This exhibition provides not only a thorough introduction to the lens boxes of the underappreciated German artist Mary Bauermeister but also an overview of the widespread turn by artists in the 1960s to the box, a development unquestionably instrumental to the art object’s transformation in the postwar era. Bauermeister’s work here is nested within a survey of iconic artworks leading from Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell to the proliferation of boxes represented in such networks and movements as Fluxus, Nouveau Réalisme, ZERO, and Pop.
Bauermeister began her career as a painter in Cologne, where she made abstract pieces that built up repetitious material accumulations on the picture plane. In 1964, following her move from Cologne to New York, she began making the lens boxes, in which multiple layers of optical lenses magnify and miniaturize surfaces that are filled with the artist’s whorling script; the sensation of looking at them is reminiscent of peering into a basin of percolating liquid. Vision is thrown into oscillation, alternately drawn into the box’s interior and cast outside its boundaries. Bauermeister’s boxes addressed a problem many artists were exploring at the same moment: how to imagine the artwork beyond the discrete material object. Her most explicit response to this problem is found in the boxes whose contents spill out onto the wall, such as I’m a Pacifist, but War Pictures Are Too Beautiful, 1964-67.
Such boxes operated rather like miniature showrooms: Anything occurring within their frames could read as an object. Eventually, the box became unnecessary, and the artwork could finally disaggregate, becoming in some cases a field that could continue to be perceived as a singular work (for her part, Bauermeister moved into the design of gardens). “Worlds in a Box” demonstrates just how, at a certain moment, the box was indeed a useful metonym for the world.