Brian O'Doherty: The Sedan-Chair
Choose a single object of special significance from your working or living environment
It looked like a swan in a gaggle of geese. Barbara Novak and I kept coming back to admire the sine-curve of the back, the sturdy elegant body, the cosmetic sides, the mysterious escutcheon. It was probably female. The thought of being inside seemed pleasantly naughty. It was beyond our means, at that time close to zero. We had the essentials: table, chairs, couch, bed – a bare assembly of solid nouns. And little else. It was 1965.
During one of our visits, the Thrift Shop owner told us ‘our’ sedan-chair was to be acquired by a Park Avenue matron. She planned to put a telephone in it and make her calls from the 18th century. This sin against the rococo could not be countenanced. Would he take $50 a month? Yes. Could we take possession now? Yes. Thus was this early vehicle of transport itself transported to our apartment, where it lay-in-state. Cupids frolicked on its sides, beating Boucher-wings, its damasked, blue, slightly torn interior spoke in whispers. It looked as if Fragonard’s mistress had just stepped out of it.
This extravagance refuted our penury. As long as the sedan-chair exhaled its perfume, we weren’t broke. It calmly watched my minimal and conceptual adventures and made no comment on an aesthetic hostile to its graces. It travelled with us through decades, patiently suffering relocations and minor insults. It fulfilled its role in our establishment as emblem of hope and home, as criterion of elegance.
Duchamp came, sat inside and beamed his benign smile. Edward Hopper folded his huge body into it and looked as happy as Duchamp. It received a mixed lot of visitors with equanimity, but never betrayed its origins. It spoke 18th century. So when I reported on Franz Mesmer’s famous case of Marie Therese Paradies (The Strange Case of Mademoiselle P.), it could have been part of her household. And when I travelled with the Chevalier d‘Eon de Beaumont (The Crossdresser‘s Secret), it transported my mind into an era it generously shared.
First published in Issue 5