In the late 1800s, on the top floor of a modest house on the edge of Buffalo's West Side, Charles Rohlfs, an engineer and amateur actor, decided to try his hand at a new hobby.
Rohlfs, born in 1846 to German immigrant parents in Brooklyn, had moved to Buffalo with his wife, Anna Katharine Green, in 1887. Green, an accomplished novelist and a pioneer of American crime fiction, had built up a fortune that allowed the couple and their two children to live a life of relative comfort and leisure in the growing cosmopolitan society of Buffalo, then one of the richest cities in the United States.
Rohlfs' hobby, furniture-making, soon blossomed into a fledgling profession and finally a full-blown obsession. But it didn't last long. In the span of just 10 years, the eccentric Rohlfs created an immense body of work now considered remarkable for its individuality, its artistic aspiration, and its influence on future generations and movements of artists and craftspeople. A compact and engrossing exhibition of Rohlfs' work is on view through April 25 in Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art, after which it will stop at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. and finally at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, from Oct. 19 to Jan. 23, 2011.
"The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs," which features dozens of Rohlfs' often quirky designs, paints a picture of an idiosyncratic spirit who melded a huge array of influences -- from medieval and later European, Asian and Moorish art, American architecture, art nouveau design and nature -- to forge a unique artistic style. His furniture designs, though ostensibly created for practical use, were often so fantastically conceived and executed that they transcended their decorative nature to become singular works of art.
The show was curated and organized by collector Joseph Cunningham, curator of the five-year-old American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation. The foundation, which specializes in decorative art from the time around Rohlfs' brief foray into furniture-making, claims the exhibition and its extensive catalog as its largest undertaking to date. Organizers opted not to press for a Buffalo stop for the show, citing limitations of space and programming at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and are hoping Buffalonians will make the four-hour haul to Pittsburgh to check out the exhibition.
Cunningham characterized Rohlfs as a restless character who jumped from obsession to obsession, an artist whose story was "bizarrely modern" for its time. His marriage to Green, who was one of a very few independently successful and wealthy women, afforded him the opportunity to take huge artistic risks. Rohlfs took that opportunity and ran with it.
"Love it or hate it," Cunningham said, "[Rohlfs' work] is truly unlike almost anything anyone else has ever made."
The foundation's founder, Bruce Barnes, said he hoped that the exhibition of Rohlfs' work in five venues across the United States (it began its run last year at the Milwaukee Art Museum and also traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art) will usher in a new appreciation for the Buffalo artist's work.
"It's a particular taste, so I think it will draw a renaissance in terms of people's interest in his work and admiration for his work," Barnes said. "I don't know that we'll all of a sudden have a rush of people who want to decorate with Charles Rohlfs' work. A lot of it is better suited to be seen as sculpture than it is in a home context."
Hence this show, which contains a number of objects that might look out of place outside of a museum or gallery. Some exhibitions of furniture by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, such as his couch now on view in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, or Gustav Stickley, seem to tempt visitors to ignore the "Do Not Touch" signs and test the furniture out. Not so with much of Rohlfs' work, which, despite its innate beauty, can sometimes seem intimidating, oppressive and downright uncomfortable. Writing about a 1994 exhibition of Rohlfs' work in the Burchfield Penney, former News art critic Richard Huntington said that two chairs in the show were evocative of medieval torture apparatus. Other designs, Huntington wrote, "seemed like art nouveau as done by an Oriental mystic." And that makes the strange brew of Rohlfs' wide-ranging influences even more engrossing.
But Rohlfs' fascination with the hulking authority of medieval and Germanic oak furniture designs is counterbalanced by his free-flowing, even lighthearted carving techniques, which set off on their own wild, organic trajectory to mimic forms from nature and the architecture that surrounded him. The show's two centerpieces, a pair of intricately carved and constructed chairs with soaring backs, are perfect examples of the unorthodox approach that has made Rohlfs' work the subject of intense study and fascination.
A 1907 newspaper advertisement for Rohlfs' work neatly sums up its appeal at the time. "His work is strangely suggestive of the days when the world was young, but in spite of that, distinctive of this progressive century and strictly modern," the ad reads. "It has the spirit of today blended with the poetry of the middle ages."
One piece, Rohlfs' "Tall Back Chair" from around 1898-99, contains a back carved into a pattern that wouldn't look out of place on an early Santana album cover. It's anchored by a human form in the center, whose arms flow into a swooping, swirling pattern of ornate wooden curlicues. The piece takes on new significance with the knowledge that Rohlfs was heavily influenced by George Grant Elmslie's naturalistic, ornate designs in Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building (28 Church St., built in 1894-95), which he championed in a 1902 speech.
Another fascinating piece, also a chair with a tall back, includes a carving that seems to mimic the cellular structure of oak itself -- or, to my eye, brain neurons and their synapses. For the late 19th century, this sort of thing was totally bizarre, and pointed in the direction of artists like Charles Burchfield, who would meld diverse influences with his own natural surroundings to create a totally unique stylistic vocabulary.
You get the sense that if Rohlfs hadn't abandoned furniture-making after just a decade, or if he had discovered his passion earlier in life, his name might be of the household variety even if his furniture was not. There seems to be an important lesson about following one's obsessions embedded in Rohlfs' work and his life story.
We'll never know exactly why Rohlfs decided to throw in the towel after just a decade of work to pursue new adventures in Buffalo's business community. Chances are he was frustrated that his work, in all its ranging strangeness, was not as widely accepted or collected as he had hoped. Rohlfs remained in Buffalo until his death in 1936, serving as a respected political adviser, business leader, and member of a panoply of civic organizations, including a productive stint as president of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce.
But Cunningham, perhaps the nation's ranking Rohlfs scholar, theorized that Rohlfs' turn to other pursuits might have had more to do with his thoroughly modern approach to life.
"He was extremely restless" and fond of reinventing himself, Cunningham said. "I think part of the reason he only made furniture for such a short time is that he wanted a new career every 10 or 12 years. And he seems to have done that with his adult life."