PITTSFIELD — Were the Shakers O.G. Minimalists? If you asked the late artist Donald Judd, he of the perfectly proportioned floating steel boxes, I’d bet the answer would be yes. Judd, a charter member of the Minimalist art cadre in the early 1960s was a known admirer of their stripped-down style. Two years after he died, a 1996 show of his furniture at Long Island’s Parrish Museum shared billing with an array of Shakerware.
The Shakers, a tiny breakaway sect from British Quakerism who took root in America almost 250 years ago, might have been the first to hone austerity into an art form. Their furniture, dress, tableware, and architecture had no wasted stroke. Whatever their intentions, they made supreme utility — an art on its own — crisply beautiful.
At Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires, the sprawling campus of one of the country’s largest Shaker settlements serves as a perfectly-preserved remnant of a faith, ethic, and lifestyle now all but defunct. (There is but a single active Shaker settlement left in North America, located in Maine. Population: two.) But the Shaker aesthetic is another story. More than two centuries since their clean-lined craft emerged, they’ve gone viral. They epitomized the Modernist edict “less is more” centuries before Mies van der Rohe coined it: You can see the Shaker imprint in everything from mid-century Scandinavian Modernism to contemporary fashion. Polymathic artist-fashion director Virgil Abloh recently designed a furniture line for Ikea inspired by the sect’s traditional seating.
Shakers themselves may be nearly extinct, but abiding interest in their design sensibilities promises eternal life. Just this week, the Shaker Museum in Chatham, N.Y., announced a new $18 million home. And at Hancock, big-name artists and designers infuse the old wooden hallways with great gusts of contemporary vitality.
Last month, the museum opened three exhibitions in the Brick Dwelling, a five-story communal-living complex built more than a century ago: Designer Tory Burch’s “Beauty Rests on Utility”; fashion designer and artist Gary Graham’s “Looking Back to Look Forward”; and “Lapsed Quaker Ware” by artists James Turrell and Nicholas Mosse, both of whom were raised with the Quaker faith but abandoned it later in life. (For the opening a few weeks ago, Turrell, best-known for his expansive works using light and sky, presided over a silent Quaker meeting. The press release described he and Mosse, simply, as “no longer lapsed.”) This weekend, the museum will open two more shows, by textile artist Laura Sansone and sculptor Thomas Barger.
But first things first. It shouldn’t surprise that designers like Burch and Graham are drawn to Shaker aesthetics. It would be impossible for these tactile makers not to admire the material mastery of even the smallest things. Turrell, who abandoned material entirely decades ago, seems more a stretch. But Turrell had always been fascinated by the black basalt crockery his family had while he was growing up. On a trip to Ireland, he rediscovered an antique strain of it mass-produced by the Wedgwood company in Britain, and determined to make his own.
Working with Mosse — also a refugee from the faith, at least at the time — the pair brought crushed basalt from Turrell’s Roden Crater property in Arizona to Ireland to craft inky-black dinnerware — multiple plate sizes, cups, a tureen. Fitted with an intricate basket-weave pattern in a sheenless flat black, the pieces set a Shaker dinner table in the Brick Dwelling with unearthly stillness. The pieces reflect nothing; they seem to drink in light. The scene feels like a requiem, or an offering — a paying of respects to the departed. I feel confident in calling it the most intense dinnerware you’ll ever see.
Burch, meanwhile, is not so somber. Upstairs in what would have been a bedroom, bright yellow window casings give the austere setting irresistible pop. (For all their clean lines, Shakers loved bright color.) I don’t know that the scene feels all that different from a particularly austere Burch boutique (four in Massachusetts alone) though it’s curated with a care that exalts Shaker priorities in material and proportion. If nothing else, Burch’s interspersing of objects from her various product lines with historic objects from the museum’s collection makes a point: that the Shakers’ aesthetic is as timeless as it is saleable.
Down the hall, Graham dreams a little bigger. His take on a 19th-century Quaker cloak drapes heavily on a mannequin, swallowing its torso and limbs in swaths of heavy felt. On nearby tables are cut-outs from dressmaking patterns, with the constituent parts of the enveloping garment nearby. Once made, Graham swaddled an actor in the piece and filmed her walking the internal perimeter of the site’s grand stone barn. Light falls from the central cupola. Like the Shakers themselves, she seems to exist somewhere outside real time, all but gone but eternal all the same.
JAMES TURRELL AND NICHOLAS MOSSE: LAPSED QUAKER WARE
TORY BURCH: BEAUTY RESTS ON UTILITY
GARY GRAHAM: LOOKING BACK TO LOOK FORWARD
At Hancock Shaker Village, 1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield. 413-443-0188, www.hancockshakervillage.org