LAWRENCE — The Spencer Museum of Art, the University of Kansas School of Architecture & Design and the KU School of the Arts mourn the loss of visionary artist and designer Wendell Castle, who passed away Jan. 20. A native of Emporia, Castle received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in industrial design in 1958 as well as a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture in 1961, both from KU.
Castle is widely acknowledged as the leading figure in the American studio furniture movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. His works have been collected by institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution, the Wichita Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art and the Spencer Museum of Art.
“Wendell Castle will always be known for his beautiful objects that defy definitions of sculpture or furniture, not easily categorized as art or design,” said Spencer Museum Director Saralyn Reece Hardy. “The Spencer Museum of Art has lost a great friend, one who shared his art and ideas generously with students at KU and the public. We are fortunate to have had his inspiring example over his distinguished career.”
The Spencer Museum’s collection includes six works by Castle, two of which are currently on view. The sculpture “Hanging in the Balance” depicts a bronze chair balancing precariously upside down on a pillow made of wood. It has been on almost continuous view since the museum acquired it in 2003, and it has become an iconic work in the museum’s collection. The other work, “Nirvana,” is a fiberglass chair that Castle repainted KU blue before giving it to the museum in 2013. Castle announced his gift of the work during a visit to KU to receive an honorary Doctor of Arts degree for his notable contributions to art, design and studio crafts.
In October 2017, the KU School of Architecture & Design presented Castle with a Distinguished Alumni Award for pioneering the art-furniture movement. As a renowned industrial designer, Castle’s work inspired generations of designers.
“Wendell Castle was an embodiment of our vision. He was a pioneer, crossed disciplinary boundaries, has had global impact and continually pushed the technological limits of making furniture by using robotics,” said School of Architecture & Design Dean Mahesh Daas. “We have truly lost a design legend, a creative force and a great Jayhawk.”
Mary Anne Jordan, professor and chair for Department of Visual Art and co-director of the School of the Arts, said the Department of Visual Art would always be proud to claim Castle as an alumnus.
“Wendell Castle’s legacy will be his life’s work. With its detailed and impeccable craftsmanship, wry sense of humor, and skill with materials and form, his works will continue to inspire young and experienced artists worldwide,” Jordan said. “It is heartening to know that we can continue to visit his works at the Spencer Museum and many museums around the world.”
Top image: Wendell Castle speaks in the Spencer Museum’s 20/21 Gallery about his work “Hanging in the Balance.”
Bottom image: Wendell Castle, “Nirvana (chair),” 2007, Spencer Museum of Art, gift of Wendell Castle.