Like a Gift for Someone You Love

Excerpt from 'The Furniture Art of Judy Kensley McKie' by Arthur C. Danto

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.

Judy Kensley McKie on Design Process

I love the idea that you can make a useful object beautiful. For me, that’s the ultimate challenge.

Judy Kensley McKie

Judy Kensley McKie

Judy Kensley McKie earned a BFA in painting at Rhode Island School of Design in 1966 and turned to furniture-making a few years later out of necessity as she and her husband could not afford to buy any. Though McKie had never set foot in a woodshop during her studies, her father was a woodworker who taught her the basics during her childhood. She drew upon these lessons and began fashioning simple furniture for her home. Friends saw her furniture and requested some of their own, setting McKie on a path toward furniture design and craft.

Throughout the 1970s, McKie honed her skills in workshop settings in and near Boston and taught herself how to carve decorative elements for her creations. She never took a formal class, later admitting “I probably should have.” In the late 1970s, three of her pieces were shown in an exhibition for “new handmade furniture” at the American Craft Museum in New York (now the Museum of Arts and Design) alongside works by Wendell Castle and Garry Knox Bennett. Bennett introduced her to bronze casting via the Artworks Foundry and by the late 1980s she was creating limited editions in the medium.

McKie’s earlier works featured geometric or natural motifs carved into their surfaces but, over time, she began to utilize animal forms as the structures themselves; two dogs might hold up a glass tabletop, or a cat’s long back serves as a bench. Her reliance on recognizable, widely admired forms in combination with her signature visual style imbues McKie’s furniture with a timelessness that has kept her work in fashion for decades. Far from slowing down, the interest in her pieces has only grown and she is now deservedly considered to be among the upper echelon of the American studio furniture movement.

Auction Results Judy Kensley McKie