The Boca Museum Presents a Vital Retrospective of an Artist Probably Few of Us Know
It's hard to imagine an exhibition that could even begin to compete with the Boca Raton Museum of Art's current "Elvis at 21" photography show. The museum, smartly, doesn't even try. Instead we get "Rememberingstanleyboxer: A Retrospective 1946-2000," as bracing a contrast as one might reasonably expect in such a context. Think of Stanley Boxer as the cold to Elvis' heat.
One of the functions of a good museum is to bring to our attention artists we might otherwise overlook or artists we might not even know the first thing about. I'll confess I knew next to nothing about Boxer before this exhibit arrived in South Florida. Boxer, who rated nary a mention in the dozen or so art reference books I checked, fits both categories.
He was born in New York City in 1926 and grew up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. He lied his way into the U.S. Navy at age 16 and served in the Pacific during World War II and afterward attended New York's famous Art Students League on the G.I. Bill. He taught himself several languages, including German, for which he apparently had a special fondness. He did series of drawings based on such straightforward if varied subject matter as Vietnam, baseball, and vegetables.
"Rememberingstanleyboxer" originated at the University of Richmond Museums in Virginia and had a stopover at the Housatonic Museum of Art in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A word about that unwieldy title: It's a reference to Boxer's affinity for the eccentric mid-20th-century American poet e.e. cummings, notorious for his idiosyncratic typography. Boxer himself adopted such run-on titles for many of his works from the 1970s on through the 1990s, some of which resist any effort to disentangle them: Gleedtwistofflayeddanknessassunder, Plumagesoftempts, Becalmedstrutoffallparadise.
Boxer was by all accounts quite prolific. Although there are only some 60 works in this show, they've been judiciously selected by independent curator Elizabeth Stevens. We get a good sense of Boxer's career, which covered more than half a century. And although he remains known primarily as a painter, there are enough sculptures here to suggest his casual mastery of that medium as well. There's also a handful of works on paper that, compared with the paintings and sculptures, aren't especially impressive.
Some of the earliest paintings, executed when Boxer was in his 20s, seem to occupy a vaguely defined territory somewhere between cubism and abstract expressionism.
Boxer really hit his stride, however, with the big abstract paintings of the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. The pigment is thickly applied and heavily worked over in many of these, and sometimes other substances such as sand and fibers appear to have been worked into the oil for texture. In others, such as the aforementioned sea of green that is Gleedtwistofflayeddanknessassunder, a serene uniformity of color dominates, so much so that such critics as the formidable Clement Greenberg occasionally lumped Boxer in with color-field painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland. Similarly, the stark simplicity of Boxer's sculpture makes it tempting to think of him as something of a modified minimalist.
The artist himself routinely spurned such attempts to characterize his style. Upon Boxer's death in 2000, New York Times art writer Holland Cotter observed that he "was in the studio seven days a week [and] preferred the term 'practitioner' to 'artist.' " Cotter went on to say that, in reference to the color-field designation, he "was adamant in rejecting this stylistic label."
If we conclude, ultimately, that Boxer is a minor artist in the scheme of things – and I think he is – that's not to say he doesn't deserve to be rescued from relative obscurity. This unassuming but satisfying little show at the Boca Museum is a crash course in why we should know and care about this artist.
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