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A Many-Splendored Ode to the Dodo

David Beck, “Untitled (Dodo with Interior Dodo Diorama)” (1977), mixed media, carved and painted wood, glass, and feathers, 21 x 14 x 27 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Allan Stone Projects) (click to enlarge)

Absurdity and loneliness embrace each other in David Beck’s diminutive, meticulously detailed dioramas. A large selection of them is included in an eye-opening exhibition, David Beck: Alligator Maintenance and Other Esoterica at Allan Stone Projects (January 12–February 20, 2016). Other works include kinetic sculptures, such as “Momentary Indiscretions” (1984) and “Pagliacci (Clown)” (1994–98), and the large, astonishing “Dodo Museum” (1980), which is the centerpiece of the exhibition.

According to its website, Allan Stone Projects is “the exclusive representative of works from the Allan Stone Collection.” A maverick art dealer, Allan Stone (1932–2006) gave artists like Jack Whitten and Wayne Thiebaud, who remained with him for forty years, their first shows. He was also a passionate and obsessive collector. For those who want to know more about him, I recommend seeing the film The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art (2007), made by his daughter, Olympia Stone, and available on DVD.

Ms. Stone has also completed another film, CURIOUS WORLDS: The Art & Imagination of David Beck: An Intimate Portrait of the Most Accomplished American Artist You’ve Never Heard Of, which I haven’t seen, but have ordered through her website, Floating Stone Productions. While the movie’s title might seem hyperbolic — a commonplace gambit in today’s hyped-up art world — I don’t think it is. Known, it would seem, only to museum curators and a handful of collectors, Beck has achieved cult status, at best. Perhaps this exhibition — which the artist does not seem to have been involved with – and the film will help change that.

Beck had his first solo show with Allan Stone in 1977, and showed regularly with him right up to 2004, which was also his last one-person exhibition in New York. Almost all of the thirty works in David Beck: Alligator Maintenance and Other Esoterica were made between the late 1970s and early ’80s, suggesting that we have a lot of catching up to do. While there are no recent works on display, with the exception of an archival pigment print of a dodo bird, one of Beck’s preoccupations, I would urge anyone interested in what can be done with kinetic sculpture or a diorama, or who is a fan of Joseph Cornell, William Wiley, or H. C Westermann — outliers who created self-contained worlds governed by strange laws and populated by mysterious figures — to go to this exhibition. More than anyone working today, Beck is the heir to Alexander Calder and his “Cirque Calder” (1926–31), with its many moveable figures and parts. Beck’s “Pagliacci (Clown)” would feel right at home with Calder’s performers.

Interior detail of “Untitled (Dodo with Interior Dodo Diorama)” (1977) (click to enlarge)

I am no expert on Beck’s work. Initially, a couple of them seemed obscure — hardly a misdemeanor in my book — but give them a chance, and I am sure that any reservations you might have will fall away, unless, of course, you are just a cold-hearted person brimming with jealousy, meanness, and self-righteousness.

“Anonymity” — a diorama of a man sitting in a room — is dated 1980 and measures 6 1/8 x 8 1/8 x 3 1/8 inches, about the size of a thick but not very large paperback novel. I suspect it is about the size of my copy of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, but a bit thicker. A man in a sleeveless white t-shirt and dark pants is sitting on the right side of a wallpapered room, by the window of what is likely a rooming house, his left arm resting on the sill. He faces the viewer, holding a cigarette, but there is a bag over his head, making it difficult for him to smoke. On the left side of the room is a bed with a mattress and pillow, but no sheet. There are no knick-knacks, no signs of a life lived. Instead, the word “Anonymity” is written in large letters on the back wall of the room (diorama). Because of the diorama’s size, you feel like a giant staring into a tiny room in which the lone individual, whose eyes are covered, is completely unaware of you. Behind him is a brown door with a glass transom on which the number 27 is painted in gold and, of course, in reverse.

David Beck, “Anonymity” (1980), mixed media construction, 6 1/8 x 8 1/8 x 3 1/8 inches (click to enlarge)

There is a rounded lumpiness to Beck’s whittled figure and bed frame, which reminded me of a slightly rougher version of the claymation characters, Wallace and Gromit, an eccentric inventor and his dog. Beck’s loving attention to detail, to the stained wallpaper and the color of the door and mattress is astounding. More importantly, it all feels necessary to his vision of this improbable and inexplicable circumstance. That, of course, is what holds your attention: the thoroughness with which the artist brings an unlikely situation — or what Harold Rosenberg, writing about Action Painting, called an event — into existence. Instead of explaining the man’s isolation, Beck invites the viewer to complete the narrative, which is, of course, impossible. Its ability to resist interpretation while inviting it is just part of its power.

What’s going on in the diorama, “Immunity Wore a Disguise” (1980), which is almost exactly the same size as “Anonymity”? There are six saw blades cutting through the walls, floor and ceiling of the dark blue wainscoted room with lighter blue walls. There is even a saw blade — who is holding it? — poking through the top of the diorama, like a shark fin.   Each of the other five saws is working its way around something in the room — the wall calendar with a woman in a red bathing suit on water skis, the ceiling lamp, and office chair — which raises the question: how does the person holding the saw on the other side of the wall, ceiling or floor know where to cut? And what’s with the Groucho Marx disguise that seems to have been left behind?

David Beck, “Immunity Wore a Disguise” (1980), mixed media box construction, 6 3/4 x 8 x 3 1/4 inches (click to enlarge)

Solitude, seclusion, invisibility, and the preservation of threatened and extinct creatures are just some of the themes that Beck returned to throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The wee scale of some of his dioramas requires that one person look at it at a time, like Marcel Duchamp’s “Étant donnés” (1946–66). The difference is that Duchamp’s installation requires the viewer to look through a peephole in a massive wooden door, transforming him or her into a voyeur, while Beck’s almost miniature scale make the viewer feel like the sole, colossal witness to something that he or she can do nothing about. Feeling cut off, vulnerable and perplexed, the viewer begins to mirror what he or she witnesses.

David Beck, “DODO MUSEUM” (1980), mixed media, wood, feathers, copper and electric lightbulb, 86 1/2 x 34 x 36 inches overall (click to enlarge)

Shortly after Beck first saw an exhibition about the dodo bird at the Museum of Natural History in New York in 1976, he made “Untitled (Dodo with Interior Dodo Diorama),” seemingly by carving a block of wood into the shape of the bird and then hollowing it out. The bird’s stubby wings open out, revealing a world inside — with trees, grass, sky, and dodo birds — where some birds are looking up, while others lie on their back, as if they have just fallen from the sky.

There is something sweet, poignant, funny, and sad about Beck’s sculpture of this ungainly, flightless bird, which inhabited the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean. Hunted for food by visitors to the island, the dodo became extinct in 1662, less than seventy years after it was first mentioned by Dutch sailors in 1559. There are no known fossil records of the dodo, and, almost without exception, depictions of it are largely considered inaccurate. Now regarded as a popular symbol of a helpless creature made extinct by humans, the dodo first gained attention as a memorable character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), illustrated by the well-known humorist and political cartoonist, John Tenniel.

No doubt, when Beck made “Untitled (Dodo with Interior Dodo Diorama),” he was aware that there are only two depictions of the bird that are considered accurate — one in a famous painting, “Edward’s Dodo” (1626) by Roelant Savery, and the other in a painting dated 1610 by the Mughal court painter, Ustand Mansur.

Beck’s “DODO MUSEUM” (1980) — an ornately appointed gothic building partly covered with feathers — contains the artist’s version of a life-size skeleton of a dodo. The sculpture comes complete with its own attached pedestal and stands more than seven feet high. The viewer peers in through the open doors, craning this way and that in an attempt to see everything inside, and there’s a lot. The outside of the building is also full of details, from the feathers covering some of the walls, to the perched gargoyles, to the round mirrors inset on the side walls, to the monkey guarding the museum’s entrance, to the copper sheeting on the roof, to the golden dodo perched on the top of the building. And this is not the half of it.

Interior detail of “DODO MUSEUM” (1980)

Beck’s dodo skeleton rises from floor to ceiling, like a dinosaur display at the Museum of Natural History. It is all made up, of course, because no complete skeleton exists. Everything we know comes from inaccurate visual records and scant physical proof. On the museum’s interior walls — and barely discernible — are small paintings based on the “Unicorn Tapestries” on display at The Cloisters in Upper Manhattan. The comparison of the dodo to the mythical unicorn reminds us that for a while people thought the dodo was a myth. Breathtakingly attentive to details, Beck has memorialized a creature that humans quickly and thoughtlessly made extinct. The dodo may look dumb and foolish to us, but our own foolishness turns out to be monstrous. Beck’s devotion to this impossible recreation is a funeral hymn full of whimsical visual notes, a gentle reminder of human waste and greed.

David Beck: Alligator Maintenance and Other Esoterica continues at Allan Stone Projects (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 20.

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