Christopher Kurtz is swinging on a swing set. It’s a warm October afternoon, and he’s doing quality control on his latest creation, benches (one each of teak, Alaskan cedar, ash, and basswood) that hover like rippling magic carpets from a metal frame. He’ll be installing the piece – a clever way to showcase his new suspended seating – later today at Field + Supply, the annual modernist craft fair held just down the road from Kurtz’s Kingston, New York, studio in the bucolic town of Stone Ridge. (The piece will prove to be the smash hit of the fair, mobbed for three days with people of all ages piling on for group selfies.)
The seating seems effortless, a minor bit of whimsy. But that’s by design. Kurtz, a woodworker who identifies as a sculptor first and a furniture maker second, is not interested in showy demonstrations of technique. Behind his work’s apparent insouciance lies tremendous technical rigor and a fascination with negative space.
Take Kurtz’s recent series of starburst sculptures, constellations of diaphanous staves tapering off in fine points. All are made from blocks of wood carved down to whispers with a spokeshave – a process similar to sharpening a pencil. Kurtz then joins the pieces and covers the seams in layers of graphite or milk paint.
“I want it to be a sculpture first,” Kurtz says, “then the craft is something the viewer understands after spending some time with it. Craft can be like golden handcuffs. People can hide behind technique. Good technique doesn’t always make good art.”
Kurtz’s virtuosity and materials-based approach is partly explained by his assistantship with Martin Puryear, whom Kurtz refers to as “a force in contemporary sculpture, an amazing craftsman, and incredible human being” – and the man who taught Kurtz how to work with wood. In 1999, after two years at Kansas City Art Institute, two years at Alfred University, and a summer intensive studying landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Kurtz was done with academia. “I graduated from all these fancy schools, and I felt like I didn’t have any skills,” Kurtz says.
So Kurtz sought out Puryear, the working artist he most admired. Through a friend of a friend, he got Puryear’s address and mailed his portfolio and a letter asking for a job. “It was a total cold call,” Kurtz says. “And then Martin called me and said, ‘Yeah, this looks great. I would love to work with you, but I only hire people who are local.’ ”
Kurtz, who had moved back home to Kansas City, packed his bags and relocated to Hudson, New York, closer to Puryear, with no job and no money. Once Kurtz arrived, he called him back. “I said, ‘I live in the Hudson Valley now; what do you think?’ ”
Kurtz spent five years working as Puryear’s assistant. “I could have stayed working with Martin forever. He’s deep water to drink from.” One of Kurtz’s last duties with Puryear was helping with the artist’s bravura retrospective at MoMA in 2007.
Like Puryear, whose enigmatic work is also confoundingly familiar, Kurtz’s pieces can be mysterious and challenging, while maintaining a tone of serenity and bright optimism. Singularity (2013), an elegant bramble of basswood points stretching 6 feet high and 12 feet wide, might be a squad of ballerinas in arabesque, or it might be galloping herd of bison straight from Dances with Wolves.
Unlike Puryear, Kurtz tends to wear his influences on his sleeve, and the modernist aesthetics of Brancusi and Giacometti are easy to spot in his purity of line. His furniture tends to challenge materials, as in the Bauhaus-inspired dining tables with hollow legs that reference the tubular steel furniture of Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam. The legs disappear through the tabletop, mini-black holes sucking expectations down through the elastic portal between art and design. At this point, Kurtz is very comfortable tweaking perceived notions.
“I’ve taken a slow-cooking approach to my career,” he says. “I’m 40 years old now, and I’m just now starting to get a body of work that I feel like is mine.”
The first commission Kurtz ever got was from a friend’s parents – a set of 10 birdcage Windsor chairs. The production of the intricate, many-spindled chairs took much longer than expected and proved an eyeopening experience to the nascent maker. “There was so much lathe turning, I got so overwhelmed,” says Kurtz. “That production kicked my ass. It blew up my romantic idea of the woodturner in the woods making chairs for a living.”
His response? A sculpture: (A)Typical Windsor Form (2004), a Mobius strip of two intertwining chairs pitched at angles impossible to sit on – an anti-chair that became an early calling card for a furniture maker with a wildly creative streak. “I loved those Windsor chairs but felt kind of beleaguered by them after a while,” he says. “With the sculpture, I wanted to regain the ownership of my love for that chair again. I struggled with these notions of ‘Am I a sculptor? Am I a furniture maker? Am I going to be a craftsman? Am I going to be a conceptual artist like I was trained in art school?’ (A)Typical Windsor Form embodies all the struggle and the pleasure of making things and looking at furniture history and figuring out my identity as an artist or designer or maker.”
Just as he seeks harmony in his work, Kurtz strives for equilibrium in his practice. “If all I’m getting are furniture commissions, I skip work and start on a sculpture to balance it out,” he says. “And if I only did sculpture, I’d totally get lost in fantasy, in poetry. The furniture brings me back down to earth. If I feel too earthbound by the furniture, I’m able to have a break from that with the sculpture.”
This is the necessary tension in Christopher Kurtz’s work, the practical magic in its duality: design and chance, form and function, art and craft. It’s also its simple, unifying framework. The furniture turns into sculpture, the sculpture turns into furniture. All Kurtz’s schooling, his time with Puryear, his years of perfecting his technique and mastering the materials — they add up to the work of one man’s hands. “Ideas come from making things,” says Kurtz.
“I like the alchemy of manipulating materials with your hands, taking a stick of wood and transforming it into something magical.”
Brian K. Mahoney is editor of Chronogram, a lifestyle magazine covering the Hudson Valley.