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Museum Director Marcelle Giving a Press Preview

The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs Opens at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Posted on May 17th, 2009

Milwaukee, WI, March 6—The first major exhibition of furniture and decorative art by the protean American craftsman and designer Charles Rohlfs begins its five-venue national tour at the Milwaukee Art Museum June 6–August 23, 2009. The product of an innovative three-institution partnership, the exhibition’s scholarship is based on the Rohlfs family archives and newly discovered period sources, and brings together over forty pieces from ten museums and several private collections. The exhibition’s tour concludes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the fall of 2010.

The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Chipstone Foundation, and American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation. The exhibition is curated by Joseph Cunningham and organized in Milwaukee by Sarah Fayen, curator at the Chipstone Foundation.

With roots in the Aesthetic Movement and an art-for-art’s-sake sensibility, Charles Rohlfs’ style was related to the abstract naturalism of Art Nouveau, but drew on precedents from Asian and Moorish to English and Germanic designs. In turn, his work influenced the pared-down oak forms that became hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts movement. Rohlfs preferred the terms “Artistic Furniture” or “The Rohlfs Style” that identified his designs not as part of a specific style or movement but, rather, as expressive art made by a single individual.

Charles Rohlfs (1853–1936), the son of a cabinetmaker who worked for piano companies in Brooklyn, trained in drafting and design at the Cooper Union in New York City. A successful patternmaker and, eventually, a patent-earning designer of cast-iron stoves, Rohlfs changed his Brooklyn City Directory listing from “patternmaker” to “actor” in 1881 and married the novelist Anna Katharine Green in 1884. The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs for the first time credits Green as a collaborator in the artist’s work.

Rohlfs had several jobs with traveling theater companies, playing roles in different cities around the country. He was already in his mid-forties when he started to make furniture professionally, around 1897. Before his death in 1936, Rohlfs had earned entry into the Royal Society of Arts in London, sold his furniture through Marshall Field & Co., and exhibited at international exhibitions in the U.S. and in Europe. His obituary was published in the
New York Times.

Featuring the very best works of Charles Rohlfs’ career as a furniture maker, the exhibition of approximately forty-five objects is organized chronologically, beginning with the artist’s earliest known works from about 1888. Lenders include the Princeton University Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and several others.

The exhibition will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art (September 20, 2009–January 3, 2010), Carnegie Museum of Art (January 30, 2010–April 25, 2010), and Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (May 22, 2010–September 6, 2010) before completing its tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (October 19, 2010–January 23, 2011).

The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, by Joseph Cunningham with a foreword by Bruce Barnes and an introduction by Sarah Fayen, is published by Yale University Press in association with American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation. Handsomely designed and illustrated, the book is the most comprehensive publication to date on the artist, and includes a complete set of unpublished period illustrations of over seventy works. 304 pages. Hardcover ($65/$58.50 Member) and softcover editions ($50/$45 Member, available 5/09) are available in the Museum Store, 414-224-3210 or www.mam.org/store.

Wednesday, June 3, noon–2 p.m.
Join exhibition curators for an exclusive tour of the exhibition, followed by refreshments and opportunities for Q&A.

What’s Modern about American Art, 1900-1930?
June 19–20, 2009
Chicago and Milwaukee
This two-day symposium convened by the Terra Foundation will address the questions of American modernism through a series of brief “keyword” talks and panel discussions. Michael Kammen, Newton C. Farr Professor Emeritus of American History and Culture at Cornell University, delivers the keynote lecture on Friday in Chicago, while exhibition curators Joseph Cunningham and Sarah Fayen join Elizabeth Kennedy of the Terra Foundation and others in Milwaukee on Saturday. For a complete list of participants, more information, or to register, call 312-654-2278 or visit http://terraamericanart.org/modernism-symposium.

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s far-reaching holdings include more than 20,000 works spanning antiquity to the present day. With a history dating back to 1888, the Museum houses a Collection with strengths in 19th- and 20th-century American and European art, contemporary art, American decorative arts, and folk and self-taught art. The Museum includes the Santiago Calatrava–designed Quadracci Pavilion, named by Time magazine “Best Design of 2001.”