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Image in the Box: From Cornell to Contemporary

Hollis Taggart Galleries: November 20, 2008 – January 10, 2009

Entering Hollis Taggart Galleries, the display of boxes feels as all-enveloping as the hoard of a manic butterfly collector or sideshow magician. A closer look reveals unusual, seldom-shown artworks—collages and assemblages tucked into their small enclosures, most of absorbing interest.

Lucas Samaras,
Lucas Samaras, "Box #101," 1977-89. Mixed media construction. 14 (H) x 21 1/2 (W) x 5 3/4 (D) inches. Courtesy of the Artist and PaceWildenstein, New York.

“Assemblage in the box” became an important means of expression for the early 20th-century’s avant-garde, jumpstarted by the work of Marcel Duchamp and by surrealist experiments with “poemes-objets.” These forces inspired Joseph Cornell, who exhibited with the European surrealists at New York City’s Julien Levy Gallery in the 1930s and the 40s. (In 1942, upon Duchamp’s return to New York, he promptly engaged Cornell to assist him in assembling editions of his “portable museum,” commonly referred to as the “Boîte-en-Valise.”)

Duchamp-Cornell: an unlikely pair who resonated nonetheless. One was French, encyclopedic, profoundly sophisticated; the other, American, reclusively shy, self-taught, a co-conspirator from Utopia Parkway, Queens, who haunted dusty antique stores and flea markets in Manhattan.

Here are more than seven decades of the box-motif in America, assembled by Jeffrey Wechsler (Curator of Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University) and Vivian Bullaudy (Director of Hollis Taggart Galleries). Some sixty works by seven artists are presented, including French surrealist Pierre Roy (1880-1950), a major influence on Cornell (1903-1972); Leo Rabkin (b.1919), one of the few survivors of native surrealism; and several contemporary artists, such as Lucas Samaras (b.1936), Elspeth Halvorsen (b.1929), Maureen McCabe (b.1947), and Ted Victoria (b.1944).

As the show reaffirms, the concepts of being “boxed in” and having “boxed-in feelings” are existentially connected with the geometry of urban living and architecture—we live and work in boxes, our perception of reality is in 3-D. But what we fill those spaces with is a wide-open matter.    

Pierre Roy started by creating the illusion of boxes—simple trompe-l’œil paintings of butterflies and bottles as if in a zoologist’s portfolio; by the 1930s, Roy’s preferred materials had become wineglasses, hanging weights, sand, shells, and ceramic statuettes arranged in compositions that prefigured Cornell—whom curator Wechsler places in juxtaposition via “Butterfly Habitat” (1940), exotically colored wings viewed as if through frosted glass.

According to certain art historians, Cornell embodies American surrealism (he never traveled abroad), a movement that evolved parallel with European experiments as well as with urban-folk activities such as scrapbooking and collecting scientific curios and Native Americana. In Cornell’s miniature boxes we find symbols of a quasi-alchemical word of suns and stars, broken white clay pipes, chipped wine glasses, suspended eggs, driftwood, shells, age-toned prints, distressed children’s toys, doll’s heads—nostalgic memorabilia ripe for resurrection. Here are some of the artist’s box experiments from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, a time when he perfected the box-assemblage as a cosmic theater. Two of them are similar in appearance, “Constellation Variant” (1955-58) and “Untitled (Sun box for Carol)” (1962): golden Sun smiling in the center, a hanging brass bracelet, a white clay pipe, the inscription “Hotel” on one side and a drawing of a girl by Durer collaged on a hanging cylinder. These works retain their originality to this day, and the artist is safely ensconced as both pioneer and über-master.

The distinctive textures of Leo Rabkin’s “box-acummulages” are realized through unpredictable objets trouvés that become part of a narrative, items such as glued driftwood, price tags by the dozen suspended upside-down by string, and furry “candies” in a round box lined with Mylar. Another box, “Toy” (1982), houses cubes handmade from tracing paper; they jump like popcorn when chamois is rubbed on the top of the Plexiglas box, creating static negative electricity that attracts the paper’s positive charge.

In contrast to other artists in the show, Lucas Samaras (b.1936) is a representative of the 1960s; having studied at Rutgers with George Segal and Alan Kaprow, his boxes have a talismanic quality. He is represented here by two works. The first is an aquarium-like Plexiglas box lined with gravel on the bottom and human hair on the sides; along the cracked and broken rear “wall” are hung two geometrical compasses connected by string, like a corset. The other piece is the wooden “Box #101” (1977-89), its outside painted black with white dots and lined with a collage of human organs and muscles, while its insides feature a photograph of the artist himself surrounded by sticks of wood painted in sequences of colors.

Elspeth Halvorsen (b.1929) is a third-generation artist whose boxes and multiple assemblages constructed in tri-layered pyramids, or boxes within boxes—16 works in all—clearly dominate the show. Residing in Provincetown (her home and studio once belonged to Mark Rothko), she remains a prolific box-maker. Her art is feminine and organic, with quiet landscapes (sometimes painted) composed of tree branches, female torsos, horseshoe crabs, eggs and wrought iron, with narrative references to castles and romanticism in almost all of them. Halvorsen’s work is connected to her surroundings, to nature and the natural cycles of birth and rebirth, as in “The Secret” (2002), with a bird’s skull and driftwood, and “Robin’s Egg” (2005), with its surreal clockwork and suspended blue egg.

The most colorful boxes belong to Maureen McCabe (b.1947), here represented by recent work from 2006-08 that employs circus–like icons of popular culture, mostly kitsch, in assemblages full of colored feathers, strings of pearls, shiny coins, playing cards, children’s toy horses, even pirates, all in flat boxes that can be mistaken for coin games in an old Coney Island sideshow gallery.

Last but not least, Ted Victoria (b. 1944) from Long Island is an alumnus of New York State University at New Paltz and Rutgers who learned well the lessons of Cornell. From the beginning (the 1970s) he has experimented with technology in the construction of shadow-box assemblages. He combines low-tech objects—lenses, mirrors, and clockwork mechanisms—with found objects such as a coffee cup, a beer-can tab, a small chair, a razor and a tennis ball, all in rotation and projected onto tracing paper. The effect is that of dreamlike motion, as in “Evidence” (1992-1993), where a gun, a wheel, and a ring slowly spin in space.

Although most of the artworks in this show were created with found objects through chance operations, they represent time capsules for the decades in which they were created, as well as self-narratives comprising personal/cultural symbols. They are expressions of each artist’s repressed desires, dreams and fantasies, neo and post-surrealist, with mysterious layers and often twisted kinetic dimensions.

An “Untitled (Durer)” construction from 1952 by Cornell, a small blue/white assemblage with a white column, graces the cover of the show’s elegant catalog, Image in the Box: From Cornell to Contemporary, with scholarly essays by Wechsler and Townsend Ludington, and photos and biographies of the artists.


Valery Oisteanu


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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