TOYS AS ART
All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Thinking about a title for this website, one that came to mind was “TOYS AS ART” or maybe “ART AS TOYS”? I couldn’t decide! They are both saying sort of the same thing, and both titles are timely in both the Art and Toy worlds of today. It seems there is a new category of toy and art, alike, that combines the two in spirit and in name. It is simply called “Art Toys”, a name that has a ring to it that sounds somewhat similar to a movement that was prominent in my day, one that had a far greater influence on the World of Art, and certainly on me, “Pop Art”.
Pop Art redefined what “Art” was all about. It proclaimed that Art might pop up anywhere, and even some commercial products made under the umbrella of industry might be considered “Works of Art”. Did this make the humble craftsmen who designed these products “artists”? Maybe not. The pretentiousness of the elite Art community deemed that those, who played the Art Gallery Game successfully, had merely to discover these commercial products, and proclaim them to be “art” by copying or enlarging them. And, thus, these individuals qualified as “artists,” while the craftsman who actually created the originals, did not.
Andy Warhol looked at a box of “Brillo” pads, and announced that it was “Art”. Then he printed up some replicas, and sold them for a fortune. The man who actually created the design was not as fortunate. Andy Warhol rose to fame, while the actual designer of the box continued to earn a relatively modest wage. He didn’t even qualify for 15 minutes of Fame. Somehow, the merits of a Brillo box escaped me. But if I chose to have one in my living room, today, I would prefer to visit the grocery store, and purchase “The Real Thing.”
Roy Lichtenstein looked at some old comic books, and realized the artwork was cool, so he chose carefully, and enlarged some of the imagery. He made it big enough to slap the viewer in the face, and say, “Hey, take a look at comic books! Some of the art is really GREAT!” In the elite Art World this statement made a splash. Meanwhile, in the Real World, any kid who read comic books could have told you that!
The 1961 painting on the left sold for $43 million, in 2011. The Lichtenstein painting on the right is Roy's inept 1961 rendition of “Popeye”, oil on canvas! Is this what the Art World considers Great? Prints of it are available to frame! Elzie Segar must be turning over in his grave! I rest my case!
Here are two examples of “ Art Toys”, also referred to as “Urban Vinyl”. The Mickey Mouse on the left is by the popular artist Kaws. And the Mickey Mouse in the middle is by Ron English. His face resembles an incandescent light bulb. The original World War II Mickey Mouse gas mask is on the right.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Art Toys are great. If I had been born fifty years later, I’d probably be creating them, today. Some Art Toys are highly original, with forms dictated, to some degree, by the approachable affordability of the vinyl medium, which tends to make them look, somewhat, alike. Others are playful variations on the icons and imagery that I have been collecting all my life. One small compensation for old age is the fact that I was there form the beginning to experience and savor the excitement and adventure of discovering “The Real Thing.”
While Pop Art was happening in the USA, I was unaware of it, in 1958, the year that I lived in Paris. Thus, my life altering moment of revelation, the instant that I realized that Toys could be Art, and visa-versa, took place simultaneously, but independently of the influence of Pop Art. As I have already recounted the experience, elsewhere, in a speech I gave, ten years ago, and I couldn’t say it any better now, so, please, forgive me if I cut and paste:
“One fateful day, at the Paris Flea market, which at that time, was the only "Flea Market" in the world, I found myself standing and staring at a puzzling object, an object that was destined to profoundly alter the course of my entire life. And, here it is ...........
This cast iron bank! It caught my eye from afar, shining like a beacon, amid a sea of ancient things. Although, younger than the stuff around it, this image was older than, and unlike any Mickey Mouse that I had ever seen. But it wasn't the Mickeyness of this object that attracted me. It was the fierce power of the image, the pure and unexpected geometry, the straight lines and sharp angles, the pointed snout, sharp elbows, and how they contrasted with and played off of the round elements of his anatomy. And then there was this subtle shift, as he gently leans to one side, not enough to destroy the symmetry, but just enough to keep him off balance, always in motion, and alive.
I found this to be a fascinating sculpture! But, alas, it was also Mickey Mouse. Although, I was a Disney fanatic as a child, the real Mickey Mouse was almost unknown to me. Donald Duck was popular in my day, and Mickey, by then, had almost gone away. What Mickey images I had seen, were 1940s Mickey at his wishy-washy worst, with pink face, eyeballs and chubby cheeks. Although, I had never seen a Mickey Mouse as powerful as this, he was still the symbol of everything I had rejected and outgrown. And a battle raged within me. Could I give in to the spell that this fierce, yet friendly, object was casting over me, and embrace it, in spite of the fact that it was Mickey? It seemed like hours passed, as I stood mousemerized.
I guess you're all wondering what happened. I won't keep you in suspense. I bought it! Considering that my Hotel room rent was the equivalent of $30 a month, his price of $10 dollars was not one to be taken lightly. This was no small purchase. But the money was not the issue, it was, instead, the inner conflict, that I finally resolved by convincing myself that this object was a sculpture, first, and Mickey, only, secondarily.”
And thus began a lifetime of collecting. By this simple act of recognizing that this object I had found was Art, in 1958, when to all the rest of the world, it was not, and standing behind my conviction by paying what was, then, a painful price, I experienced all the emotional satisfaction that I would have if I had actually created this powerful object, myself. Maybe more so, for I was feeling all the joys of creativity, without any of the hard work involved, and the only pain was in my wallet.
Had I been a “Pop Artist”, like Roy and Andy, I might have enlarged this cast iron Mickey. Or if I had the money, I could have telephoned the local foundry, like my friend Ernie Trova used to do, and commissioned them to do it for me. And I might have even had the audacity to sign my name to what they made, and thus, begin an art career. But being a purist, which I, even now, remain, I preferred to leave the statement as it was, “The Real Thing”.
Meanwhile, although, I was unaware of Pop Art, there was another factor at play that fateful day at “le Marché aux Puces”. I did realize, at the time, that I was finding a “Found Object”, a “readymade”!
The Online Dictionary defines the term “Found Object” as: “A natural object or an artifact not originally intended as art, found and considered to have aesthetic value. Also called objet trouvé.”
Wikipedia, discussing Marcel Duchamp, describes the first “objet trouvé” in the following way: "The Bottle Rack (also called Bottle Dryer or Hedgehog) is an artwork created in 1914 by Dada artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp labeled the piece a "readymade", a term he used to describe his collection of ordinary, manufactured objects not commonly associated with art."
My closest friend, in Paris, the American artist, Robert Grosvenor, found such a bottle rack, one identical to the Marcel Duchamp original. He discovered it on the street, and dragged it back to his room at 9 Rue Git Le Coeur. These bottle drying racks were still in common use in France in 1958. It was Bob who introduced me to the concept of the “objet trouvé”.
Looking back, I realize that, beginning at that moment in the Paris Flea Market, I have spent my life, my money, and most of my energy, finding objects, not intended to be “art”, and elevating them to that, at least, in my own eyes. And the very act of recognizing the visual merits of humble works, intended merely to amuse children and later be discarded, became, for me, an act of creativity. And the moment of recognition, that instant of discovery, seeing the element of art in the works of unknown craftsmen, often toiling in the toy industry, became a way of “doing art” for me. Each new find was, essentially, a thrilling moment of creativity, spontaneous and instantaneous! At exhilarating times like these, I could sense my entire body tingling, and, ever so slightly, levitating.
In the early days, back in the United States, rescuing these treasures from an imagined garbage dump that, hypothetically, might become their destiny, became a sort of mission, one that I pursued with a passion, at every opportunity.
In later years, when antique dealers discovered that there were missionaries, like me, willing to spend large sums of money on these transitory trifles, now called “collectibles,” the danger of their ending up in the city dump was no longer a possibility. Soon, it became collectors, who needed to be rescued ... from ever pending bankruptcy. Eventually there appeared a multitude of shows, flea markets, and auctions, culminating in eBay, the ultimate dumping place, where over a hundred and fiftyty thousand Mickey Mouse items are offered every day; today’s number is 155,639. That’s even more mice than there are in my collection! How many mice are there in my collection? In the web pages that follow, you will see.