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Highlight from the Permanent Art Collection: Margaret Wharton’s “Chair”


by Teresa J. Parker, Curator, University Art Collection

Photo credit: Teresa Parker

Photo credit: Teresa Parker

When is a chair not a chair? That has been a famous question since the early 1900s when artists like Marcel Duchamp and Rene Magritte made ironic art comments on real objects, either painted or re-appropriated for a new purpose. In Chicago, Margaret Wharton made her living taking objects and making new things out of them. She liked working with various materials and found objects like chairs or books and transformed them into witty, critical works of art. Wharton’s work always involved precise craftsmanship and attention to detail.

Her sculptures, including “Chair” a sculpture in the university’s permanent collection, is a play on the idea of a three-dimensional object redone as a two-dimensional piece. Her chair is made of strips of bark and flattened wood. It has a fragile feel. The chair is made in an isometric view so it looks three-dimensional, but she has done away with the expected volume and mass of the chair to ‘squish it’ between two enormous pieces of glass. The piece sits on the floor and rests against a wall. The glass can be moved, but the piece is so heavy, no one would want to move it.

Wharton’s idea comes from a famous conceptual piece of art by Joseph Kosuth, who, in the 1970s, took a chair and took a photograph of it. He put it on the wall next to the actual chair. Then, he went further to put the dictionary’s description of a chair printed one the other side of the actual chair. The idea was to discuss, which of the three things was the real chair-the physical object, the simulated photograph, or the mental image from the description? In Wharton’s piece we clearly see her homage to Kosuth and Duchamp.

To give some biographical information on Ms. Wharton, she was born in Virginia in 1943. She grew up in Pennsylvania, went to school in Maryland and then moved to Chicago, where she studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago. She exhibited her work in dozens of exhibitions throughout the U.S. and was represented by famous galleries Phyllis Kind, Zolla-Lieberman and most recently Jean Albano. Having received numerous grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation, she was also recognized as co-founder of the Artemisia Cooperative Gallery, a Chicago gallery for women artists. Her work is included in several public collections, including American Medical Association, The Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Dallas Museum, Dallas, TX, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Until shortly before her death in 2013, she would still work five days a week in her daughter’s garage in Oak Park, often listening to jazz music, which she felt inspired her creatively. It’s a nice way to spend your life,” Wharton said. “It gets you thinking, it’s very peaceful and a way to visit with your soul.”