Front Row Seat at Telfair Museums

Lisbeth Cheever-Gessaman

Photography by Ryan Gibson


Few things are as taken for granted as the act of seating, yet the most important events in history have occurred when someone was sitting down. From the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, whether we embark on tasks from the frivolous to the monumental, it is certain there will be a chair there to support us. Chairs represent a natural role of order and authority (or as Clint Eastwood demonstrated in the 2012 Republican National Convention, the absence of it). The distinction they represent between man and beast is conveyed perhaps better than any other prehistoric and simultaneously contemporary object.

The art of sitting elevated to sitting as art when Marina Abramovic enticed visitors to pull up a chair in her 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, The Artist Is Present. In Abramovic’s critically celebrated work, viewers queued singlefile to take their places before her and simply sit. This intimacy of sitting was demonstrably profound; the silent act of gazing at one another in situ was enough to move many participants to tears (though whether of laughter or a more sensitive stirring is unknown). Sitting has infiltrated even our language: Before we stand together, we must first sit in agreement. Intolerance and non-participation are idiomatically implied through the use of phrasing (“I’m not going to stand for this!” “Then perhaps you should sit this one out.”). Whereas bad things do not sit well, good ones make us sit up and take notice. Receiving news, whether grave or grandiose, comes complicit with the advice, or at least the query, “Are you sitting down?” Good writers keep you on the edge of your seat, better ones may find you falling off your chair. We sit tight and pretty, on pins and needles as well as on the fence, and if we aren’t on our guard while doing so, risk being labeled as a sitting duck (although nothing in nature suggests that ducks have mastered the art of chair design, let alone possess the capacity to sit at all).

Chairs predate written history, suggesting that it was perhaps first required to gather our thoughts before learning to compose them. We can only speculate on the event that inspired the creation of the functional art of seating; what can be known is that at some distant point past, agrarian man rose up and deigned to elevate himself if not permanently off the ground, at least comfortably so. Of the earliest chairs little is known, save what can be gleaned from scant monuments and hieroglyphics, yet of those limited illustrations, the chair’s essential form has scarcely changed across the span of time. Whether high or low, ornamental or sparse in its simplicity, there are the essential four legs, a seat, and a back to support a singular human form. Focusing on the American stylization of this ultimate emblem of a civilized race, the upcoming exhibition The Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design, organized by the Museum of Contemporary art—Jacksonville, and hosted by Telfair Museums here in Savannah—reiterates the fundamental design of the chair as art and demonstrates its place in our society.