- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005


Edited by Larry List

George Braziller, Inc., $49.95, 224 pages


For most people, chess is a game — wonderfully complex and beautifully subtle, in the view of its aficionados, but a game nonetheless. For the artistically-minded it is something much more. The untalented among us collect chess sets, looking at the 32 pieces as miniature sculptures spanning the spectrum of designs and materials. A smaller number of people actually make sets worth collecting. Most are beautiful but not unusual. Only the most imaginative among us design new sets, transforming the mundane into the fascinating.

Sixty years ago the Julien Levy Gallery held an exhibition entitled “The Imagery of Chess.” Organized by art dealer Julien Levy, the show featured a bevy of modernist sets, along with paintings, photographs and even musical scores. Long Island’s Noguchi Museum decided to recreate the original show after curator Bonnie Rychlak purchased a rare table based on the one designed by Isamu Noguchi for the Levy Gallery. Once she found a table, Ms. Rychlak commissioned an artist to recreate Noguchi’s chess set, which has disappeared. That naturally led to the idea of a retrospective exhibit and then a book.

For those interested in art history, “The Imagery of Chess Revisited” offers a snapshot of an important moment now largely forgotten. Joining a description of the exhibit and artists are achival images and unpublished work. They are important and interesting, but they are not what drew me to the book. Rather, I loved the chess sets. Although I am partial to traditional figures carved in ivory or fired as porcelain, I’ve always enjoyed the sleek lines and geometric designs of many modern creations. And that’s what “The Imagery of Chess Revisited” is all about.

On the cover is a photo of the Noguchi set, almost impossible to describe. Its pieces look like exotic stick figures, full of curves and nobs. Although it looks like no other set that I’ve seen, the pieces are recognizably human, full of energy and seemingly ready to move. The famous Bauhaus set is completely different, a box-like creation of squares and rectangles. Today you can buy a modern version, in which the pieces fit together in a uniquely configured box. The chess-playing artist Man Ray created a design relying on cylinders, balls and cones. While Noguchi used acetate and the Bauhaus set was wood, Ray employed aluminum, and subsequently marketed his set through department stores.

The Imagery of Chess exhibition gained attention because of the involvement of famous artists. For instance, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, a serious chess player, created a “chromatic” chess set, which mixed differing colors with a stylized version of the traditional Staunton design; he also created two-dimensional wall “maquettes.” But not all of the contributors were well-known. Writes Richard Filipowski: “I was just a ninteen-year-old student fresh from Canada, where my family had emigrated from Poland.” While studying at Chicago’s Institute of Design in 1942, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, with whom he was studying, declared: “You will do a chess set. The Bauhaus did a chess set. You will do a chess set, only in plastic, and of your own design.” Mr. Filipowski responded with an acrylic plastic set, mixing cylinders and squares. He made the pieces by hand and saw no great significance to his work at the time: “I was just a student with a project to get done.”

Although chess sets dominate the volume, it also features paintings and other art. The common backdrop is a board, though there is wide variation beyond that. Some pictures transform the board itself; others show players. I particularly enjoyed Surrealist painter Leon Kelly’s The Plateau of Chess, which used the board as a landscape, hemmed in by odd verticle forms within which the pieces battled.

The book concludes with an essay by F. Lanier Graham, the author of a fine 1968 book on chess sets. The bulk of his chapter on modern sets derived from the Levy exhibition. Illustrating Mr. Graham’s words are photos of several of the unique sets, every one of which I would gleefully welcome into my collection.

“The Imagery of Chess Revisited” offers a fine read but an even more wonderful look. For it most dramatically brings chess to life through the visual — sets, sculptures and paintings. The Noguchi Museum has helped us recapture the artistic magic of the original exhibition.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a member of Chess Collectors International.

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