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Tools as Art: The Hechinger Collection


Celebrating tools through art that magically transforms utilitarian objects into works of beauty, surprise, and wit, the special exhibition Tools as Art: The Hechinger Collection opens at Joslyn Art Museum on February 16, 2002 and continues through May 12, 2002. The exhibition features 65 works from the unique holdings of hardware industry pioneer John Hechinger. From a painting of a giant hammer pulling out a misplaced nail to a full-scale stepladder made entirely of paper, this exhibition explores the Hechinger Collection's creative breadth and underscores not only the family business but also the do-it-yourself spirit of the American experience. Included are sculptures of tools in wood, glass, metal, paper, and stone; paintings, prints, and photographs depicting tools of all sorts; and other imaginative works. (left: Red Grooms, I Nailed Wooden Sunsto Wooden Skies (in conjunction with the film Hippodrome Hardware 1972-1973), 1972, polymer and collage on paper)

Featured artists include Berenice Abbott, Jim Dine, Harold Edgerton, Richard Estes, Jacob Lawrence, Claes Oldenburg, Wayne Thiebaud, and William Wiley.

Until his retirement in 1995, John Hechinger headed the Hechinger Company, a hardware and building materials chain founded in 1911 by his father. When the Hechinger Company moved to new headquarters in 1978, he found the corridors and workspaces efficient but sterile. Starting with Jim Dine's Tool Box, a suite of silkscreen prints, Hechinger collected paintings, sculptures, works on paper, photographs, and crafts that featured tools as subjects. In displaying them throughout the building, they became the subject of endless discussion and a source of pride.

In 1998, the collection left its original setting for public display. At present, it exceeds 375 works by 250 leading masters and emerging artists, mostly from the post-World War II era. As Hechinger discovered early on, the collection's narrow focus strikes a rich and diverse vein in modern art, spanning a wide range of styles and themes. Taken as a whole, the collection honors the intrinsic beauty of the common tool, where form and function are often inextricably entwined. (left: Lee A. Schuette, Rake Back Chair #2, 1981, oak, synthetic grass, and rake)

One of the underlying currents of the Hechinger Collection and the Tools as Art exhibition is the seeming paradox between the autonomous, mass-produced tool and its transformation into a unique expression of an artist's imagination. The exhibition often blurs the distinction between high and low art by identifying art with labor and tools and stressing the basic fact that artists use tools to make art.

While many prefer to make the finished product seem effortless, much of the magic in the Hechinger Collection stems precisely from the way artists acknowledge the importance of tools and hardware in their work. Many of the works in the exhibition incorporate found objects as a means to break down the barrier between art and life and as a way to give new life and meaning to the detritus of society.

Perhaps the most striking element about the Tools as Art exhibition is the magical transfer of tools from the world of the functional into the realm of fantasy through change in material and scale. Several artists exploit the illusionistic properties of materials. Hans Godo Frabel freezes the action of a hammer and nails, improbably made out of glass, while John Mansfield presents a rice paper saw cutting through a loaf of stone. Other artists deploy a technique called trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) to achieve a visual sleight of hand. James Carter's oil painting of a paint can and tools and Peter Gryzybowski's painted strip of oak are so convincing, it's hard to believe they are on canvas. The use of verbal and visual puns is evident in some works as well, including Henryk Fantazos' Women in Labor, a rendering of bejeweled women in elegant attire on a work site. Both humorous and serious, Tools as Art: The Hechinger Collection is sure to challenge expectations and stir imagination.

The tour has been organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C, with the collaboration of Sarah Tanguy, curator of the Hechinger Collection. Tools as Art began its seven-venue tour in the summer of 2001 at City Museum (St. Louis, MO), followed by showings at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia (Virginia Beach, VA), Peninsula Fine Arts Center (Newport News, VA), Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (Cedar Rapids, IA), and Joslyn Art Museum. After its 3-month stay at Joslyn, the exhibition will make final stops at DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park (Lincoln, MA), and Charles Avampato Discovery Museum (Charleston, WV).

The hardcover exhibition catalogue Tools as Art: The Hechinger Collection (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,1995) is authored by Pete Hamill and features a foreword by John Hechinger and 240 plates in full color. It is available in Joslyn's Museum Shop.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Joslyn Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. Rev. 12/29/11

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