Wharton Esherick and the 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 Jersey shore, the Hedgerow Theatre and Dreiser’s house in New York.

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

Text by Heather A. Davis