Sari Dienes and the Development of the A.I.R. Gallery

The Sari Dienes Archive, currently on display at RARE, is a record of not only her own life and accomplishments, but a detailed account of the evolving art world of New York City in the last half of the twentieth century. An important cultural event during that period, one which has had a lasting impact on women in the arts, is documented throughout a significant segment of her papers: the formation and growth of the ground-breaking Artists In Residence Gallery.

The Artists In Residence Gallery, or A.I.R., emerged from Susan Williams and Barbara Zucker’s frustration with the under-representation of women artists in New York galleries. Lucy Lippard has written that prior to A.I.R., “despite gains made by the early women artists’ movement, the majority of the emergent women had no place to show their art.” To rectify this, in 1972 Williams and Zucker—along with Dotty Attie, Maude Boltz, Mary Grigoriadis, and Nancy Spero—opened A.I.R. at 97 Wooster Street, the first non-profit, artist-directed gallery for women artists in the United States. Fourteen additional artists were invited to join as co-founders, and finally women in New York not only had a gallery space that exclusively promoted their work, but one where they also could be their own curators; it was a historic moment.

Dienes joined A.I.R. just a year later, and exhibited regularly over the next two decades, with thirteen solo shows alone between 1973 and 1992, the year she died; invitation maquettes for three of those exhibitions are on display, as well as related group show material.

Maquettes for Sari Dienes exhibitions at A.I.R. Gallery

Dienes’ archive also reveals her intimate involvement in A.I.R. councils, fundraising events, and financial meetings, many of which were duly noted in her copious appointment books. Additionally included are numerous drafts of the gallery’s mission statement, created after a lengthy process of revisions, updates, and sometimes acerbic feedback, such as a note that the document was “dry as a martini, yet upbeat.” The ultimate version, issued in 1987, both reiterated and built upon the fundamental objectives that had formed the governing basis of A.I.R. from its inception: “art by women,” “advancing the status of women artists,” and “exhibiting the work of the highest quality.”

Sari Dienes' datebooks

A.I.R. budget details for 1983-1984

Minutes for an A.I.R. meeting on January 22, 1986

Archival material documenting the creation of the A.I.R. mission statement

Today, over four decades after its founding, A.I.R. continues to “provide a professional and permanent exhibition space for women to present work of quality and diversity,” and has transformed into an organization supporting the careers of female artists not only through public showcases, but also fellowships and grants. A former director of the gallery, Dena Muller, notes that “what is most remarkable about A.I.R., these many years later, is that it is open today and largely unchanged in its core mission: to support individual artists through feminism’s collaborative approach.” The timing of its creation during the 1970s, a period marked by strengthening feminism and demands for equal rights, positioned A.I.R. as an influential agent for women beyond the New York art world, an aspiration echoed in their commitment to “political awareness and voice” and bringing “new understanding to old attitudes about women in the arts.” Dienes’ valuable contributions within the gallery for nearly twenty years helped ensure that those ambitions became a reality. 

Posted in Art on April 11 2015

Sari Dienes: Pioneer in the Art of Assemblage

In 1947, abstract artist Sari Dienes took a three-month trip to the Southwest United States that fundamentally altered her career. Dienes had previously concentrated on two-dimensional work, but the rugged, unfamiliar environment—in combination with her study of Zen Buddhism—caused her to both examine the found material in her surroundings more closely and reevaluate the essence of art itself. As she later recalled, “experiencing the natural formations as pieces of sculpture changed my whole attitude to life, to art.” Upon her return, she began translating these newfound insights into a passion for assemblage.

Sari Dienes in New Mexico, 1947 (photograph courtesy of the Sari Dienes Foundation)

Assemblage, according to one critic, is the “3-dimensional cousin of collage.” Like collage, assemblage is a challenge of unification, but with the additional element of multiple levels and a greater variety of texture and materials. The genre dates back to the early twentieth-century with the Cubist and Surrealist constructions of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and André Breton, all of whom highly influenced Dienes at the beginning of her career (especially Léger, a former teacher). However, most of those pieces primarily utilized man-made found elements; Dienes broke new ground in the field by merging their European avant-garde sensibilities with her nascent Southwest enthusiasm for wild objects, creating singularly original works that seamlessly married the natural world with the manufactured. A perfect example of this unique amalgam is her later piece, Wire, fashioned in 1975 from multicolored wire, wood, leather, twine, and telephone components.

Wire (1975) by Sari Dienes

Dienes’ ingenious pairings of form and material had a profound impact on not only her own aesthetic progress, but that of two of her early 1950s studio assistants, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, then young unknown artists. Inspired by their work with Dienes, both men would soon create their own versions of assemblages, in particular Rauschenberg, who referred to his pieces as “combos,” the best known of which is his 1959 masterwork, Canyon. Even here Dienes played an integral part, though: it was she who gave Rauschenberg the infamous taxidermied eagle at its center.

Canyon (1959) by Robert Rauschenberg (photograph courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art)

A young Robert Rauschenberg

In 1961, the Museum of Modern Art codified the movement with The Art of Assemblage, a pioneering exhibition which featured Braque, Picasso, Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, among others, as well as Dienes.

Dienes' correspondence with the Museum of Modern Art regarding her participation in The Art of Assemblage exhibition

She continued making the genre a central segment of her artistic output afterward, and created Silver Assemblage with Mirrors—a large, intricate ensemble of mirrors, textiles, shells, and plastic elements, all affixed to a silver-painted wooden board—less than a year before her death in 1992.

Silver Assemblage with Mirrors (1991) by Sari Dienes

Recently, public and aesthetic interest in assemblage as a discrete art form has experienced a marked resurgence. Pavel Zoubok Gallery, located in New York, specializes in post-war collage, assemblage and mixed media installations, and has presented the work of numerous prominent artists in the field, including Judy Pfaff, Charles McGill, Andras Borocz, and, in November 2014, Sari Dienes. In January, Pace Gallery displayed the work of Dienes’ contemporary, Louise Nevelson, in a very well received show, Collage and Assemblage. Dienes’ work was also exhibited at the Drawing Center this past October. Additionally, younger artists such as Dave McKean, a contemporary English artist best known for DC Comic’s Sandman series, have entered the field, both energizing its content and assuring the genre’s continued vitality and relevance to a new generation.

Both Wire and Silver Assemblage with Mirrors, as well as the archival material pictured above (unless otherwise indicated), are currently on display at RARE.

Posted in Art on April 01 2015

Opening Reception for Sari Dienes Exhibition

A few photographs from last night's event..!

Posted in Art on March 27 2015

Sari Dienes Installation

A sneak preview of the Sari Dienes exhibition, which opens tomorrow:

Posted in on March 26 2015

Evanson’s Copper Currents

Design—whether it applies to type, architecture, or furniture—often requires finding artful solutions to common problems. In the 1980s, architect James Evanson’s problem was how to create elegant lighting fixtures without using inelegant components. His solution: copper, steel, and a bit of high school physics. A series of these ingenious lighting designs, now on display at RARE through March 14th, showcases the unique manner in which Evanson accomplished this; hint: “Look Ma: no wires…!”

Unlike the engineering of a regular lamp, which uses internal wiring to connect power from an electrical supply directly to the bulb, Evanson’s lights eliminate the wiring completely. So how do they work? Each light contains a hidden transformer in the base, which transforms the electricity into a low-voltage current that is transmitted through a frame fashioned from copper—a highly conductive material. This charge is then transferred through additional copper components to the bulb, creating a complete circuit and lighting the lamp. The added benefit of this configuration is that without having to incorporate wiring throughout the lamp’s structure, Evanson had incredible freedom to create open, sculptural, streamlined forms not otherwise possible. It looks like magic, but instead is an inspired merging of science and art.

An early test of this system was Evanson’s small 1983 copper table lamp (below). In addition to providing the charge to the attached halogen bulb, the thin copper arms also turn, twist, and swing, allowing vast flexibility in where the bulb is directed.

With Cactus, a 1988 design, Evanson pushed the magic quotient further by introducing removable elements. Like the table lamp, Cactus’s transformer resides inside its base—here a bi-level construction—but instead of copper tubes, the current is conducted up the length of two elongated, rounded copper plates to an opening at the top, where a detachable copper bar holding a large halogen bulb is slotted in. When the bar makes contact with the frame, the bulb lights; when the bar is lifted out, though, the connection is broken, and the bulb turns off. A nice additional feature of Cactus is that the bar can be positioned with the bulb either pointing down—which emits the light through slits in the front and back of the lamp, as well as through clear plastic tubes in the copper arms—or pointing up, allowing the lamp to act as a torchiere.

Galileo, Evanson’s remarkable light sculpture, represents the apogee of these lighting experiments. Tall and graceful, with a structure reminiscent of suspension bridges, its frame utilizes both curved and straight rods of stainless steel as struts, with the copper functioning as joins. These joins are not merely decorative, though: as stainless is less conductive than copper, they aid in the continuous transmission of the charge from the base transformer upward to what is perhaps the most stunning feature of Galileo—its rotating copper light tube. In many respects, this tube is akin to the framework of Cactus, but is completely detachable, and itself holds two small halogen bulbs. Flat, circular copper plates both hold the tube in place and conduct the electric charge to the bulbs, while four pairs of posts along the curved stainless skeleton allow it to be positioned in various places for different looks; as an added bonus, the open space between the struts also allows it to spin vertically. Akin to Cactus, the bulbs turn off when the tube is lifted from the frame.

Unique, beautiful, and innovative, these three pieces not only manifestly demonstrate Evanson’s own ingenuity and skill, but exemplify, too, how good design can enhance both aesthetics and function.

Posted in Art, Design on March 09 2015

Evanson and His Lighthouses

For architect and designer James Evanson, “the lights in a room must be no less important than the walls or the floor,” an idea which resulted in his line of truly unique Lighthouses.

Despite the name, Evanson’s designs are not modeled on the familiar seashore beacons, but instead on modern urban office towers, and his architectural training allowed him to convert those structures into an entire series of distinctive, functional, and artistic light fixtures, five of which are currently on display at RARE:

LightStruck (1984): wood, paint, lacquer, steel, loose plastic elements; $5,000.

Lo-Beam (1984): wood, paint, lacquer, steel, loose plastic elements; $3,500.

Luna (1984): wood, paint, lacquer, steel, loose plastic elemetns; included in the price of the The New Empire Desk; $27,500.

Monolit (1985): wood, paint, lacquer, steel, loose plastic elements; $6,000.

Torch (1984): Wood, paint, lacquer, steel, loose plastic elements; $4,500.

Evoking both Japanese aesthetics and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Evanson’s cleverly realized architectural forms are striking in and of themselves, but each of the five designs is also customizable with moveable accessories—such as pieces of brightly colored acrylic and wooden ornaments—which allow a great deal of flexibility as to how the lights interact with their individual environments, from the arrangement of the acrylic chips across their façades to how those hues and the fixtures’ inherent frameworks are cast on the wall when lit from within. This ability makes the Lighthouses as much about creating an intimate, personalized space as providing light, and exemplifies the precepts of the functional art movement.

When Evanson first introduced his Lighthouses in the mid-1980s, they appeared in numerous publications, and were presented in various international shows, museums, and galleries. These five vintage examples—held since that time in one collection—have not previously been on display, but until March 14th, they will once again be brightening the streets of Manhattan at RARE.

Posted in Art, Design on March 04 2015

James Evanson: The Genius in the Details

James Evanson’s work contains myriad original and distinctive features not often perceived in large-scale images of his pieces. To rectify that, we’re highlighting details of three items currently on display at RARE to better reveal the innovative features, ingenious construction, and artistic creativity that make Evanson’s furniture and lighting designs so unique.

Galileo (1989)—copper, copper leaf, copper paint, stainless steel, wood; 1/1: $30,000

Galileo is as much sculpture as it is light, with a little science thrown in. This large, metal work utilizes a transformer in the rear base (top right image) to conduct low voltage electricity through the steel and copper joins to the floating copper bar at top. Its copper supports (third image, middle) transmit the charge to the bulbs in the end of the bar, which then light up. When the bar is lifted from the steel support, however, the connection is broken and the light goes off. The bar can be shifted to several other points on the curved support to provide different looks, and can be fully rotated within the structure. A truly unique piece, the only one Evanson produced.


New Empire Desk with Luna Lighthouse (1984)—Wood, paint, lacquer, steel, electrical wiring: $27,500

Very few pieces of office furniture can be called both functional and beautiful, but Evanson’s New Empire desk would certainly be one of them. Meticulously pieced together, with hand-drawn and painted decoration, this large desk boasts not only a nuanced color palette, but smart and ergonomic features, including a spacious, curved interior leg area; a moveable wooden cubby and drawer, which also acts as a support; a built-in pencil holder; and its own Lighthouse, Luna. Panels on top remove to reveal hidden storage compartments, and wiring for the Lighthouse is discreetly threaded through one of the legs in the stunning front elevation.


Comet Chair (1980)—Wood, paint, lacquer, steel, silver leaf. Eight total, available in:
Set of 2: $7,500; Set of 4: $13,000; Set of 8: $25,000

Originally created as a set of eight, this gorgeous collection of Evanson’s ingenious three-legged Comet chairs—one of his earliest
designs—incorporates wood in two ways: plain, with only a clear finish to better emphasize the grain; and artistically lacquered, with drawn, painted, and applied silver leaf elements. Both are set off with brightly colored metal supports that—along with the angled wooden legs—beautifully counter and complement the gently curved forms of the backrest, seat, and arms.

Posted in Design on February 27 2015

The Memphis Group: On the Rise Once Again

James Evanson was a young, up-and-coming artist when a new design collective called Memphis emerged out of Italy. Founded in 1980 by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass—along with Alessandro Mendini, Aldo Cibic, Michael Graves, Hans Hollein, Arata Isozaki, Peter Shire, Matteo Thun, Javier Mariscal, and Barbara Radice, among others—Memphis aimed to revitalize what they considered a moribund design industry by stating, “Form does not have to follow function anymore”: a complete departure from the modernist precepts of the previous generation.

Ettore Scottsass, founder of The Memphis Group

Influenced by Art Deco and, especially, Pop Art, Memphis began creating furniture which was irrational in structure, and often unusable, but intentionally so. The pieces featured bright colors and free-form, organic shapes, and—in another deviation from traditional modernist materials such as metal, wood, glass, and leather—utilized unorthodox, and often cheap, materials like plastic. To promote their ideas, the collective mounted several shows of their designs, in which they invited other like-minded designers to participate, among them James Evanson, who incorporated an expanded range of material into his work, notably metal.

Chair designed by one of the original Memphis Group designers, Alessandro Mendini

The reaction to the group’s designs was both swift and polarizing, with opinions on one hand praising their unique aesthetic, and on the other harshly criticizing them for impracticality. However, the Memphis aesthetic has been making a comeback over the past few years, and is now celebrated for its pioneering nature.

In 2011, the Memphis Group’s trademark patterns entered the mainstream market with Christian Dior’s Fall line.

The V&A Museum in London exhibited “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion” in 2012, which revisited the group’s work and influence, while original group members Nathalie du Pasquier and Peter Shire each appeared on the retail market: du Pasquier with a Memphis-influenced line for the fashion brand American Apparel, and Shire with his original 1985 jewelry designs for the Cooper Hewitt SHOP in Manhattan.

Memphis Group-inspired collection from American Apparel

A brooch from the Peter Shire Jewlery collection

Additionally, Koenig & Clinton and the Joe Sheftel Gallery partnered to mount recent month-long exhibitions of vintage Memphis work at their respective New York spaces. The press release for the shows included a quote from Ettore Sottsass which beautifully articulates the Memphis philosophy, and also serves as a fitting close here: “It is no coin­ci­dence that the peo­ple who work for Mem­phis don’t pur­sue a meta­physic aes­thetic idea or an absolute of any kind, much less eter­nity. Today every­thing one does is con­sumed. [Mem­phis] is ded­i­cated to life, not to eter­nity.”

Posted in Art, Design on February 24 2015

“James Evanson” Opening Reception

A few photographs from last night's opening reception for the "James Evanson" exhibition!

Posted in Art, Design on February 20 2015

“James Evanson” Exhibition

A quick look at the "James Evanson" exhibition, now on display through March 14th, 2015. More information about the exhibtion here.

Posted in Art, Design on February 20 2015

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