Objects of Dissection
Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it.
Jasper Johns uttered that famously to-the-point statement of aesthetics, but it could just as easily apply to the work of French-born artist Arman, who's the subject of the sweeping retrospective "Arman: The Passage of Objects," now at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
Arman's objects of choice are varied: musical instruments, coffee pots, chairs, spoons, paint tubes, bicycles. And his techniques for dealing with these objects are equally diverse. In some cases, he simply accumulates large quantities of particular items. Sometimes, he slices the objects into pieces. Other times, he smashes or burns them or fires paint at them. And for some pieces, he makes use of various combinations of these techniques.
Near the beginning of the show, which includes more than a hundred works, we see the sometimes astonishing processes to which the artist subjects musical instruments. Concert for Four Pianos (1998), for example, consists of a series of four baby-grand pianos. The first is whole, the second has been cut in half, the third is in quarters, and the fourth is reduced to eight segments.
For Violoncello Brûlé (1969), Arman has burned and smashed a cello almost beyond recognition, then embedded the fragments in a large, freestanding slab of plexiglass. The Big Sax (1976) consists of more than a dozen saxophones that have been soldered together in one big cluster. And for The Three Crosses (1983), fragmented, burnt cello parts have been affixed to a large wooden panel; you can actually catch a faint whiff of the charred wood from across the gallery.
It's vaguely disturbing to see such normally revered objects -- symbols of Western culture -- treated with such violence, which is part of the point. Arman is disrupting our usual relationship with the instruments and making us see them in other ways, especially as pure form. In the show's catalog, he refers to some of these pieces as the colère, or tantrum, series, although he also insists: "I was never really angry when smashing an object. It was more like a judo move than an enraged outburst."
Gallery after gallery showcases the seemingly endless inventiveness Arman applies to his objects. Things are taken apart and immersed in cement or embedded in blocks of industrial plastic. Metal items are soldered together into imposing chunks. A bronze sculpture of a man is dissected, then merged with a variety of faucets and shower heads and hoses. An ordinary metal garbage can is sealed, its contents intact, with a layer of transparent plastic. Eighty identical coffee pots are displayed in a metal case. A double bass is taken apart and reconfigured as an armchair.
For his Atlantis series, Arman piles bronze objects together and corrodes their surfaces to make them look as if they've survived thousands of years submerged in the ocean. Octopus (1990) is a pile of such artificially aged telephones. Total Abandon (1991) is a pair of intertwined bronze armchairs that look like something retrieved from the Titanic.
One of Arman's most unusual techniques is to arrange objects in what he calls cascades. A 1995 piece called Slow Motion creates a sense of movement by taking 11 identical bicycles and bolting them together, so that they seem to spill from the wall and onto the floor. More Cinderellas (1997) applies the same technique to silvery, open-toed women's shoes, which form a gaudy fake waterfall from wall to floor.
After a while, I began to weary of some of Arman's accumulations. Some, such as Bouquet Travailleur (Worker's Memorial) (1966), which is a block of synthetic marble filled with pliers, are just plain ugly. Others force the punch lines of their jokes, such as the cross-sectioned refrigerator stuffed with shopping carts that makes up Du Producteur au Consommateur (From the Supermarket) (1997).
Interspersed throughout the exhibition, however, are a handful of pieces that are startling reminders of Arman's originality. They're from the artist's nec mergitur, or "don't sink," series. These wall-mounted panels are painted in drab, muddy colors, and the objects attached to them -- a bicycle, a piece of luggage, an upright vacuum cleaner, a chair, and, in the most dramatic case, an upright piano -- are covered in the same pigment.
What makes these works so striking, however, is the illusion that the objects are half in and half out of the panels they occupy: They appear to be simultaneously emerging from and receding into the background. It's almost as if they've been frozen in transit through some sort of time/space warp, left trapped between dimensions.
Like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters before him, Arman asks us to reconsider the ordinary objects that surround us in our everyday lives. He wants us to look at how our relationships with such objects change when the objects are removed from their usual contexts and repositioned as art -- when the artist, as Schwitters put it, creates "art from nonart."
"Arman: The Passage of Objects" is such an extensive show that you may well feel exhausted by the time you've made your way through it. But don't let that stop you from checking out the Boca Museum's other current show, "Naïve Painting: From the Musée International d'Art Naïf Anatole Jakovsky."
The exhibition includes more than 70 pieces by artists from 16 countries. As the museum's executive director, George S. Bolge, points out in the catalog's introduction: "Among naïve artists, frequently, it is not a case of not knowing what is going on among artists of the mainstream, but a matter of not caring. The strength of these artists is such that the nature of their work has been determined far more by their experience of life than by the formal experiments of their sophisticated peers in other countries."
In other words, these are artists "doing their own thing," regardless of the trends and currents in the art world. Much of this work has a childlike simplicity and a strong sense of immediacy. (A lot of it reminds me of Haitian art.) A few pieces have the sophistication of more highbrow art.
The Wharf at Morlaix, by Frenchman Jules Lefranc, is an undated oil on canvas. It portrays a deserted wharf, a single large sailboat in the water, and a cluster of surrounding buildings, and the whole scene is bathed in the sort of eerie half-light we associate with the work of Giorgio de Chirico. And the 1978 oil Tropical Vegetation, by Swiss painter Giuseppe De Checchi, recalls the lush jungles of perhaps the best-known naïve painter, Henri Rousseau.
But my favorite of these naïve paintings is a piece called The Snowman (1969) by a Croatian named Josip Generalic. It's a rustic scene of a family going about its daily routine amid a wintry landscape, accented by bare trees, distant hills, and pale, puffy clouds. The subject matter suggests an updated version of one of Pieter Brueghel the Elder's similar scenes, but the broad, blocky faces of the people, including the children, are more reminiscent of some of Picasso's figures. A strange, wonderful combination indeed -- one you probably wouldn't find outside the realm of naïve art.
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