Art Versus Chess How the Game has been Reimagined by Some of the 20th-Century’s Finest Artists. Featuring Sets Offered in London

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In 1952 the father of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, declared, ‘I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.’

Duchamp — whose obsession with chess was covered on Christies.com in 2016 — was by no means the only artist to have engaged with the game. Henri Matisse and Juan Gris reinterpreted the chessboard’s geometric design in Fauvist and Cubist styles, while the surrealist Man Ray, who learnt to play the game with his close friend Duchamp, began making his own sets in 1920, initially from random objects in his studio.

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), King and Queen, from: The Lovers. Plate 505 x 325 mm. Sheet 502 x 325 mm. Estimate: £5,000-7,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London
Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), King and Queen, from: The Lovers. Plate 505 x 325 mm. Sheet 502 x 325 mm. Estimate: £5,000-7,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London

On 18 September in London, Christie’s is offering a specially curated collection of 14 chess sets made by some of the 20th century’s most important artists, ranging from Bauhaus sculptor Joseph Hartwig to YBAs such as Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread. Here, Christie’s Prints and Multiples specialist Stefano Amoretti picks out five highlights from the sale.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Do You Feel Comfortable Losing?) (2006)

Each of the chess pieces designed by Barbara Kruger, above and below, contains a tiny speaker that mocks the player moving it. ‘You can’t be serious?!’ and ‘What’s up with your hair?’ are two examples of the heckles that greet moves.

‘The pieces are made in Kruger’s typical palette of black and red, while the board is laid over a classically Kruger-ist photograph of a shrieking woman,’ says Amoretti. ‘As the pieces move the game becomes a spontaneous conversation, a battle of nerve and wit that reflects the artist’s public performances, which explore themes of power, identity and sexuality.’

Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), Untitled (Do You Feel Comfortable Losing?), 2006. Case 1019 x 945 x 230 mm. Estimate: £18,000-25,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London
Barbara Kruger (b. 1945), Untitled (Do You Feel Comfortable Losing?), 2006. Case 1019 x 945 x 230 mm. Estimate: £18,000-25,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London

Dr George Dean, who collected more than 1,000 chess sets, included Kruger’s creation in his book Chess Masterpieces: One Thousand Years of Extraordinary Chess Sets. In 2011-12 the set was exhibited at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri, alongside others designed by the likes of Yoko OnoTom Friedman and Gavin Turk.

Takako Saito, Smell Chess Set

George Maciunas was a chess aficionado and founder of the Fluxus art movement, which drew on Duchamp’s legacy to promote ‘living art’ and ‘anti-art’. In 1964 he asked the Japanese artist Takako Saito, who was associated with Fluxus, to make a chess set.

Saito, who had recently moved from Tokyo to New York, decided to make all the pieces identical transparent plastic vials but fill each vial with a different spice — so that players would have to sniff their way through a game. In March of the following year, Saito’s first Spice Chess Set went on sale in Maciunas’s New York shop.

Takako Saito (b. 1929), Smell Chess Set. Box: 318 x 318 x 70 mm. Estimate: £3,000-4,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London
Takako Saito (b. 1929), Smell Chess Set. Box: 318 x 318 x 70 mm. Estimate: £3,000-4,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London

With the wooden Smell Chess Set(shown above) Saito aims to ‘radically dislocate the players’ senses, challenging the expected experience of playing the game,’ explains our specialist. ‘Her obsession with the game rivals Duchamp’s, and she went on to make more than 100 chess sets, including Sound Chessand Weight Chess.’

Damien Hirst, Mental Escapology

Consisting of two white leather and steel chairs, a surgical trolley with biohazard symbols as board squares, and 32 silver and glass pill bottles mounted in a mirrored cabinet, Damien Hirst’s Mental Escapology turns chess into a metaphor for the life and death scenarios played out in hospital waiting rooms and surgeries.

According to Dr. Jonathan Rowson, a chess grandmaster and three-time British Chess Champion, Mental Escapology ‘not only captures the unconventional truth that chess functions for many as a tonic, a medicine for the soul, but… [it] is profoundly true to the spirit of the game because it only exists for the mind that seeks it out.’

Damien Hirst (b. 1965), Mental Escapology (2003). Chairs 1000 x 500 x 600 mm (each). Estimate: £100,000-150,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London
Damien Hirst (b. 1965), Mental Escapology (2003). Chairs 1000 x 500 x 600 mm (each). Estimate: £100,000-150,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London

‘Hirst’s use of chrome, mirrors and white leather draws uneasy parallels between the fashionable materials of 21st-century design and the utilitarian, clinical interiors of hospitals,’ comments Amoretti. ‘His bottles of drugs have become sculptures with labels promising to alleviate the symptoms of mortality — but only if you win the game.’

Joseph Hartwig, Bauhaus Chess Set, model XVI

In 1924 the German artist Joseph Hartwig made a chess set in which the wooden pieces were reduced to their most elemental forms, each determined by the direction they are allowed to move across the board.

‘These simple, didactic pieces embody the principles and aesthetics of the Bauhaus School, where Hartwig taught sculpture,’ Amoretti explains. ‘This set was manufactured at the Bauhaus in Dessau, and owned by the movement’s founder Walter Gropius. Indeed it still has his label on the box.’

Josef Hartwig (1880-1955), Bauhaus Chess Set, Model XVI. Box 124 x 124 x 52 mm. Estimate: £15,000-20,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London
Josef Hartwig (1880-1955), Bauhaus Chess Set, Model XVI. Box 124 x 124 x 52 mm. Estimate: £15,000-20,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London

It is likely that the set offered in our sale was a prototype Hartwig presented to Gropius for approval before production could begin. Bauhaus Chess Set eventually went on sale in two models: a ‘daily’ version costing 51 Deutsche Marks, and a ‘luxury’ edition, which used more expensive woods and cost 155 Deutsche Marks.

Rachel Whiteread, Modern Chess Set

When Turner Prize-winner Rachel Whiteread was asked to create a chess set in 2005, she drew upon her passion for collecting dolls’ houses. The artist’s 2006-2008 installation Place (Village) features around 150 model houses which she amassed over 20 years.

Presented on a board made of carpet and linoleum squares and in a box with 1950s-style typography, Modern Chess Set examines historical gender roles and their associated rooms and objects within the home. Doll-size sinks, stoves, ironing boards, buckets and washtubs are ranged against armchairs, electric radiators and TV sets.

Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963), Modern Chess Set. Box 245 x 750 x 415 mm. Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London
Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963), Modern Chess Set. Box 245 x 750 x 415 mm. Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in Prints & Multiples on 18 September 2019 at Christie’s in London

These carefully chosen objects — all fabricated after toys in the artist’s own collection — frame a typical 1950s home as a working environment for women and a place of leisure for men.

‘I doubt the irony was lost on Rachel Whiteread that the chess world has long been dominated by men,’ adds Amoretti.

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