Objets d’arte

Objets d’arte

by Emily E. Mangione

There’s a term from the French, objet d’art. It means more or less what you might expect: an art object, an object prized for its particular beauty. The particularity of this beauty lies in its perceived ability to elevate the object d’art beyond the categorical confines of those things we call objects—even if it never reaches the rarified air of those things we call art. It’s thought that the term first found its way into English around 1865, which feels right. There’s something hopelessly fussy, Victorian even, about insisting on a neat distinction between objects, art, and this peculiar third way of being neither and both. 

After all, it was more than 50 years ago now that Donald Judd let us know, in no uncertain terms, that “half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture.”[1] While it was abundantly clear to Judd what this best new work was not, it was less clear what it was. This category of things, as Judd conceived it, was elastic enough to contain Yayoi Kusama’s sofas, couches, and rowboats obsessively covered with phallic protuberances and Claes Oldenburg’s soft and unnaturally scaled ice cream cones, cake slices, and hamburgers but also, potentially, John Chamberlain’s crumpled automotive fragments and Frank Stella’s shaped canvases. Still, he conceded, each of these works are generally “like an object” and “aren’t obviously art,” often grounding their “specificity” in an unprecedented embrace of techniques and materials of industrial mass production.[2]

Judd would later go on to clarify that, in addition to being neither painting nor sculpture, these specific objects were also under no circumstances to be confused with furniture. Based, reportedly, in part on a bad experience in the mid-1960s with trying to make good on the workaday resemblance between one of his rectangular volumes and a coffee table, Judd flatly asserted  “the inability of art to become furniture.”[3] Nor, according to Judd, was it possible to work in the opposite direction: “furniture is furniture,” never to become art. [4] When, later in his career, he occasionally made objects he specifically thought of as furniture, he made a point of not showing these in “art” spaces—galleries and museums—traditionally conceived, in an attempt to preserve the separation between art and furniture.

This overdetermined aversion to the very possibility of a kind of latter-day objets d’art on the part of Judd the polemicist may have been, more or less consciously, a kind of defensive tactic. It can be understood as an overzealous, if understandable, response to the critique that Minimalism was nothing more than “good” design: a conflation, commonly heard at the time and since, of Minimalist (capital-M) art and the minimalist (lowercase-m) simplicity of certain functional wares. As Clement Greenberg—no friend to the movement—fretted: “Minimal works are readable as art as almost anything is today—a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper.”[5] 

This line of critique, in turn, can be understood as a special case of that more generalized panic around the shifting grounds on which we make judgments about art. At least since Marcel Duchamp submitted a certain mass-produced restroom furnishing for inclusion in the Society of Independent Artists’ 1917 open exhibition, critics and general museum-goers alike, when faced with the prospect of determining artistic merit, have been asked to move from a model based in comparing new works of art against accepted “masterworks” to one based in something like Judd’s assertion that “a work of art need only be interesting.”[6] What seemed to be at stake, for Greenberg and his like-minded commentators, was nothing less than the destruction of those unquestionable norms of aesthetic value that had for centuries helped guide judgments as to what was and wasn’t art.

To bemoan the decline of such standards is, unavoidably, to bemoan the decline in privilege of those who see themselves as maintaining and enforcing these standards: namely, an art world elite of scholars, critics, and connoisseurs. Shifting the criteria from comparison against a canon of masterworks to simple interest offers a radical—and for some critics, deeply threatening—possibility of opening art beyond the limited population of those with the opportunity to avail themselves of an education in an exclusive, and exclusionary, history of art. After all, anyone and everyone is eminently qualified to judge whether or not something is “interesting.” We do it all the time when making judgments, for instance, concerning which couch or coffeepot we’d like to bring into our home.

Not all Minimalists and their assorted avant-gardist peers during this period, however, were as adamant as Judd about preserving the divide between what they made and furniture. There’s John Cage, for instance, who insisted “we must bring about a music which is like furniture.”[7] And then, perhaps more to the point, there’s Richard Artschwager, the furniture craftsman turned late-in-life artist and one of the 30-odd producers of the new three-dimensional work cited by Judd. Curiously, however, it was precisely Formica—the plastic imitating wood and other materials that Judd found so offensive it drove him to make his own furniture—that drew Artschwager into making what he at various points termed “objects for non-use” or “useful furniture with an overlay of representation.”[8] He was attracted to this material—which he nevertheless called “the great ugly material of the age” with what seems like genuine admiration—for precisely its everyday-ness. The resulting work became “a celebration of the material which you lean your elbows on in twenty percent of the luncheonettes in New York.”[9] And it is in this celebration we find Artschwager standing in strongest contrast to Judd’s sneer that “almost all furniture made since the 1920s has been junk for consumers.”[10] 

Judd was not alone in his disdain for the class of contemporary furnishings that would be made from Formica; a reviewer of Artschwager’s first solo exhibition in 1965 snipped that he “succeeds in recreating all that is most offensive in the motel-Howard Johnson-funeral parlor syndrome.”[11] Courtesy of an aggressive, wildly successful marketing campaign during the postwar period, “jewel-bright-at-a-wipe” Formica became synonymous with the era’s burgeoning middle class and the decidedly middle-brow taste they brought to outfitting their new suburban homes. Jean Baudrillard’s 1968 prediction that the “cultural prejudice” privileging organic and natural materials “is vulnerable to the passage of time” and that there was or would soon be no longer any difference between wood and wood-patterned synthetic has proven to be wildly off the mark; more recently, a Restoration Hardware catalogue confidently averred that “salvaged wood is intrinsically better” than its newly milled equivalent (Formica, of course, being totally outside the scope of conversation).[12] As contemporary technologies work to expand the gulf between the richest among us and all the rest, we see a rejection by those in a position to do so of home goods and other consumables crafted by and of materials made possible by these technologies in favor of the artisanal and the handmade in a considered, if unspoken, performance of class affiliation.


It’s against this fraught background of sculpture, furniture, class, and taste that Stephanie Rohlfs’ sculptures—recently on view in her solo exhibition, Put One Over, at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center—propose a vocabulary for what contemporary objets d’art might look like. Rohlfs’ works vibrate in that space in between the mass-produced and the artisanal, between those things we call objects (including, of course, the smaller subcategory of those objects we call furniture) and those things we call art. What appears at a distance to be a string of pony beads in Fake Friend Fascinator (2018), for instance, are actually epoxy clay approximations. This frictious rubbing between the purposeful and the purposely purposeless is staged most directly with the placement of Candleholder (2019), set on the floor at the base of a massive, wall-sized latex image of its close cousin. Three-dimensional versions of this squat ceramic form with multiple sockets filled with thin ceramic fingers in lieu of candles appear in both Flat as a Board and Pierced Shelf (both 2019). The juxtaposition opens up the question, then, of whether the hand-dipped—and presumably actually combustible—candles in Candleholder, Winter Shelf (2019), Pierced Shelf, and Mirror with Candles (2019), would be, in practice, any more or less decorative than their ceramic counterparts. This question is critical precisely because it has been the divide between the useful and the decorative that has traditionally served as a key metric for even those willing to consider the possibility of a fruitful shared space between furniture and art like Artschwager, who flatly asserted later in life that “art is useless; furniture is useful.”[13]

Stephanie Rohlfs,  Candleholder  (2019). Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez

Stephanie Rohlfs, Candleholder (2019). Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez

What are we to make, then, of Rohlfs’ objects for which it’s not outside the realm of possibility to envision a use? If hung slightly lower on the wall than standard art height, one could certainly imagine using the hair-trimmed cantilever of either Flat as a Board and Winter Shelf as a kind of minimalist fall-front desk: a catch-all surface for keys, mail, and appointment reminders not unlike those populating innumerable mud rooms, entry halls, and kitchens nationwide. The two ruddy protuberances that pierce the form beneath the overhang in Pierced Shelf could easily double as hooks for coats in such a scenario.

Stephanie Rohlfs,  Flat as a Board  (2019). Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez

Stephanie Rohlfs, Flat as a Board (2019). Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez

Perhaps we can understand Rohlfs’ project in creating these curious objets d’art as one that is at its core concerned with dismantling the long-standing acceptance of the primacy of the artist’s interests in shaping her artworks. Her objects, to the contrary, model a far more generous paradigm of creation, one in which the artist’s interest is taken alongside—not set above—the considerations of other people in the world. Take, for instance, the small houseplants—those au courant signifiers of a certain kind of precarious millennial homemaking, if recent think-pieces on the death of traditional rituals of adulthood are to be believed—that make an appearance in two of the works in the exhibition. The twinned glazed ceramic forms of Droopy Plant Object (2019) are handily perforated in the rear for watering the two cleistocacti that emerge from their fronts, and a blue ceramic form doubles as both a bookend and a pot for a small furry cactus in Book Shelf (2017). Such inclusions might suggest a radical upending of the understanding, popular in some academic circles, of modern sculpture as operating in relation to what Rosalind Krauss has theorized as “a kind of sitelessness, or homelessness, an absolute loss of place.”[14] By introducing into this field the ubiquitous understanding of the placemaking function of furniture and plants—precisely those objects that you bring into a house to make it your home—Rohlfs mitigates the loss of place endemic to the later 20th and 21st centuries, this contemporary era of endless global migration. In so doing, Rohfls’ objets d’art embrace the idea of purpose and function, tracing out the contours of a new category of objects in the world that are allowed to be equally for the artist and for us. 

Emily E. Mangione is a writer, editor, educator, and very occasional curator.

[1] Donald Judd, “Specific Objects” in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975 (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 181. Writing with the benefit of a decade and a half of hindsight, Rosalind Krauss would later summarize the state of sculpture in this period as “a kind of ontological absence, the combination of exclusions, the sum of neither/nor.” “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring 1979): 36.

[2] Judd, “Specific Objects,” 184, 187.

[3] Judd, “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp,” https://s3.amazonaws.com/juddfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/21164501/Its_Hard_To_Find_A_Good_Lamp_1993.pdf. Originally published in Donald Judd Furniture: Retrospective (Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 1993).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Clement Greenberg, “Recentness of Sculpture,” in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism: Volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957–1969, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 253.

[6] Judd, “Specific Objects,” 184.

[7] John Cage, “Erik Satie,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 76.

[8] Richard Artschwager quoted in Jan McDevitt, “The Object: Still Life: Interviews with Richard Artschwager and Claes Oldenburg,” Craft Horizons 25, no. 5 (September/October 1965): 30, and “Autochronology,” in Richard Artschwager’s Theme(s) (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1979).  

[9] Artschwager quoted in McDevitt, “The Object: Still Life,” 54.

[10] Judd, “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp.”

[11] Lawrence Campbell, “Richard Artschwager,” ArtNews 64, no. 1 (March 1965): 17.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, “Natural Wood/Cultural Wood” in The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict (London: Verso, 1996), 38.

[13] Artschwager quoted in Design Does Not Equal Art: Functional Objects from Donald Judd to Rachel Whiteread (New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 2004), 85.

[14] Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” 34.

Stephanie Rohlfs, Put One Over

May 10 – June 28, 2019

Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center

341 Delaware Ave, Buffalo NY 14202


Chantal Calato, Mount CECOS

Chantal Calato, Mount CECOS

Stephanie Rohlfs, Penis Fingers

Stephanie Rohlfs, Penis Fingers