Souvenirs: Cornell Duchamp Johns Rauschenberg
On ViewCraig F. Starr Gallery
Souvenirs: Cornell Duchamp Johns Rauschenberg
October 20, 2020 – March 13, 2021
A tiny jewel box of an exhibition, Souvenirs at Craig F. Starr Gallery brings together six works by Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Curated by the gallery’s director, Sasha Jarolim, with loans from the Museum of Modern Art, Agnes Gund, Jasper Johns, and an unspecified private collection, Souvenirs permits Craig Starr’s intimate front room to act almost as a studiolo or a cabinet of curiosities—places of quiet contemplation—and the artworks within it (and the objects within them) as relics, memento mori, or transmitters to other worlds.
The show communicates throughout the space it occupies as well as across time and media, as Johns’s large pastel drawing Spring (1986), with its silhouetted figures and optical illusions, squares off against Rauschenberg’s Combine, Rhyme (1956). If Johns’s duck-rabbit illusion suggests debates between perception and our proclivity to interpretation, then Rhyme’s veiled scrawls and hanging necktie, with its hazy Impressionistic landscape, counter with an investigation of personal iconography. Rauschenberg’s Untitled (Mona Lisa) (c. 1952), a collage assembled from bits of paper and reproductions collected during a North African and Italian sojourn with Cy Twombly, continues the image-play, with the word cette (this) pointing up with an arrow to the Mona Lisa and the flanges of paper torn from a notebook kept hanging to become a decorative fringe at the lower left-hand edge.
Cornell’s glass-fronted box, Untitled (Medici Princess) (1948), hangs opposite Duchamp’s From or by Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (The Box in a Valise) (1935–41). The formal similarities are clear, and as the gallery notes, the relationship between the two was cemented by the fact that Cornell helped Duchamp to assemble into its leather suitcase the very edition of his work represented here. Both pieces whisper of confidences held: the tight-lipped Bia de’ Medici—painted by Bronzino in 1542–45 and reproduced again and again in Cornell’s box—who died young, long before we were born, and the construction’s wooden drawer that can be opened to reveal, amongst its mysterious possessions, a lining made from the map of a city that might be Milan, a packet tied with blue thread the color of the portrait’s backdrop, and the whisp of a feather. This is an interval within a pause within Cornell’s most secret of gabinetti segreti. The abundance of material in the Duchamp box—handmade miniature readymades, a small Large Glass (1915-23), paper reproductions of his two dimensional works—means that museum visitors can only ever see a certain portion of it at any given time. Charmingly, displayed here is a blue-and-red heart-shaped target that calls to mind the spinning discs of Duchamp’s Anemic Cinéma (1926) and its playfully palindromic title, as well as the mirrored spirals installed in the Cornell box and the target in Target with Four Faces (1955), a graphite pencil and pastel drawing by Johns that hangs directly facing viewers as we enter this room.
Though superficially the most straightforward, Target with Four Faces may be the most enigmatic of the objects gathered here. It seems so plain-spoken, with its blunt, grey target and its banal repetition of “head head head head” arrayed in the squares across its top; Jarolim describes it as “a channel for vision.” This drawing doesn’t tell us “face face face face,” though, but rather “head.” And it isn’t a sketch for Johns’s primary-colored Target with Four Faces (also 1955), known so well from its iconic place in 20th century art history, but instead a drawing after it, a subtle rethinking or a quieting of the original. In the famous encaustic painting, the eyes of the plaster faces are occluded, but their noses and mouths are on display. Often, people prosaically refer to the eyes as the windows to our souls, so the obstruction of the eyes here works in ironic tandem with Johns’s deadpan presentation. During the pandemic, we’ve had to become mere heads, conversing without mouths, and we’re learning how important it is to our psyches to see the lower half of the face, as well.
Just as vital is art’s ability to provide succor and transport. It felt like such a gift when galleries and museums could reopen. This exhibition at Craig F. Starr may offer us that and also stories for our heads that are as vibrant as those told by the mouths of friends. Let’s pack a valise and head off to Italy or Morocco, even if only in our imaginations. Spring is just around the corner and will be as refreshing as 50 cc of Paris air.