When Gary Griffith wrote this poetic meditation (see below) on the status of his work for an exhibition at the Helen Drutt Gallery in Philadelphia in 1981, he was at a turning point in his development. His hesitancy to designate his work as sculpture appears to be an evasion, an attempt to swerve away from media categories, to find an identity for himself and his art.

I hesitate to call this work sculpture;
I regard construction
to be an intellectually based process
directing the placement of elements.
foreign to organic method,
contesting flow,
cause and effect.
allowing for the simultaneous
existence of extremes;
an orchid adjacent to a chain link
The historic decorative arts,
especially those of purely ornamental
these are important resources.
They are omnipotent
as vestiges of the human endeavor
They are reassuring guardians.
giving authoritative credibility to
contemporary endeavors.
I am seduced
by their subtle use of the useless.

– Gary Griffin, “On Recent Work,” 1931

As a form of anxiety, this period of questioning and reassessing his past work has affinities with what Harold Bloom has called the “anxiety of influence.” This simply means Griffin was attempting to clear away some “imaginative space” for himself to continue his ornamental pursuits. While his direction is revisionary in nature—a corrective measure to redirect his previous concerns for machine-tool technology and anonymous elemental geometric forms—a shift in his esthetic consciousness is actually taking place.

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Garry Griffin, Photo: Gary L. Heard

Griffin’s growth as an artist could be compared to a watershed, especially the constructions dating from 1981, which represent the high ridge between two different streams of stylistic and conceptual development flowing in different directions. On one side of this ridge, there is an obsession with a machine esthetic applied to ornamental work, rationally and intellectually based. On the other side is an intuitive and emotionally conditioned set of responses directed towards ornament and function and anchored in the decorative arts. Stressing the stylistic fissures in his work over the past 10 years, however, would be a superficial reading of Griffin’s evolution. Style may be part of the issue, but not the crucial one. In understanding the genesis of his work, it seems more important to address the conceptual nature of his art that has allowed Griffin to question and tax the limits of traditional metalsmithing attitudes towards ornamentation.

Machine-Tool Technology and Momentary Pins

In comprehending Griffin’s work during his “machine phase,” it is important to keep in mind the confluence of Modern artistic movements, such as Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, De Stijl, Purism and the Bauhaus, as well as industrial design attitudes, which set the stage for his own investigations. Divergent as their goals might appear these movements helped to shape and legitimize an artistic conception of the world for him. These ideas, briefly stated, consisted of a rejection of subjectivity in favor of an objective and scientific understanding of art; art as a means of transforming society, as opposed to art for art’s sake; machine imagery and processes as an appropriate field of esthetic inquiry; the juxtaposition of different materials and objects as a means of construction; the denial of flux through abstract geometric forms.

Brooch 78-2, machined aluminum, copper, 3 x 6″

The rise of Constructivism of the 1960s had a particularly strong influence on Griffin’s work. The primary structures of Tony Smith, Donald Judd, Robert Morris and the later systemic pieces by Sol Lewitt arc characteristic of a variety of similar experiments using geometric configurations, pure, unaltered industrial colors and elemental forms. Artists contracted out the fabrication of these industrially impersonal works in an attempt to depersonalize and minimize the input of their ego. As an act of demystification, sculpture and reductivist painting from this decade tended to deny the personal and expressive nature of early abstract art. By emphasizing anonymity, the standardization of forms and modern machine production techniques, the 60s artists wanted sculpture and painting to be viewed objectively.

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Griffin’s graduate years at Tyler School of Art’s Metals Department (1972-1974) were also important in determining his use of industrial materials and belief in the efficacy of a machine esthetic. Stanley Lechtzin, his teacher, was and still Is, one of the major proponents in metalsmithing for the use of industrial processes and synthetic materials to achieve artistic ends. Griffin couldn’t avoid being influenced by Lechtzin’s polemical position. But instead of pursuing an organic esthetic based on Lechtzin’s electroforming, he moved into the realm of machine-tool technology and adapted it to his own needs.

Brooch 77-3, aluminum nylon

After graduating from Tyler, he took a teaching position at Rochester Institute of Technology. The next four years were for him a period of consolidation and expansion of Modernist, minimal and industrial design attitudes. Characteristic of this period are his large collars of 1976 and his brooches of 1977 and 1978, typified by Brooch 77-3 made of aluminum and nylon. For example, Brooch 77-3 (1977) reflects a synthesis of his interests up to this time. From a materials context he incorporated content in this brooch by virtue of the synthetic and metallic materials associated with industrially fabricated objects. From a formal content the planar surface of this geometric brooch negates the feeling of handmade, where an object reveals through its imperfections the trace of the artist’s presence. Instead, its anonymous, “machined” appearance presents a highly rationalized and idealized form, seemingly inflexible to change, This brooch, resonant with oblique social implications, could theoretically be mass produced according to the artist’s design specifications. But, like others from this period, it reflects a disparity between theory and practice. Instead of being impersonal and “styleless,” with the intention of having some sort of social impact through a well-designed piece of jewelry, this brooch is one-of-a-kind, and thereby reinforces the notion of individuality and uniqueness. It is only later, when Griffin explores the ramifications of his momentary pins and begins to shift his conception of ornamentation in metals, that his machine-tool esthetic and personal brand of collective idealism fully express themselves.

Griffin’s ideas about machine-tool technology were summed up in his seminar paper “Machine Tool Technology: An Aesthetic Application,” given at the 1978 SNAG Conference. This important document clarifying his conceptual development prior to 1979 illustrates his allegiance at the time to a 20th century Modernist mechanical world view, based on positivism, rationalism and an ordered perception of the world. He focused on the need to generate an esthetic syntax using machine-tool technology. In the paper, after a historical synopsis of the development of industrial machine-tool processes, he discussed an often overlooked fact: there is a tradition in machine-tool processes just as there is in other traditional metalsmithing procedures. The rest of the paper indicates how the “lathed aesthetic” is dependent on the shape of the cylinder and linear subtractive relationships. Esthetic options are multiplied in this case due to the flexibility of tool-bit shapes. As a result of this infinitude of possibilities, the metalsmith can take simple pattern reliefs and develop them into complex patterns by overlapping repetitive motifs.

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Momentary Ornaments pins, abrasive paper, vessels, steel, painted, 2 x 2″, 1979-85

What Griffin illustrates in this paper is basically a “systems approach,” a positivism methodology of cause and effect. By the end of 1978 he had created an “ideal” system for artistic production, capable of being codified and expanded upon by means of mechanistic permutations arrived at through machine technology. His system was ordered, precise and made little room, if any, for imprecision and randomness.

But something began to change. By 1979, one senses a shift in his thinking, representing a logical extension of his past work as well as the intrusion of a more intuitive approach. This shift in his attitude towards ornamentation was articulated during the Spring of 1979 in a lecture given at the Memphis Academy of Art dealing with “Directions in Contemporary Metalsmithing.” Here he began to discuss his recent ideas about “throwaway or momentary pins.” For Griffin, it made perfect sense to produce a well-designed, yet disposable piece of ornamentation that would reach the public-at-large. In the age of obsolescence and Dixie Cup discards, what better form of ornamentation than something that could be jettisoned after use?

One might even contend that a new perception of the world was in the making for Griffin at this time. Instead of a mechanistic view of the world characterized by the notion of progress as a movement away from the natural world’s lack of order, his jewelry and constructions seem to make references to an entropic paradigm.

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The law of entropy is based on the Second law of Thermodynamics, which states that “matter and energy can only be changed in one direction, that is, from usable to unusable, or from available to unavailable, or from ordered to disordered.” Since we cannot create energy, all we can do is “transform energy from one state to another.” For example, if we burn a log, it is apparent after the fire we have a heap of ashes. The energy remains, but it is transformed into other material. We can’t reburn or reuse the wood and get the same results because of the process of displacement. In effect, the law of entropy attacks the idea of progress and the notion that science and technology are capable of creating a more ordered world out of the natural world.

This notion of displacement gave Griffin an analogue in his own work. When you lathe you are continually displacing material, making usable material into unusable material, so to speak. He asked himself, why not incorporate the random filings and residuals from the material being processed into his pieces? By using displaced material and reinserting it into his constructions or jewelry, Griffin was beginning to challenge his earlier assumptions of machine-tool technology and the immutability of matter.

Construction 79-7, copper, brass, bronze, aluminum, steel, 24 x 6 x 6″

In July of 1979, Griffin attended the Platinum Workshop in San Diego. He immediately began to pick up and use the residuals left over from his own and other works being processed at the workshop and use them in his momentary pins. For example, he would start with a square piece of sandpaper to function as a pin and use platinum wire as a tool to scratch on its surface. Or he would attach to the pin a filing or piece of wire that had been displaced from the material being processed. Platinum was no longer of interest to Griffin in the traditional sense of its preciousness or as the material to be worked on. There is also an element of irony in these pins in relation to normal metalsmithing practices. One even senses a metaphorical conceit operating in the sandpaper momentary pins by the exaggeration and extension of their metallic references. For example, the only connection sandpaper has to metal as a material is the metallic oxide on its surface, or as a processing, material in one of the phases of making a finished object. In effect, Griffin elevated an abrasive material, which is usually disposed of after being used to process other materials, to a legitimate material in its own right. Preciousness, uniqueness and permanence were theoretically upended, giving the pins a potentially ephemeral and nonprecious character. Furthermore, the random stacking of the pins and their display in a meshlike industrial basket, as if thrown away, reinforced their transitory nature. In discussing the concepts underlying these pins in the context of ornamentation, Griffin compares them to the “tradition of wearing l flower on a lapel.” Once a pin serves its function for a specific occasion or begins to wear out, one can just throw it away, since it can be cheaply replaced.

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By referring to obsolescence and expendability, Griffin attempted to create a form of ornamentation representative of his age, akin to Baudelaire’s idea of modernité. For both Griffin and Baudelaire, an imaginative artist who lives in the present “makes it his business to extract from fashion whatever element it may contain of poetry within history, to distill the eternal from the transitory” by emphasizing the ephemeral, the fugitive. the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable.”

Cap Gun, Roses and Middle America gate, painted steel, 74 x 77 x 12″, 1984

In looking at the earlier brooches (e.g., 77-1, 77-3, 78-2), one is reminded of Platonic solids, unchanging models of perfection, perpetually frozen and incapable of entering the stream of life at a public level. The momentary pins, however, at least in theory, appear to be more consistent with an ever-changing world, subject to entropy, chance and use. But once again, the question arises, isn’t there a gap between theory and practice? Even though the momentary pins have the “potential” to provide a well-designed, cheaply made, mass-produced piece of jewelry, they would be doomed to failure without an essentially pragmatic approach (e.g., marketing, advertising) to support the idealistic and collective premise of “pins for all!” How does one combat a John Doe mentality that would rather dial an 800 number, toll-free, and purchase this month’s “Diamonel” offer with its vegematic flexibility, to make you a fashion hit overnight by not only giving you one phony diamond ring, but also a whole bevy of other fashionable pieces of jewelry to go with it for $19.95? The illusion of preciousness and elitism associated with this brand of marketing and the Keepsake Diamond mentality are all part of a corporate packaging system meant to produce profit, and good design doesn’t necessarily matter. While it all seems to boil down to taste and corporate profits, we must admit that we are also a passive culture, often willing to accept the myths of our own mega-visual tradition and commodity fetishism as being authoritative.

Cap Gun, Roses and Middle America gate, painted steel, 74 x 77 x 12″, 1984

The concepts and design principles behind Griffin’s momentary pins are sound, but, as previously mentioned, their feasibility is another matter. But is the production and completion of the momentary pins project really at issue? It seems their importance might well lie in their not being produced. Once they were produced they would become a commodity like any other, to a lesser or greater extent. Lost in the shuffle of objects they would lose their polemical character. For these pins are a socially mediated and autonomous source of information in their own right. They reflect ongoing social processes by reorganizing certain aspects of social life into a statement that provides an independent and polemical viewpoint criticizing the social relations from which they arose.

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 The Demise Of The Machine Esthetic

By the fall of 1979, Griffin had internalized his previous knowledge of machine-tool processes and achieved what he considered to be a breakthrough in Construction 79-7 (1979). This small, tripod structure, with its milled, flat, rectangular surface displaying some of the residual cutouts from the milling process, carries forward the ideas he experimented with at the Platinum Workshop. The tabletop configuration penetrated by the vertical rods also adds a different dimension to his work with its strong, linear, upward movement and spatial presence. But something new was occurring in his working methods. Instead of adhering to a totally rational and systemic approach in constructing this piece, Griffin began to play with forms. For example, the sine curves were not “designed” nor mathematically conceived and then placed within a preconceived schema. Chance and random juxtapositions became increasingly important to him as he began to intuitively position his forms.

Another influence on Griffin’s dissatisfaction with a machine esthetic was his exposure to Baroque decorative art in Vienna, Austria. In 1980 he was invited to participate with his momentary pins in the “International Jewelry Exhibition 1900-1980” held in Vienna. On his trip he visited the Kunst Museum, he was fascinated with the Baroque decorative objects. These works were excessively ornamental, dynamically designed and suffused with textural juxtapositions and illusions. Baroque decoration has an almost hedonistic feel, with its sensuality, pure love of “useless” ornamentation and trompe-l’oeil effects. It was in Vienna that Griffin began to rethink his position about the machine-tool esthetic he had evolved over the past five years and came under the spell of what he would later call the “subtle use of the useless.” One object in particular, a reliquary type of construction with a marked vertical thrust consisting of sucked coral, metal and an ostrich egg, provided a fitting example from decorative arts history to support his belief in the “simultaneous existence of extremes.” There were, of course, other 20th-century fine art movements, such as Surrealism, Cubism and Constructivism that emphasized principles of juxtaposition, but for Griffin it was important to find sustenance from both decorative arts history and the recent revisionism that was rejuvenating the decorative arts.

Further, in reflecting on his own work as well as the European formalistic directions in metalsmithing, he felt it all lacked an emotional appeal and was incapable of transcending intellectual forms of beauty. He began to see formalism as an arid exercise devoid of emotion and humanistic concerns and to feel a need to “humanize” his objects within the context both of the history of decorative arts and personal experience.

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During 1981 Griffin increasingly explored the juxtaposition of elements in his large-scale constructions, such as Construction 81-4, in which representational imagery appeared for the first time. This was the piece that represented a watershed in his development when it was exhibited at the Helen Drutt Gallery. The formal and the decorative met head-on in an oxymoronic gesture, creating a “harmonious convulsion.”

Construction 81-4 (1981, steel, plywood, glass and paint) is indicative of the germinal stage in his current direction involving an emotional symbolism associated with sentiment, memory, landscape and an increasing interest in the decorative arts. Formal and “material” references, including filings, disposable cardboard cups and the geometric mesh screen had affinities with his previous constructivist and entropically inclined formats. Connections to the history of furniture could be sensed in the attenuated cabriole leg tapering upwards from the tetrahedral base as well as the tabletop configuration. For the first time in his art personal symbols and representational imagery were incorporated in his constructions: the Pueblo Indian ladder, a crucifix shape and a plastic rose.

Construction 81-4, steel, plywood, glass, paint, 96 x 24 x 24″

The catalyst for this shift in temperament and use of imagery was in part his summer trip to Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1981. It was on this journey that he rekindled childhood memories of the landscape. Seeing old friends and re-experiencing the Hispanic-Indian culture of his youth intensified his perceptions of a world that had been locked in the asylum of childhood.

His trip to Taos and Santa Fe helped him to address his sublimated feelings about his youth and experiences with the Hispanic-Indian community. Coincidentally, all around him were examples of the stacked systems of Mexican folk art that could be used at a formal level. He visited the Sanctuary de Chamayo where he saw retables and the ex voto offerings of the penitents on the walls (e.g., a photograph of a Vietnam soldier with photos of his loved ones shoved beneath the glass panes adjacent to an icon of Jesus and plastic flowers). The plastic flower, by virtue of its representational nature and associations in an Anglo culture, has a different set of meanings (e.g., the rose in this case being a symbol of eros, beauty or natural—as opposed to synthetic—than that of the Hispanic-Indian community’s use of the plastic flower as a religious offering. Not only is the juxtaposition of formal and representational symbols operating in this construction, but Griffin also supplies us with contrasting cultural signifiers, estranging us and asking us to put the pieces together.

Another influence on Griffin at this time were the writings of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who was associated at one time with the literary circle of D. H. Lawrence. In particular, winter in Taos (1935) and the last volume of her autobiographical memoirs, Edge of Taos (1937) have some bearing on his emotional response to Taos and the Southwest. These books elaborate on how Taos transformed her life, the intersection of different ethnic groupings (Hispanic, Indian, Anglo), the mystical sensibility of the Indians and how their beliefs and creative expression are related.

Both Luhan and Griffin found a living tradition in the Southwest that had deep roots in a communal tradition. This tradition was bound to an instinctive esthetic and rejected the rationalism of our last three centuries by creating symbolic references and communal experiences. Meaning and experience could be passed on, since everyone interacted with the social fabric in some way. The problem that arose for Griffin at this time. and one he is exploring now, is how to create an imaginative space or zone where the subconscious and conscious aspects of reality can be fused into a symbolic whole of some consequence for today’s society.

Blue Gate, painted steel, 82 x 68 x 26″, 1984

Since 1981, his large-scale linear constructions, such as I Wish I’d Known Herbert (1983), Rug ‘N Stump Canoe in Rose (1984), The Valuable Lessons of Miller Street (1984), Rugs, Rocks, Books and Bird Houses (1984), exhibit a growing interest in developing a personal set of references. For example, in The Valuable Lessons of Miller Street, one senses the storyteller at work. The piece deals with an elderly Italian lady who lived next door to Griffins studio in Rochester. Her energy and dedication to her garden to grow tomatoes, figs and garlic impressed Griffin. The title, as well as the imagery, gives one a clue to his intent that as “visual readers” we can gain a bit of wisdom, or even something useful, from this woman’s singlemindedness and love of the soil.

What a storyteller does in the traditional sense is to inform the reader or give counsel. Just as stories were handed down from one generation to the next by an oral tradition, and were supposed to generate a set of universal experiences for the community, Griffin seems to be attempting the same by selecting images having common reference points. For example, if he wants to focus on a Southwestern quality he “may paint a canoe turquoise to reinforce that image.” Turquoise as a color has the flexibility of being both a common reference as well as a specific one relating to the turquoise jewelry produced by the Pueblo Indians.

Originally stories in an oral tradition were the major channel for recording experience where handicraft was the primary mode of Production. As Walter Benjamin points out in his essay, “The Storyteller,” the mark of craftsmanship is integral to the storytelling process, because “traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.”

But Benjamin is talking about the communal conditions of the artistic process, and in our high-tech society these conditions are rare indeed. In modern life, storytelling has been superseded by the quantification of information. We know a great deal more at a superficial level, but it is less qualitative. Information has become the major form by which experience is collected to preserve experience. In effect, it has undermined experiences that would be more directly involved with the meaning of life. Our fragmentary lifestyles in this century, then, parallel the bits and pieces of information we get through the journalistic manipulation of experience. Storytelling was unprocessed and unmanipulated in its intent to convey the material fullness of life, so that each story had a lasting meaning for the community. Information, on the other hand, “does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives on in that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself without losing any time.” Information, then, has nothing to teach us: it is another transient aspect of modern life that will momentarily survive only to lose its topical importance and be discarded.

Rugs, Rocks, Books and Bird Houses, painted steel, 92 x 15 x 18″, 1984

Are we getting traditional stories in Griffin’s new constructions, or are we receiving fragments of information? Can direct experience of a communal nature ever be expressed by any single artist or writer in a society lacking a communal base? What seems to be important to his current work is that each construction not only has the power to maintain a strong visual presence and involve the spectator, but also appears to be an implicit critique of our loss of direct experience.

Griffin had previously addressed the fugitive aspects of contemporary life by criticizing the obsolescent nature of our society through his momentary pins. In effect, they functioned polemically by attacking the social and economic wellsprings from which they arose. But how do the current constructions operate at the visual and critical level? There is obviously no way one can return to that “golden age” of communal and direct experience. It is also apparent that the artist can only bring about a synthetic form of experience in the visual arts within the traditional media categories. It is perhaps in the artist’s attempt to recreate those lost collective experiences that have disappeared in modern life, or to generate a feeling about his work pointing to that same loss, that the alienating aspects of modern life can be sensed.

For example, in Griffin’s trompe l’oeil polychromed and steel construction, Rug, Rock, Books and Bird Houses (1984), he juxtaposes a series of representational images that pull the eye upwards like a film unwinding to its eventual denouement. One moves from the ruglike grid at the base, to rock, tree trunk, a series of increasingly larger wedgeshaped slabs connected to rods supporting a book in the middle (Luhan’s Winter in Taos), a sinuous branch extending upwards, culminating with a bird house, The effect from a distance is like a silhouetted arabesque or antennaelike structure resting in space. But it is in the details that the spectator becomes involved in processing the visual forms encountered. Form, color and texture are contrasted in a way reminiscent of Cubist, Surrealist or Baroque decorative juxtapositions, stream-of-consciousness writing or cinematic editing procedures.

Once one encounters the piece up close, the eye “cuts” up, across, down and back again from one component to the next. One is reminded of the filmic faux accord technique, or flashbacks, which allow the filmmaker to create dislocations in time and space while maintaining continuous movement. But instead of time moving forward with an end in sight, one can stop, compare, contrast and piece together the elements of this “visual text” and create one’s own “story” at any time.

But doesn’t a format like this cater to Modernist conventions and fragmentary information? Yes, but this might well be the point of Griffins need to oppose the notion of storytelling in the traditional sense with fragments from his memory and experiences. Through the process of juxtaposition one recognizes the lack of meaning and community in modern society. The method of structuring his creative universe points out that we can only operate metonymically, a part for the whole. There is no better example of this attempt to universalize experience through the particular than Rugs, Rocks, Books and Bird Houses. The title gives us a series of plural references to objects we all can associate with easily. Yet, what we experience at a visual level is one rug, rock, book and bird house, or, we might say in a more general way, everyone’s rock.

Rugs, Rocks, Books and Bird Houses, painted steel, 92 x 15 x 18″, 1984

In contrast to the more sculpturally oriented constructions, Blue Gate (1984) and his chair, Restored, Rennovated, Repaired (1984) are functionally ornamental constructions resonant with multiple associations. Blue Gate for example, explores the functional and the useless simultaneously by allowing one to enter the visual field of activity without recognizing its utility. One realizes immediately by zeroing in on the illusionistic visual mix of objects—tree stump, birdhouse, canoe, rose, barbed wire, repaired and nailed broken pieces of wooden slats—that Griffin is fascinated with using representational elements as a form of ornamentation. Their juxtaposition bypasses the abstracted and formal nature of ornamentation that is most often found in contemporary ornamental ironwork. Griffin was familiar with Saarinen’s gates at Cranbrook, the gates of Albert Paley and was most likely conscious of gates and their relationship to the history of the decorative arts.

In looking at the suggestive formal and conceptual relationships used in this gate. Griffin conjures up a whole series of references. The thorns of a rose’s stem are contrasted to the barbed wire (the natural versus the manmade), or the idea of a barbed-wire fence being used as a barrier or enclosure to keep animals penned in, is subtly opposed to the notion of a gate with its allusions to entering and exiting. The gate, when viewed more closely, is in a state of disrepair and is temporarily held together. This is an example of what Griffin calls “design by necessary” (e.g., using a coathanger to hold up a muffler until one got to Midas).

Griffin’s chair, Restored, Rennovated, Repaired (see Cover), has obviously been conditioned in part by the contemporary furniture movement and the Postmodernist overload of appropriated images, forms, style and concepts from previous art movements, artists and the decorative arts. When he arrived at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1984 to teach and direct the Metalsmithing Department, Griffin came into contact with the design legacy of Saarinen and Eames. His chair is a whimsical ret reverent homage to Charles Eames’ DCM chair (1946). The mottled cowhide and the shape of the chair are visual footnotes to the DCM designed by Eames. But Griffin makes his “conceptual repairs” in terms of his own regionalist and bricoleur sensibility. Instead of rubber shock mounts on the legs, a cowboy boot is used on the right front leg. This sets up some interesting juxtapositions when tine finds one’s own shoe adjacent to a cowboy boot. There are infinite potential sitters with infinite possibilities of shoe to boot relationships. Randomness and chance enter the picture by the participation, dress code and physique of each individual sitter.

There are some interesting ironic twists in this work when seen in relation to Eames’ and Duchamp’s concepts. Eames’ molded plywood seats were conceived as functional design and meant for mass consumption. Griffins chair represents the opposite, being one-of-a-kind and expressing the idea of transience. Yet, the Eames chair seems deceptively fragile in its delicate line and presence. The erroneous notion is dispelled by knowing that the design and molded plywood process make it extremely strong. Griffin’s chair, on the other hand, is a symbolic reference to ephemerality (e.g., the temporary repair job of the chair’s back). Like Duchamp, he even plays with the title in order to reinforce the idea of the chair being “repaired.” What interests Griffin is the trace of human presence in the chair’s repair job and the way he has “crafted” his steel chair, rather than its potential as an anonymously produced designed object.

I Wish I’d Known Herbert, steel, 117 x 12 x 24″, 1983

In contrast to Duchamp’s readymades, Griffin doesn’t literally use a functional object and divest it of its utility in order to make it “art.” Instead, Griffin first “makes” his chair. It is not a found object selected by a gratuitous process of indifference. But Griffin does appropriate a style of chair (in this case the Eames chair), replicates it partially and repairs it in some ways like Duchamp’s rectified readymades, and reinvests it with recognizable symbols. Above all, the chair still functions, where the Fountain or Bottlerack of Duchamp maintains its enigmatic relation to the idea of usefulness by denying its function. The distinction between Duchamp and Griffin can be summed up in their approach to the spectator. Duchamp distances himself and his art from the viewer. It is an art that is hermetic and puzzling. Griffin attempts to close the gap between the spectator and the work by making it accessible and humorous. This is possible because the work is an open text, consisting of a set of common symbols, and not a solipsistic meditation.

The phases of Griffin’s development illustrate a distinct progression from a mechanistic perception of the world to a humanistic one. He has had to clear away an imaginative space for himself that makes the decorative arts (particularly the ornamental aspects) and other influences from Modernist and Postmodernist developments his own. This has necessitated a form of internal criticism through which he raises polemical issues within his own work to move from one area of concern to another. One also finds within his work a way to critique a society that has seemingly lost its ancient communal bonds. This is done through a dialectical approach, pitting natural against manmade, permanence against transcience, ideal against pragmatic, anonymity against individuality, objectivity against subjectivity. All of these opposites are summed up in what Griffin calls the “simultaneous existence of extremes.”

It is also easy to sense, in retrospect, the basic utopian and ideal beliefs that were so strained in his earlier machine-tooled ornaments of the late 70s filtering through his current work. The seeds of this brand of social idealism can be traced from Ruskin and Morris in the 19th century to social critics like Walter Benjamin in our own century. But can a brand of idealism seeking to find common denominators and images effectively reinstate a communal sensibility today? This is the question Griffin appears to be addressing at the moment, and it is worth the risk to pursue it.

  1. Statement “On Recent Work” for an exhibition at the Helen Drutt Gallery in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania (September 22-October 10, 1981).
  2. See Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Pages 5-92 are important for Bloom’s premise about the anxieties of influence a poet has with his precursors. However, in art, just as in poetry, influence doesn’t necessarily make the work less original. See also Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
  3. Gary Griffin, “Machine Tool Technology: An Aesthetic Application.” Goldsmith’s Journal, June 1978, pp. A-L.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. See Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy: A New World View. New York: Bantam Books, 1981, and Rudolf Arnheim, Entropy and Art: An Essay on Disorder and Order. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
  7. Jeremy Rifkin, Entropy: A New World View, New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p. 6.
  8. Ibid, pp. 33-14.
  9. This quote is derived from Gary Griffin’s statement concerning his ideas about momentary pins in 1979.
  10. Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and other Essays. Trans. Jonathan Mayne, New York: Phaidon Press, 1970. p. 12.
  11. Ibid, p. 13.
  12. This quote is taken from an interview between Roy Slade and Gary Griffin for Griffin’s exhibit at Cranbrook Academy of Art February 5-April 7, 1985, “Gary S. Griffin, Recent Works in Steel.”
  13. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller”, Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. p. 92.
  14. Ibid, p. 89.
  15. In my discussion with Griffin in March of 1985, he mentioned the editing procedures of Apocalypse Now. In particular he cited the scene in which Martin Sheen is lying down and viewing the fan above before it cuts to a sequence of routing helicopter blades. Griffin has always had a penchant for formal connections and this is a perfect example of this sort of comparison done cinematically.
  16. In 1977 Art et Industrie, under the direction of Rick Kaufman, initiated the current strain of art furniture in America. The polemically inclined Memphis group of Ettore Sottsass as well as the designers Main & Main have also been influential in determining the course of art furniture.

C. E. Licka is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Southern Mississippi and a contributing editor to this magazine.