In the Zone: Wendell Castle's Environment for Contemplation

Glenn Adamson, Senior Research Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, takes a look at a unique design suggesting a primordial cavern—translated into a contemporary idiom.

Glenn Adamson, Senior Research Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, takes a look at a unique design suggesting a primordial cavern—translated into a contemporary idiom.

Wendell Castle, Environment for Contemplation, 1970. 

By Glenn Adamson

In the dead of winter, 1970, the Museum of Contemporary Crafts invited its visitors to take a trip. The destination was Contemplation Environments, curated by the museum's director Paul J. Smith.1 Designed by the architect Gamal el-Zoghby, the show included sixteen artist-designed spaces;2 ticketing was limited, in order to ensure that each visitor could experience the exhibition "in relative isolation and quiet."3

Collectively, Contemplation Environments encompassed everything that the counterculture was ever meant to be, and more. References to Tibetan Buddhism mixed freely with space-age novelties. There were meditation chambers – one of woven fiber, one of fresh turf, one outfitted with an oscilloscope and a "negative oxygen ion" emitter. One booth, lined with stones and moss, featured an interactive, electronic I Ching. Plastic was much in evidence, in the shape of water-filled spheres, fiberglass chairs with soundtracks and two vertical columns with an "air shower" and a "stroboscopic crystal waterfall."4 What can I say? I'm sorry you missed it.

Wendell Castle with Environment for Contemplation during construction, 1969. Artwork © The Estate of Wendell Castle. Image courtesy of The Estate of Wendell Castle.

Right at the heart of the show, up on the mezzanine, was Wendell Castle's Environment for Contemplation. It must have stood out in a show of immersive, immaterial experiences; this was an object, albeit a big one that you could crawl inside. Made using Castle's signature stack lamination technique – in which boards are individually shaped, glued together and then carved to final form – its ample curves could be those of some previously undiscovered beast, the offspring of a small dinosaur and a Bactrian camel. One side opens up via a biomorphic door, revealing an interior upholstered with black shag carpet. Up top, flanking an orifice-like skylight, are two domes (they were abbreviated from a single curved, handle-like form that Castle had initially envisioned for the design). They are covered in black flocking. So is the cloud-like fiberglass tail, which extends from one end of the pod; its undulating contours would not be out of place in a Peter Max poster. Sit down inside, and a pressure-sensitive plate is activated, turning on the exposed bulb: Do not disturb. Enlightenment in progress.

Castle, we should remember, was no hippie. Born and raised in Kansas, he was the hardest working man in the furniture business. By 1970, he was already at the height of his powers. Private commissions were flowing in, and he was riding high on the success of Objects: USA, the omnibus exhibition orchestrated by Castle's New York dealer, Lee Nordness (with considerable assistance from Smith). The massive show had opened in Washington D.C. the previous year, and was at that moment on its national tour, with Castle often singled out as one of the most exciting exhibitors. Meanwhile, he was pushing the boundaries of his own practice. He had recently launched one of America's first lines of injection-molded plastic furniture, as well as a collection of hand-fabricated fiberglass lamps, which bear more than a passing resemblance to the EfC's lighting element. Castle's forms were radically unfamiliar, but also warm and approachable; he was able to appeal to many different audiences simultaneously. At the same time that he was showing in Contemplation Environments, he was working on large-scale corporate commissions. The emerging scholar Kayleigh Perkov has recently argued that this popularity was partly due to his fusion of individualism and systems thinking – both highly respected virtues at the dawn of the Information Age, for companies and counterculture alike.5

If the other displays were meant to blow your mind, Castle offered a gentler provocation.

Neke Carson Moon Man Fountain, 1969, another work included in the 1970 exhibition "Contemplation Environments" at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York. Artwork © Neke Carson. Photograph by Philippe Halsman. Image courtesy of Halsman Archive.

Thus, Castle was very different from the other exhibitors in Contemplation Environments, both by context and disposition. He was plenty tuned in, but it is difficult to imagine him dropping out. And though he had a tremendous capacity for flights of fancy – an imaginative intensity that stayed with him throughout his life – he also drew upon deep wells of Midwestern pragmatism. So, as far as psychedelia was concerned, he was an onlooker, not a participant. The EfC is consistent with this. If the other displays in the exhibition were meant to blow your mind, Castle offered a gentler provocation, inviting visitors to consider what an ideal "environment for contemplation" would be. Would it really look like this? A womb with a view? Yes, you could get inside and close the door. But mainly, the EfC is something to look at, and wonder about: a sculptural meditation on the theme of inner voyage.

Each element of the work plays a part within this playful symbolism. The main stack-laminated body suggests a primordial cavern, translated into a contemporary idiom. Its bulbous, slightly tapered shape is determined by the interior seating space – room to stretch out – while also evoking the streamlined, "teardrop" stylings of 1930s industrial design. Those objects had seemed to hurtle forward in space even while standing still, an idea that was faintly ridiculous when applied to radios and toasters, but totally appropriate here. The two black domes lend the work a sci-fi flavor; they could be receiving some transmission from another dimension. Most dramatic is the illuminated, muscular black conduit that stretches out of the form, curving downwards to flatly meet the floor. It's as if the whole object were plugged into some subterranean wellspring, and energy was pulsating up into it.

The two black domes lend the work a sci-fi flavor; they could be receiving some transmission from another dimension.

Detail from Environment for Contemplation. 

In his visual essay on the theme of meditation, Castle met the artists at MoMA halfway. Assertively material and entirely accessible, the EfC could not have been mistaken for conceptual art; yet it also a sophisticated intellectual proposition, an object good to think with. Looking back at the confluence of exhibitions, it is striking how they mirror a fundamental divide in perceptions about the counterculture. Did geodesic domes, communes, mind-altering drugs, and free love amount to one big escapist fantasy? Or were they a genuinely transformative force, with the potential to reshape society for the better? The answer, of course, is a little of both; and the brilliance of the EfC is how it bridges these seeming oppositions. Depending on one's point of view, it could come off as a spiritual vehicle to a higher plane, or a humorous send-up of that very idea. It is both cartoonish and profound, a thought bubble and a hand-crafted monument. In its contradictions, it seems to encapsulate America at the dawn of the 1970s: a moment absurd and inspiring in equal measure.

Wendell Castle, sketch for Environment for Contemplation, 1969. Artwork © The Estate of Wendell Castle.

Interestingly, during the same months that Contemplation Environments was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, the Museum of Modern Art (just next door on 53rd Street in Manhattan) was also presenting a series of immersive environments. Simply entitled Spaces, this pioneering exhibition of minimalist and conceptual art included such luminaries as Michael Asher, Larry Bell, Dan Flavin and Robert Morris. The editors of Craft Horizons drew an interesting distinction between the two shows. The MCC's own project, they wrote, was an antidote to the hectic environs of New York City. A kind of public service, it was meant to "lead the participant to a personal serenity and self-awareness as a relief from the sensory tensions of urban life."6 MoMA's exhibition, by contrast, was intended "not to soothe the visitor, but to compound the tensions inherent in artworks." This juxtaposition between two museums – one seeking to relieve unspecified "tensions," the other to heighten them – perhaps speaks to the stereotypical opposition between craft and fine art that prevailed at that time. But there was also truth in the comparison. Spaces was austere, intellectually challenging. Contemplation Environments was spectacular, eager to please.

Interior view of Environment for Contemplation. 

Amazingly enough, none of this makes it feel dated. Indeed, the EfC was far more visionary than the more explicitly futuristic projects in Contemplation Environments. In the show, and indeed in America, Castle was unique in forging a synthesis of technical experimentation, handcraft, and speculative thinking. Today, five decades on, that is essentially the formula for advanced design. In the EfC, Castle responded to the cultural winds that blew his way, while remaining steadfastly himself; in the process, he pointed toward a new frontier for design. That, in itself, is something to contemplate.

Smith, a reliably sensitive antenna for cultural currents throughout his tenure at the museum, recalls that at the time he had become interested in yoga and Transcendental Meditation, and had come to know many artists who shared these interests; author’s interview with Smith, 5 September 2018.
Born in Egypt, El-Zoghby was based in New York and though still relatively young, had begun establishing himself with residential spaces (including his own) featuring multiplatform, “totally coordinated living environments.” He was for many years a professor of architecture at Pratt Institute. See Rita Reif, “It Wasn’t Easy Selling People on the Idea,” New York Times (13 January 1971).
3 Press release for “Contemplation Environments,” January 1970. American Craft Council archive.
4 Contemplation Environments (New York: Museum of Contemporary Crafts, 1970).
5 See Kayleigh Perkov, “Recurring Aesthetics, Emergent Traditions: Wendell Castle’s Continued Relevance to Corporate Culture,” Journal of Modern Craft 11/1 (March 2018), p. 3-15.
6 “Designed for Contemplation,” Craft Horizons 30/2 (March/April 1970), p. 13.