.

Originally published on September 30, 2010