In the early 1980s, I began a series of urban tableaux inside discarded supermarket boxes (the influence of Arte Povera, a movement out of Italy at the time that emphasized the use of “humble” materials). I used my collection of old photos of downtown Stamford as backgrounds – especially Pacific Street, Stamford’s ‘urban renewal-ed’ version of New York City’s Lower East Side. The boxes became miniature stage sets, filled with my drawings of real people: all ages, nationalities, sizes, shapes and colors. The box project worked for me because my time to do artwork was so limited: I was teaching two classes in Art History at the University of Connecticut in Stamford, running a non-profit preservation organization and caring for a family. The boxes, fortunately, could be worked on whenever I had a few spare minutes; unlike painting, they didn’t require large swaths of unbroken time.
Everywhere I went, I picked up boxes and it didn’t take long before I had a studio full of them, stacked in towers, one on top of another, all sizes and shapes. Since I had photocopied my people in different sizes, I could place them in a variety of settings, typical of an urban street environment. I even experimented with miniature lights, creating haunting stage effects. Unlike more traditional artwork that you just “hung,” the boxes were difficult to exhibit; they required special environments where lighting could be controlled. I’ve installed walls and towers of boxes in libraries, galleries and museums, in different arrangements. I even put them up in the windows of a gallery on Prince Street in SOHO. Despite freezing weather, crowds of people stood for long periods of time, studying them. A friend of mine who worked nearby told me of a co-worker coming back late from lunch and telling her that she had just seen “the most remarkable” exhibit in a SOHO gallery window. My friend immediately knew what she meant.
My favorite box exhibit was held many years ago in the Westport Art Center, located, at the time, in an old school building. The show was called “The Boxists” and featured a prominent group of Joseph Cornell-like “assemblagists” who had worked and exhibited together for many years. I was an outsider. To install my pieces, I enlisted the help of two friends who worked at the Stamford Museum: Ken Marchione, Director of Art, and Ed Glissom who was in charge of exhibits. They had a van and brought up one hundred or so boxes. I had no idea how I was going to install them but I figured my two experienced guys would figure something out. The show was held in a large gym/gallery but by the time we arrived, the other Boxists had appropriated all the wall space and no one had any intention of giving me an inch. The curator, a sweet woman, was intimidated by them and stood there, helpless, unable to order anyone to make room for me.
Lacking wall space, Ed, Ken and I decided to commandeer the center of the gym. Using a couple of wooden skids Ken had in his truck, we proceeded to create a ten-foot pyramid of grungy boxes. They were totally out of place among the slick pieces of my co-exhibitors who refused to cast so much as a glance in my direction. The Einsels, a well-known husband and wife designer team looked particularly unhappy. No one spoke to us; my work was ruining their precious show. To be quite honest, they were correct, I didn’t fit in.
But I have to tell you, my pile of detritus was the hit of the exhibit. The sophisticated Westport crowd at the opening found the work “refreshing” (at least they hadn’t seen it a zillion times before) and gathered round in droves, full of praise. The art critics (there were art critics in the newspapers in those days) used my work to illustrate their reviews. But the best came from Vivian Raynor, who wrote for the New York Times. She ended her critique by saying “If that’s what real people look like (they do, Vivian), then it’s time for me to fall on my ball point pen.” I loved it. I was a “succès de garbage.”