Judy Kensley McKie - Important Design London Wednesday, April 25, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Judy Kensley McKie: Leopards in the American Studio

    We take a closer look at the legacy of Judy Kensley McKie's 'Leopard Couch', 1983, a seminal work that pays homage to the cultures that influenced her — Art Deco, Egyptomania and Post-modernism — while also creating something entirely new, and genre-defying.

  • Provenance

    Private collection, acquired directly from the artist, circa 1983

  • Literature

    Joy Cattanach Smith, 'Judy Kensley McKie', American Craft, vol. 43, no. 6, December 1983-January 1984, illustrated pp. 4-5
    Judy Kensley McKie, 'Portfolio: Judy Kensley McKie, An Innovative Designer Talks about Making a Living', Fine Woodworking, no. 44, January/February 1984, illustrated pp. 76, 80
    Eva Weber, American Art Deco, New York, 1985, illustrated p. 183
    Todd McKie and Judy Kensley McKie, Mckie, exh. cat., Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, 1990, p. 31
    Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf, Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, Chapel Hill, 2010, p. 386, fig. 10.6
    Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Gerald W.R. Ward, Kelly H. L'Ecuyer, The Maker's Hand, American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2003, p. 85

  • Catalogue Essay

    Showing Her Spots: Judy McKie’s Leopard Couch

    Judy Kensley McKie started as a painter – and it shows. She is above all a creator of unforgettable images. Most commonly, her iconography involves magically conjured creatures: birds, dogs, monkeys, horses, bears, jungle cats. If they were not assuming the forms of tables and chairs, they could easily find other roles to play: in a children’s book, a puppet show, or a Navajo sand painting.

    Though hand‐carved (and after 1987, when she began a productive collaboration with the foundry master Piero Mussi, often cast in bronze), her work strays far afield from the traditional preoccupations of furniture (See Glenn Adamson, Edward S. Cooke, Jr, and Ariel Zaccheo, Judy Kensley McKie: Cast of Characters, San Francisco, 2018). There is no fine figured wood, intricate joinery, or ergonomic precision in McKie’s oeuvre. Rather, her designs are distinguished by their brilliant volumetric draftsmanship and the sheer wit of their conception.

    Yet of course, McKie is a furniture maker, and she is one through and through. Like just a handful of others who have devoted themselves to this demanding discipline, such as Wendell Castle, Gaetano Pesce, and Joris Laarman, she has completely reimagined the medium according to her own vision. McKie has done this without engaging in advanced technology or radical forming techniques; and her touch is so light, her forms so effortlessly resolved, that it is possible to miss just how profoundly original she has been. Yet there is no doubt that her objects are completely sui generis.

    The basis of McKie’s unique aesthetic is her complete intertwining of figure and functional form. Of course, furniture has long featured zoomorphic ornamentation. The ball‐and‐claw foot is virtually synonymous with the genre, and every decorative arts collection is a menagerie. But conventionally, animal motifs are isolated ornaments, a lion mask popped on to a knee, or a shellfish centering a pediment. McKie’s breakthrough was to fully realize the implicit animism of the furniture form. After all, we speak of these objects as having legs, feet, and arms. Why not follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion?

    This brings us to her real genius as a designer: her inexhaustible imagination. Sometimes, McKie makes her animals stand on four feet, head down, with a flat back for a table. Even these straightforward designs are wonderful, thanks to the life she imbues into every curve. But in most cases she does more than that, twisting and turning her animals in unexpected ways, as if they were creature contortionists. In 'Cat Chair' (2012), a feline tail curls up to form the back. In 'Round Hound Table' (2009), a pair of dogs chase each other endlessly round a base, each grabbing the other’s tail. In 'Serpent Table' (1992) three snakes wiggle up from the floor to grasp a glass top in their mouths. And in 'Monkey Settee' (1995), one of her best‐known designs, two pairs of gibbons crouch stiffly to form arms, like guardian spirits from an ancient tomb. Their tails meet in elegant double spirals to the rear.

    'Leopard Couch' (1983) ranks among McKie’s most compelling conceptions. It is a very early example of her signature style. She had begun exploring animal imagery just six years before, initially by adding shallow relief carvings to boxes and other simple forms. Much of her early inspiration came from artifacts she was seeing in museums, from Africa, India, and ancient Egypt, as well as Mesoamerican and Inuit cultures. These historic objects were ‘made primarily to be useful', she remarked, 'but also made with a certain kind of care—they had a preciousness, something very special about them’ (Joy Cattanach Smith, ‘Judy Kensley McKie’, American Craft , no. 43/6, Dec. 1983/Jan. 1984, p. 2). Increasingly, she achieved this ineffable quality in her own work. In 1979 she had her first professional breakthrough when she was included in the exhibition ‘New Handmade Furniture’, curated by Paul Smith for the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts and Design) (Paul Smith, New American Furniture: American Furniture Makers Working in Hardwood, New York, 1979). This show positioned her alongside other prominent makers of the time, including Wendell Castle, and featured some of her initial forays into sculpting in‐the‐round.

    In 'Leopard Couch', we can see the liberation that McKie found by embracing three‐ dimensionality. Still transitional, in that the animals make up only part of the design rather than the whole, it is nonetheless an extremely dynamic object. The great cats are perfectly symmetrical, but for their spots (which are burned in with a torch flame). Their low‐slung bodies pace along the back edge of the fabric‐upholstered seat. Unexpectedly long tails curve sinuously into armrests; each ends in a neat curlicue, an amusing echo of the grips sometimes seen on historic chairs. Though she built the piece in mahogany, the most traditional of furniture timbers (and highly suitable for carving), McKie made the unusual choice to bleach the wood, so that it mimics a real leopard’s tawny coat.

    In the piece’s oddest and most affecting detail, the two animals touch their toothy jaws together – not quite a kiss. The gesture rings true. One can imagine two potential rivals engaged in just such a wary greeting out in the wild. This perceptive moment is classic McKie, as is the way that she completely unites the sculptural imperatives of the couch with its structural considerations. There is no separation here between the fantastical and the functional. One of her first true masterpieces, Leopard Bench is the work of an artist of rare imagination and skill, just at the moment when she was defining her mature style.

    Glenn Adamson, Senior Research Scholar, Yale Center for British Art

  • Artist Biography

    Judy Kensley McKie

    American • 1944

    Judy Kensley McKie is an American designer best known for her whimsical furniture, which often features animal forms and a combination of woodworking and bronze casting. As McKie’s woodworking career progressed, she moved from carving animals in relief onto the surfaces of cabinets and tables, to carving animals out of the body of the form itself, becoming the arms, legs and back structural supports of her designs, to fully realized animal sculptures incorporated into her designs that appear to be in movement, simultaneously living within the object and among its users.

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'Leopard Couch'

Bleached mahogany with scorched decoration, fabric.
78.8 x 228.6 x 66.1 cm (31 x 90 x 26 in.)
Underside incised © JKM 1983.

£120,000 - 180,000 Ω

Sold for £150,000

Contact Specialist
Madalena Horta e Costa
Head of Sale
+44 20 7318 4019

Important Design

London Auction 26 April 2018