7 Chess Sets Designed by Famous Artists
Chess is characterized by the philosophy of strategy and war – war between two imperfect minds, each striving to make fewer mistakes than the other, to be more perfect than the other. Throughout history, this complex game has been reimagined by some of the 20th-century’s finest artists.
Art and chess have always had a unique connection. One of the most famous artists fascinated by the game was Marcel Duchamp, who officially retired from art to become a competitive chess player. In 1952, he proclaimed:
I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.
However, Duchamp was by no means the only artist to have engaged with the game. It attracted the likes of Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Man Ray, but also Samuel Beckett and Satyajit Ray.
On September 18th, Christie’s London will offer 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 Rachel Whiteread, as part of their auction Prints & Multiples.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights!
Featured image: Tracey Emin – Chess Set, 2008. 32 pieces in bronze with patina, quilted-fabric chess board and cotton carrying case with yellow satin ties, fabric bag with drawstring, and corian and hallmarked silver brooch, the board and case with unique monotype elements in blue ink, with engraved signature and numbered AP 2/3 on the back of the brooch, one of three artist’s proof sets aside from the edition of seven, published by RS & A. Ltd., London, presented in a glass and wood exhibition display case. King 60 mm., Pawn 20 mm. Board 450 x 450 mm. Bag 220 x 240 x 150 mm. (approximately). All images courtesy of CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD, 2019.
Barbara Kruger - Untitled (Do you feel comfortable losing?), 2006
In her layered photographs, Barbara Kruger appropriates the language of advertising, questioning stereotypes relating to gender and race. The background of her chess set features a red-framed, close-cropped photo of a face with eyes shut and mouth open. Highly ambiguous, this face expression might suggest either shouting in glee, crying in pain or swallowing defeat.
Loosely based on Man Ray’s and Hartwig’s chess designs, the conceptual background is actually drawn from John Cage’s 1968 Reunion performance. Each piece on the board is a miniature speaker featuring a series of different audio recordings from classic Kruger questions such as “What’s up with your hair?” or provocative announcements like “You feel comfortable losing?” and “You can’t be serious!”. When heard together, their real voices construct an audio conversational piece that parallels the act of playing the game.
Featured image: Barbara Kruger – Untitled (Do you feel comfortable losing?), 2006. 32 pieces in red and black corian with miniature speakers, red corian and printed board with integral electronic and computer components, number A/P 1/3, one of three artist’s proof sets aside from the edition of seven, published by RS & A. Ltd., London, within the original metal and carbon-fibre flight case with foam interior and printed exterior. King 179 mm., Pawn 79 mm. Case 1019 x 945 x 230 mm. Estimate: £18,000-25,000.
Damien Hirst - Mental Escapology, 2003
Regarded as contemporary art’s l’enfant terrible, Damien Hirst has been exploring the idea of modern medicine as a new religion throughout the course of his career. This obsession with medicine and pharmacology has been translated into his chess set design, simulating a medical consultation room or theatre with a range of medicinal props. In this way, the game of chess becomes a metaphor for the life and death scenarios enacted in waiting rooms and hospital surgeries.
Set in a simulation of a modern clinical, and often unaesthetic interior, Hirst’s chess pieces are in the shape of plastic pill bottles, reflecting a corresponding hierarchy of drugs, from recreational stimulants to those promising to alleviate the symptoms of mortality.
Featured image: Damien Hirst – Mental Escapology, 2003. 32 pieces in cast glass and hallmarked English silver, mirrored glass board with black enamel screenprint mounted on a stainless steel surgical trolley, with two modified steel and white leather chairs, and a white wood and steel cabinet with glass doors, number AP 2/2, one of two artist’s proof sets aside from the edition of seven, published by RS & A. Ltd., London. King 190 mm., Pawn 55 mm. Table/Board 755 x 720 x 720 mm. Cabinet 650 x 820 x 160 mm. Chairs 1000 x 500 x 600 mm. (each). Estimate: £100,000-150,000.
Gavin Turk - The Mechanical Turk, 2008
Questions the conceptual foundations of contemporary art, Gavin Turk examines what it means to be an agent of cultural change by recasting himself as a human simulacrum of diverse cultural figures. Referencing the 18th-century automaton which was the first (pseudo) machine designed for playing chess successfully, the artist dressed himself in the turban and traditional Turkish garb of the time to impersonate the romantic-era robot.
Approximately 14 minutes long, the film shows the artist executing the Knight’s Tour with one hand in a mechanical fashion.
Featured image: Gavin Turk – The Mechanical Turk, 2008. HD film on DVD, and wooden box with inlay, 2008, a unique set, published by RS & A Ltd., London. Box: 500 x 330 x 330 mm. Estimate: £2,000-3,000.
Jake and Dinos Chapman - Chess set, 2003
Brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman are known as one of the leading art partnerships in the contemporary British art world. Often recalling the immediate sexual shock value of Salvador Dalí, the Chapman brothers ultimately give resonant form to pre-adolescent male obsessions with fantasy forms of conflict, violence and mutation.
Chess players themselves, the brothers see the game as an intersection of warfare and play, linked to the fears and anxieties of childhood. Rendered in a hyperrealistic manner, these figures recall the form of confrontation and mating
Featured image: Jake and Dinos Chapman – Chess set, 2003. 32 pieces in bronze with hand-painting, real hair wigs styled by Eugene Souleiman, lead crystal bases, ebony and rosewood board and box with inlaid skull and crossbones veneer, number 2/7 (there were also three artist’s proof sets), published by RS & A Ltd., London. Knight 220 mm., Pawn 110 mm. Board 300 x 790 x 790 mm. Estimate: £20,000-30,000.
Man Ray - Chess Set, 1947
Throughout the course of his career, Man Ray designed several chess sets, inspired by lifelong friendship with avid chess player and fellow artist Marcel Duchamp. This particular design was created on the occasion of the exhibition The Imagery of Chess organized by Julien Levy, alongside Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy and Alexander Calder. Initially creating six sets in wood in 1944, the 1947 version is created in aluminum, with each piece being machined or turned individually.
Featured image: Man Ray – Chess Set, 1947. 32 pieces in red and gold anodized aluminium, the two kings stamped with the initial ‘R’ on the finial, from an edition of no more than fifty, probably manufactured by Accro Products, California, each with the original black felted bottoms, within a fitted stained beechwood box (not original). King 48 mm.; Pawn 32 mm. Box 370 x 190 x 95 mm. Estimate: £12,000-18,000.
Rachel Whiteread - Modern Chess Set, 2005
An acclaimed British artist, Rachel Whiteread primarily produces sculptures, which typically take the form of casts. In her chess set design, the artist, who is also an avid collector of doll’s houses and their contents, used replicas of vintage dollhouse furniture. The design wittily examines traditional gender politics, featuring ranging miniatures versions of everyday utilities and appliances, such as sinks, stoves, ironing boards, buckets, washtubs and wastebaskets, against leisure-based furnishings and objects, such as armchairs, electric radiators and televisions.
The artist successfully frames the home environment as a site of work for women and of leisure for men, enhanced by wooden box referencing the typography and packaging of the 1950s.
Featured image: Rachel Whiteread – Modern Chess Set, 2005. 32 pieces in mixed media, chess board in carpet and linoleum, number A/P 2/3, one of three artist’s proof sets aside from the edition of seven, with the instruction manual, published by RS & A Ltd., London, within the original printed box. King 100 mm., Pawn 10 mm. Box 245 x 750 x 415 mm. Estimate: £10,000-15,000.
Tracey Emin - Chess Set, 2008
An experienced chess player, the often controversial British artist Tracey Emin created a unique traveling chess set. Featuring a soft, pliable sewn board and embroidered pouch, it alludes to the intricate needlepoint pillow chess boards which 18th-century French nobles used to play while traveling by carriage.
Brocade-bordered squares, made from patterned floral and paisley-print bed sheets, are interspersed with white panels with erotically charged monotype text, “Yes” and “You make me come”, creating a miniature blanket upon which the constrained courtship tradition is fast-forwarded into jet-setting romance. All the pieces are folded up into a thickly embroidered drawstring bag that is fastened with a replica of Emin’s favourite brooch.
Featured image: Tracey Emin – Chess Set, 2008. 32 pieces in bronze with patina, quilted-fabric chess board and cotton carrying case with yellow satin ties, fabric bag with drawstring, and corian and hallmarked silver brooch, the board and case with unique monotype elements in blue ink, with engraved signature and numbered AP 2/3 on the back of the brooch, one of three artist’s proof sets aside from the edition of seven, published by RS & A. Ltd., London, presented in a glass and wood exhibition display case. King 60 mm., Pawn 20 mm. Board 450 x 450 mm. Bag 220 x 240 x 150 mm. (approximately).