Forty years ago, I used to exhibit my three-dimensional artwork or “assemblage*” in the front window of my storefront studio in Soho inside an old wooden milk crate I had painted white. (*In fine art, a sculptural technique of organizing or composing into a unified whole a group of unrelated and often fragmentary or discarded objects.)
One day I found a pair of discarded mannequin legs in the trash. I wasn’t sure what I’d do with them at first.
A day or two later, I put a pair of my old lace-up Brogans® on them and took them back to where I had found them to photograph them. I liked the resulting black and white photograph so much I framed it.
Soon afterward, I agreed to put on an art exhibit of my work in which I would open up my studio to the public for four consecutive weekends in the Spring. I moved all of the furniture and everything except for the piano to the back half of my studio. Then I got some lumber and sheetrock and built a wall dividing my studio in half. I hung twenty of my photographs along the East wall of the space. On the West wall, I hung eight or nine of my box sculptures.
Then I got the idea that I would cut a window (similar to the one in which I had been exhibiting my work in for years) at slightly below eye-level into the wall I had just built and construct a wooden box behind it. The box had two openings cut into its top which were the exact diameter of my lower legs at the point just below my knees.
On the other side of that wall I constructed a sort-of platform which enabled me to sit down and extend my own legs down into the empty box.
I then placed a pane of thick, clear glass in the opening I had made in the wall.
Next, I hung the framed photograph of the mannequin legs with my size 13 black Brogans® on them in close proximity to the window I had made.
On the morning of the show I shaved my legs from the knees down and dusted them with talcum powder in order to make them look more like the legs in the photograph. Then I put on the same old black Brogans that were on the mannequin legs. Just prior to my then-wife opening the storefront door to the public, I took up my position out of sight behind the wall and waited for those who wanted to see my art to enter.
A small crowd of people who had gathered outside came right in, dispersed somewhat and began slowly looking at my artwork arrayed on opposite walls. These artlovers were carefully looking at each piece and each photograph and they were working their way toward the back. When they reached the wall I had built, just for this show, they came upon the window with my legs in it and the adjacent framed photograph of the mannequin legs with my boots on them.
My intention was to try and get them to initially believe that the legs in the box were the same mannequin legs in the photograph.
I had also cut a small opening in the wall and placed a metal vent in front of it so that I could peer down and see their faces as they stood in front of the window with my legs in it.
Most viewers would stand and ponder the window display for a moment or so and look back and forth between my legs and the photograph.
When I observed them shift their gaze to the photograph, I would slightly change the position of my feet in the box.
Then I watched their faces to see if I could detect the shock of recognition.
If they appeared somewhat perplexed, I might flex my feet in my boots without altering their position, similar to the appearance of someone’s chest rising and falling as he deeply breathed-in air, paused for a moment and then exhaled.
At this point I had their total attention, a brief condition that was usually accompanied by a gasp of air– or a giggle, as they suddenly came to realize that there was an actual person behind the wall with his legs and feet slightly below their eye level. What would usually happen next, was that the viewer would casually move away and stand off to one side, quietly waiting to see what would happen to the next unsuspecting person who came along.
During the four hours each day I spent with my feet in the box, over a period of four consecutive weekends, we had over a thousand artlovers come in to look at my artwork.
To my dismay, no one ever wrote an article about it.
At least not that I am aware of.
After the show was over, but before the hair grew out on my legs again, I decided to invite the art dealer Barbara Toll to my studio. Several years before, she had been intrigued enough by my work to include me in a group show of emerging artists. She even exhibited one of my pieces in the front window of The Hundred Acres Gallery on West Broadway.
My then-wife, met her at the door and I watched from my platform as she walked around the empty room carefully contemplating each piece of my artwork. When she got to the box with my legs and feet in it, I froze. I watched her face and just as she seemed about to turn away, I flexed one of my feet.
I thought I detected the hint of a smile, though she neither gasped or giggled and spoke not a word.
After she left and the door was quietly closed behind her, I came down from my perch behind the wall for the very last time and asked my then-wife, “Did she say anything?”
“She said you have a great mind.” my then-wife told me.
I don’t know if that was true or not, but I would have liked to believe it.
In the ensuing decades since the events here related have transpired, I am still trying to sort that out.
3 thoughts on “The Hint of a Smile”
My smile is very wide.
You have the heart of performance in you old friend. Your art pierces the artifices it is required to penetrate. Always a breath of fresh air. Thanks for this.
That’s how I always thought of your dance/performance!