Ellsworth Kelly and Shaker Furniture

Our guest blogger this week is Maxwell Taylor-Milner. His writing has appeared in YST PublicationsBard Papers, and as a chapbook, The Collected Evenings. He has conducted interviews with artists and writers for The Believer and Arabesques Review. He lives across the river from Hudson, NY, where he is the Assistant Director at Jeff Bailey Gallery.

In 1970, not long after moving his studio upstate, from New York City to the hamlet of Spencertown, Ellsworth Kelly bought a table. At first glance, it could be one of a hundred near-identical antique tables: a bit worn, a bit weathered, about the size of a ten-person dining table, medium brown. At nine feet long and just under three wide, the top, made of three pine planks of three different widths framed by a narrow piece of perpendicular trim at each end, seems to float on a shallow beech apron. The outer corner of each leg is flush with the apron, defining its rectangle rather than punctuating it, The inner faces of each leg are tapered, so the negative space formed between each are trapezoidal rather than rectangular. This in turn creates an optical illusion, that each leg is angled slightly out, a vector instead of a pillar, lifting the table up instead of merely supporting its weight. Rather than one in a hundred, it is actually one of three Shaker tables, now differentiated by time and refinishings, all made around 1835 in the Shaker settlement at Mount Lebanon, New York. Kelly wanted it immediately.

a_work_table_2016.5.22_ 1

Table, ca. 1835, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, New York, Pine top, beech legs and aprons, maple center cross cleat Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 2016.5.22

The Shakers, formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, were a millennialist Christian sect, established in England in 1747 as a more charismatic alternative to the Church of England. Inspired by a vision, Mother Ann Lee, the movement’s most important leader, left England for America in 1774, where she, with a small group of others, would found the first Shaker settlement at Watervliet, outside present-day Albany, New York. Hailed as both the second coming of Christ and Christ’s female counterpart, Ann Lee’s revelations were the basis for the enduring Shaker principles of celibacy, gender equality, pacifism and communal living. In order to better uphold these principles, the Shakers created their own, self-sufficient communities, separate from “the world.” In order to maintain their self-sufficiency, and later to supplement it, the Shakers made and sold medicines, seeds, textiles, produce, and, most famously, furniture.

From the outset, the Shakers believed they were living in the Millennium, the thousand-year Golden Age of Christ’s reign prior to Judgment Day. As a result, it was the duty of each believer to embody that golden age, and to strive for perfection in all things. While worship was the most important activity in Shaker communities, their devotion is best witnessed by their material production, especially the meticulous craftsmanship of their furniture. As Mary Lyn Ray writes, “Because the believer ‘put his hands to work and heart to God,’ this furniture has also been termed ‘religion in wood.’ For some, manufacture of furniture was no longer an ordinary assignment of making a table or case of drawers but became an act of worship” (Ray 108). Their dedication to the task was the measure of their devotion, and the means by which the Kingdom of God would be realized.

In keeping with the Shaker sequestration from the world, the better to perfect it, Shaker furniture was not a uniquely new style, but a refinement of what the world had to offer. Certain furniture types were circumscribed by Shaker proscriptions against worldly amusements and fleshly indulgence – card tables and upholstery were off-limits. But other needs, for storage, seating, and workspace, were undeniable. Rather than invent a new kind of ornament to differentiate their furniture, the Shaker commitment to modesty commanded “a paring down of familiar forms from which applied or inlaid ornament was stripped” (Lyn 108). Much of what is considered classic Shaker furniture, like Ellsworth Kelly’s table, was made during the Era of Manifestations, the period of Shaker revival from 1837 into the 1850s, which saw the expansion of the Shaker precepts, known as the Millennial Laws, to include material details such as varnish, paint colors, and mirror size, as well as religious doctrine. The constraints of these edicts also underscored the importance of every action as an occasion for spiritual reflection: “[The Shaker] discarded the superfluous to discover a fundamental for which he was taught to labor in all his habits. Ornament detracted. Instructed in ‘gospel simplicity’ and restricted by the Millennial Laws, the believer framed simple furniture as an exercise in perfection.” (Lyn 114). In contrast to the flowing tracery and applied embellishment of, for example, the contemporaneous Hepplewhite style, the Shaker search for the fundamental resulted in a graceful balance of form and function, in which subtle variations in scale and proportion took precedence.

This search is also what must have drawn Kelly, at the time unaware of the Shakers, their beliefs, and their style, to this table, almost 150 years later. To describe the table in the abstract, is to match it to almost any work by Kelly: a series of expansive, undifferentiated, geometric planes delineated by regular proportions and arranged with a delicate attention to spatial perception. It even contains the 1:3 triptych motif that echoes throughout his oeuvre, whether in the early joined panel painting Train Landscape (1953) or one from the year after he acquired the table, Blue Yellow Red III (1971). The year previous, in “Notes of 1969,” he had written “Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom; there was no longer the need to compose. The subject was there already made, and I could take from everything” (Kelly). For Kelly, as for the Shakers, there was no need to invent or embellish, whether on an article of furniture, or the fleeting beauty of shadows. Slicing, wedging, to describe an eye endlessly isolating and calibrating, compressing and combining, none of these words are limpid enough for the confident but unaggressive assuredness of his forms. One might as well pick a fight with a stone. The Sabbathday Lake Shakers, the last surviving Shaker community, summarize it thus: “The Christian’s task is to live in the present moment and not to store for tomorrow the bread that comes from heaven.” (Sabbathday Shakers). To dwell in the moment, in laboring, looking, perceiving, painting, is paramount.

Kelly’s attention to the moment is also what accounts for another anecdote from his early days in Chatham. Having pulled over to photograph the curving slope of a hill under snow, he received a ticket from a passing highway patrolman, baffled at Kelly’s reasoning for documenting an apparently featureless expanse. Where the inattentive might see monotonous absence, for Kelly there’s always some there there. For Kelly, art was immanent, something that could be peeled off almost effortlessly from the everday, like shavings from a Shaker’s plane.  He continues, in Notes of 1969: “It all belonged to me: a glass roof of a factory with its broken and patched panels, lines on a road map, a corner of a Braque painting, paper fragments in the street. It was all the same: anything goes” (Kelly). Even in the smallest crook or emptiest view, there is always ample material to develop. A magpie of forms, his work plucks the missing piece of the world, the overlooked, the not-yet-seen, and gives it back to us. Forty-odd years later, he would muse, reflecting on the kinship between the Shakers and his own work: “People say ‘Oh, you’ve taken so much out.’ And I say, ‘I just haven’t put it in.’ And that’s very much a Shaker idea. They didn’t put too much in to begin with. So this what you have: form.”

Line and Curve: The Ellsworth Kelly and Jack Shear Shaker Collection from Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon with Prints by Ellsworth Kelly is on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art in New Britain, CT from July 13 – December 31, 2018. The exhibition was developed by the Shaker Museum and Jeff Bailey Gallery in Hudson, NY.

Works Cited 

 Kelly, Ellsworth. “Notes of 1969” in Ellsworth Kelly (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1980), 30 – 34. 

Ray, Mary Lyn. “A Reappraisal of Shaker Furniture and Society.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 8, 1973, pp. 107–132. 

Sabbathday Lake Shakers. “Our Beliefs” Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village website.

Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon. “Kindred Aesthetics: Mount Lebanon Shaker Village, Ellsworth Kelly & Jack Shear” Online video.






A Shaker relic

Framed piece of Mother Ann Lee's dress

Framed Piece of Linen Fabric, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1774, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6173.

This framed piece of fabric was given to the Shaker Museum’s founder John S. Williams, Sr., in 1953 by Sister Marguerite Frost of the Church Family, Canterbury, NH. Williams’s son, Warden, recalled that his father was at Canterbury negotiating for the purchase of a number of objects for the Museum. By this time some of the Shakers had become invested in and committed to helping him establish a museum that they hoped would tell their story. Some had become particularly fond of Williams himself. At the end of the session, Sister Marguerite handed him a paper bag and told him not to open it until he got in his car. “Dad forgot to pick up the bag when he left the room and the Sisters had to come to his car and hand him the bag,” said Warden. When Williams had driven down the road a bit, he stopped the car and opened the bag to discover it contained a piece of fabric from the dress worn by Mother Ann Lee on her voyage from England to America in 1774. Warden remembered that this moment brought his usually stoic father to tears. The fabric is flanked by two pieces of paper with an inscription identifying the fragment on one and its provenance on the other: “Given to Sr. M. E. Hastings when at Mt. Leb., N.Y. in 1846. By her presented to Sister L. A. Shepard 1885.” Marcia E. Hastings (1811-1891) was a Canterbury Church Family Eldress and received this gift during a visit Mount Lebanon. In 1885 she passed it on to Sister Lucy Ann Shepard (1836-1926), best known for her work as a Canterbury Trustee responsible for the cloak business. The fabric was framed by the Shakers and was probably displayed in the community rather than being secreted away. Similar remembrances exist in several collections. The Shakers kept and protected them over the years, treasuring the connection they provided with early pillars of their church.

Piece of Mother Ann Lee's dress

Piece of Linen Fabric, Church Family, Canterbury, NH, 1774, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1953.6173.

The fabric has been identified as hand woven of hand-spun linen tread, but has not been definitively dated to the period of the Shakers’ ocean voyage. While there is no reason to think the piece is not legitimate, its authenticity is of little importance. What is important is that the Shakers believed it was real and treated it as if Mother Ann Lee had indeed worn it aboard Mariah sometime between May 10, 1774, when the small group of Shakers left Liverpool, and August 6, 1774, when they disembarked in New York City.

Years later, a poem title, “Last Remains of Mother’s Wardrobe, … Carefully preserved by Jennet Angus,” Watervliet, N. Y., was written about this or one of the other remembrances of Mother Ann. The manuscript poem is preserved in the Western Reserve Historical Society Library:

Unborn generations

Who come to Mother’s fold,

May feel some satisfaction

This relic to behold;

To know that Mother saw it,

And held it in her hand;

To know it cross’d the Ocean

With her, from Britain’s Land;

Will please her faithful children,

And bring her spirit near,

The Mother of all Zion,

Who lived and suffered here.”


Break Every Yoke: Shakers, gender equality, and women’s suffrage, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon exhibition, 2017.

This object is on display at Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon this summer in the exhibition Break Every Yoke: Shakers, gender equality, and women’s suffrage. Supported by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and celebrating the centennial of women winning the right to vote in New York State, the exhibition opens with objects associated with Mother Ann Lee and a discussion of her role in founding the Shaker Church. From the beginning women were afforded a more significant role in every aspect of shaping the sect’s beliefs and practices than in most other churches or in society in general. The Shakers’ belief that God is both male and female and the example of a charismatic female founder and leader afforded Shaker women an advantage over groups believing in a paternalistic God-head.

The exhibition is accessible by guided tour only, Fridays through Mondays at 11:00, 12:00, and 2:00. Learn more by clicking here.