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Guest blog with artist Robert Lee: Box Art

Posted on January 17 2018

Guest blog with artist Robert Lee: Box Art

It's our pleasure to share with you a guest blog from our artist Robert Lee. Listening to Robert describe the motivations behind his art and the rich literary context is a joy. What we love about artists is not only the artwork itself but what inspires and motivates the action to make! Here Robert will take you through the context of his 'box art', a huge world of imaginings held within the safety of four walls.

Box Art

BOX ART 'Art in boxes'

I am often asked what I mean when I say "I am a Box Artist: I make Box Art". This is another attempt to explain more clearly what I intend by my use of those terms. The non-specific definition is apparently straightforward. Box Art is Art in a box; a variety of work made within, on, or around a box - a simple receptacle in a broad range of basic materials used, in my case, to contain an assemblage of a similarly broad range of different objects and materials.

The reality of course is as varied as the many different approaches of contemporary artists to what Alexandra Noble, the Curator of the 1994/95 Arts Council touring exhibition 'Worlds in a Box' described as 'The fascination that artists have shown for this form'; inseparable from the histories of assemblage and collage, for art in boxes is a hybrid genre combining painting, printmaking, photography, collage, sculpture and assemblage to create new modes of expression.

A very acceptable definition and a straightforward way of describing Box Art though it does leave the slight problem of explaining what Noble means when she refers to 'the histories of assemblage and collage'. Collage is generally well understood; assemblage perhaps less so. Assemblage was coined and, apparently, first used in its current sense by the French artist Jean Dubuffet in the early 1950's to describe his work at that time which extended earlier printed collages into three dimensions; it was then 'appropriated' by MOMA for the 1961/62 exhibition 'The Art of Assemblage'. Since then 'Assemblage' has become a commonplace over-arching term, and increasingly adopted as a convenient way of describing certain kinds of three-dimensional work and is now also used - in this context retrospectively, to categorise early 20th century work of this nature by members of such groups as the Cubists, the Futurists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists and others, describing, first, an extension out from the plane of a wall mounted surface and then sculptural objects assembled from found materials.

It is tempting to think of Box Art/Art in Boxes as a continuation of earlier preoccupations with containers, say for relics and as cabinets of curiosities, however despite a residual presence in our cultural psyche, it is, I believe, an exclusively 20th century phenomenon though it is difficult to find many works that are clearly Box Art pieces until the late 1920's and into the 1930's with a burst of activity following the Surrealist Exhibitions in New York which captivated and enthralled the American artist Joseph Cornell.

Duchamp must be close to being the first with 'Three Standard Stoppages' in 1914, though both Picasso and Braque made works that sat in corners between two walls around the same time, Picasso's first and only box piece, as far as I can tell, was Head of a Man in 1958. Schwitters created his Merzbau in a similar way and both he and Lissitsky built rooms; Schwitters also made an inlaid wooden box, in 1922, and Andre Breton owned and exhibited a found box of everyday objects in a Surrealist exhibition. However, the main burst of enthusiasm for Box Art seems not to have been until after the Second World War in the 50's, 60's and beyond.

The 'Worlds in a Box' exhibition displayed 137 works, the earliest by Eileen Agar from 1936. Joseph Cornell had 7 works in the exhibition from the 1940's and 50's. There were many fewer box art works in the earlier 'Art of Assemblage' exhibition with only 20 or so works (of which 14 were by Cornell) but interestingly both exhibitions highlighted the freedom given by Box Art to allow contemporary artists to return to realism through the use of found objects. Robert Lee