"Tools in Motion" at the Coral Springs Museum of Art Reminds Us of the Artistic Primacy of Tools | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

"Tools in Motion" at the Coral Springs Museum of Art Reminds Us of the Artistic Primacy of Tools

In museum parlance, a canned show is one that comes to a venue prepackaged, either from another institution or from a company that specializes in assembling and touring exhibitions. All that's needed on the receiver's end is a little curatorial know-how and some space and you're ready to rock 'n' roll.

In the case of the Coral Springs Museum's big summer show, "Tools in Motion," the exhibition comes from the Hechinger Collection of International Art & Artists (IA&A) in Washington, D.C. The Hechinger Collection is a private collection, and IA&A is its current corporate owner, one of those companies that shop shows around the country. How this collection came to be is a tale worth telling.

A D.C. native stretching back five generations, John Hechinger was the head of the family business, the Hechinger Co., a national chain of more than 200 hardware stores founded by his father in 1911. The younger Hechinger was a philanthropist as well as a businessman, and the story goes that when he began building his collection in 1978, it was just a way of putting art on the walls of the company's main offices, which he found lacking in aesthetic stimulation.

Hechinger was already the owner of Tool Box, a 1966 suite of ten silk-screened prints by Jim Dine that focused on ordinary household and construction tools — just the sorts of things you might find in a hardware store. And so Hechinger set about assembling an art collection emphasizing the very things that had helped him earn his fortune.

After two decades on the walls of Hechinger headquarters, the collection went public when it became the subject of a series of shows at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., where it drew record crowds. Three years later, in 2001, Hechinger teamed with IA&A to launch a national tour of the show, which has been on the road off and on since.

Hechinger died on his 84th birthday, January 18, 2004, but not before making arrangements for his beloved collection. The year before his death, he and wife June turned it over to IA&A, thus ensuring an artistic legacy that will live on indefinitely. Since then, the collection has grown to include more than 375 works by 250 artists, including established names as well as emerging artists.

There are 56 works by my count, including the suite of Dine silk-screens, in the Coral Springs incarnation, which beautifully inhabits the museum's main galleries. (There's also a companion catalog that highlights other works in the collection.) Among the artists included are Ivan Chermayeff, Claes Oldenburg, Clayton Pond, and the peerless Arman, who almost steals the show with School of Fishes (1982), a massive, wall-mounted assemblage of dozens, if not hundreds, of vise-grips welded together.

I say "almost steals the show" because there are so many other contenders. Then again, I come to "Tools in Motion" with a bias — my dad got his start in the hardware business, so I grew up with a fascination with tools.

What I had taken for granted, however, was the primacy of tools for artists, something succinctly summed up by a statement in a handout: "By identifying art with labor and tools, the exhibition highlights the act of creation as work and stresses the simple fact that artists use tools to make art."

Given that identification of artists with their tools, it's perhaps surprising that there aren't a lot of works that focus on such things as paintbrushes and palettes and the like. Instead, the tools these artists choose are both more metaphorical and more fundamental — items like handsaws and hammers, wrenches and shovels, and pitchforks and hoes.

Some pieces capitalize on visual puns. Richard Bronk's Ship of Tools (1992) consists of a small, stylized boat form topped with a conglomeration of rusty tools. For Handtool (1996), Gints Grinbergs creates a shovel in the shape of a human hand. And Fred Gutzeit's Glove Box (1982) is literally a big box made of asphalt siding, its interior filled with a variety of well-worn work gloves.

Some of the works I responded to most strongly simply celebrate the physicality of tools. The mixed-media Diorama (1983), by Jim McCullough, re-creates a hardware store in miniature, right down to the cases displaying tools and odds and ends of hardware. Patrick Kirwin's oil painting Hammers Inside (1991) blankets a large canvas with countless brightly colored hammers. The pastel The Kiss (1989), by Edgar Soberon, envisions what happens when a power cord and an extension cord come together.

Other works revel in the transformative powers of tools. Linda Thern Smith builds a makeshift xylophone called Phoenix (1987) using hammers and hammer handles. Claes Oldenburg engages in one of his highly impractical what-if scenarios with Screw Arch Bridge (1980), a line etching of a bridge whose arches are formed by two gigantic curved screws.

Oldenburg is the best-known artist represented here, as well as the one who best captures the peculiar blend of practicality and whimsicality with which the show approaches its subject matter. If you come away from "Tools in Motion" appreciating tools as both useful and a great deal of fun, this wonderfully quirky exhibition will have succeeded.