Constructivism at the Chazen

The 20th Century Art Highlights 'Found Materials'

Recently, some of SSFP's teen editors including Enjoyiana, Diamond, Dija, Sylvan, Jackie, and Leila gathered at the Chazen Museum of Art to view an exhibit on 20th Century sculpture. Our wonderful volunteer editor Jane Coleman planned the outing. Mary Brennan, a friend of the Free Press, greeted us as we entered; an experienced docent, Mary acted as our guide. As we walked up the stairs to the exhibit, Mary provided us with a little background.

Much of the artwork Mary showed us was donated to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. Lane, both of whom graduated from UW-Madison and lived in New York City. The couple has a soft spot for art in the constructivism style.

Constructivism is an artistic movement that first started in Russia over a century ago. The movement emphasizes the assemblage of found materials into elaborate artistic pieces. Constructivism started after WWI, when many classical art materials weren't available, so the artists of the time had to rely on everyday household materials, called "found materials," to make their art.

While we were looking around in the exhibit, Mary handed us each a variety of common household items including spoons, soap bottles, and scrap metal. She then asked us to find those same materials within the exhibit's art pieces. It took about 10 minutes for us to find all of the items, even with guidance. Some of the artists explicitly showed off the common items in their pieces, while others made the items seem like entirely different materials. For example, I had a detergent bottle, which I found--with help--in a sculpture. We repeated this activity a few times and then, as a group, we went over how each object was incorporated into the art.

A large selection of artists were represented in the exhibit including Calder, Nevlesson, Cornell, Rozak, and Gabo. Calder was born into a family of artists but, as a child, he never really liked art. However, as he grew, he became more interested in forming wire into different objects, sometimes with moveable parts. Wire was a very common object in his engineering workshop.

Another plentiful and oft-used resource for constructivists was wooden furniture. For example, Nevlesson used to gather pieces of wooden furniture, break them into smaller chunks, and then nail the chunks together into boxes and abstract shapes.

Cornell was also a constructivist who used boxes as a primary part of his work. Cornell was the oldest child in his family; when his father died and left the family in debt, Cornell felt responsible. Additionally, Cornell's brother suffered from polio and ultimately died not long after his father did. The loss of his brother caused Cornell even more grief and stress. To find peace, Cornell started placing different objects into wooden boxes in an artistic way, thus forming his works of art. Unfortunately, his work wasn't recognized until after his death.

While walking through this wonderful and fascinating exhibit, we were really taking a tour through the 20th century. Starting with Gabo’s filament fixture and ending with Oldenburg’s giant typewriter eraser, we witnessed the change in inspiration that played a significant role in each artist's work. As we left the exhibit, we continued to discuss the many forms of art both in the museum and in our everyday lives. It’s so interesting to see the notable changes in the ways that art is depicted throughout the years. And now, we've gained a greater appreciation for the objects in our lives that we once considered 'common.'

Well done, Leila. Sounds like a wonderful field trip! – Mckenna , Madison, WI (2016-09-27 20:13)
Awesome article Leila! I really enjoyed reading about the Chazen museum and its history. Keep up the good work! – Sarah Useche , Verona Area High School (2016-09-27 20:29)
Leila - The fact that in just one hour you observed so much and with such enthusiasm is why I love to help arrange these tours. – Jane Coleman , Monona (2016-09-29 17:06)