The Modernist Art of Sarah Austin: Growing Up In Drama

Mary Ann Caws



The art of Modernism in its broadest sense takes elements from different sources and has them meet, generally in high drama. The very theater of this clash provides energy and a celebration of contraries. It is from this sort of dynamic atmosphere that Sarah Austin emerged, one that provided her with a keen appreciation for contradiction and dramatic display. Using both what was given and what she could find, Sarah Austin harnessed these qualities to create art that is as much about secret as it is about show.


Everything was theater at home. “Theater and magic were the source of his energy”, her brother David Austin said of their father. “You can only understand him in terms of theater.”1 This is equally true of Sarah Austin’s art. The first thing to strike you is the theatrical aspect of her collage constructions. They are staged. They are in fact a play you enter, with artist performers, often larger than life. The impact of her work accumulates through its quality and its quantity. For there are many of these presentations, over three hundred and fifty, at which she worked for 25 years. “My boxes,” as she called them, were Sarah Austin’s secret life.



About them there is something not just theatrical, but magical. These qualities were both inherited and intuitive. As for the inheritance, her father Chick Austin, also known as ‘The Great Osram’ the magician, was particularly gifted in the creation of spectacle, at home and on his occasional appearances as a prestidigitator of consequence. His gift for presentation was quite certainly passed on to his daughter, as was his gift for concealment. Sally, as family and friends called her, was never to forget her father. He had been, and remained in her mind, magical. He showed her how paintings should be hung - at eye level, sewed up her evening dress when it was too large, and, often to her despair, held forth on art and everything else until, as one of Sally’s childhood friends put it to me, “our mouths hung open.” He dazzled.



One of Sarah Austin’s most beautiful constructions shows Chick’s elegant figure behind his elaborate magician’s box, with crystalline globes hanging down (plate #1). His rapt visage is concentrated upon his work, making the perfect icon for Sarah’s venture into the world of theater. The work lights up more than itself, it illuminates her own magic touch. She also inherited her father’s secrecy. “There was an extraordinarily private area about him” his son David continues, “an important key to him is sleight of hand and concealment of mechanism”. As Chick would say to his children when they would inquire as to the backstage controls for his magic shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum: “Magicians do not show their secrets”.2 The inner workings of Sarah Austin’s boxes are no less complicated than her father’s tricks, and far more lasting. 


The Sense of Place


The black backgrounds of Sarah Austin’s boxes suggest a depth that might escape the casual observer at first glance. Among her most vivid and least forgettable memories was that of the Ringling Brothers’ circus she attended in 1944, when the tent caught fire during the performance, killing 57 people. Luckily she escaped all but the traumatic aftermath, although the bitter irony of this tragedy occurring in her father’s favorite place did not escape her. In addition to this experience, two displacements provoked in her a sense of alienation. First, when the family was uprooted from their Hartford, Connecticut home and moved to Brentwood, California, because Chick wanted to spend time in Hollywood. The second was when Sally was sent away as a young woman to Florence, Italy where she found life in another country with a different language ultimately depressing.


Sarah Austin’s true place was eventually in the world of art. The sense of having finally arrived somewhere gave her modernist sensibility a real home. She found herself in her collages and constructions, with all of their theatrical strings intact and working: “I am interested in art history, classical music, tennis and anything that has to do with woodworking tools. Although I began making mechanical objects in the early 60s, I have spent the past 25 years making collage constructions using reproductions mounted on wood or Masonite. My intention is not to distort the original image, but rather to change it in a good-natured way.”3 These boxes of white pine, painted black and protected by Plexiglas, were her own private theater. 


The sense of place in Sarah Austin was always strong, in her work as well as in her life. She was intensely close to her surroundings: her family home in Hartford; her New York apartment (where her small working space was carefully constructed, organized); and in the brisk air and glancing light of her summer home and studio in Castine, Maine. About those Maine summers, Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom recalls how Sarah Austin worked, hacking and sawing, ‘hammering, scraping, drilling.’ He loved her ‘viewing boxes,’ as he called them. They brought all the color of Europe into the American scene.


They are not very deep, light enters from above and when I look inside, far from Europe and far from the twenties, a familiar world appears, a world of Cubists and Surrealists, their work, their faces. From this distance, it resembles a family photo album. I recognize Braque’s guitars, Max Emst’s collages, Duchamp’s ready-mades, the faces of Magritte and Dali, Miro and De Chirico, everything that has come to belong immutably to the broad landscape of this century’s art, yet ordered willfully by someone who surely knows this world like a village.


Many of the figures contained within her boxes were familiars, their faces, her family portraits. She rarely shared the making of her work with others, keeping apart even from friends her private inheritance of tricks and talent, to some degree her unconscious world. Magicians do not show their secrets, after all. Sarah Austin’s theatrical constructions pay homage to the same artists and writers revered by her father, placed now on her own stage. Here she could choose the starring roles.


The Boxes and Their Heritage


Sarah Austin was an artist of great intuition. For her boxes she used her quick intelligence and joyous sensuality to celebrate the figures and movements she found important to Modernism. She would continue to perfect her procedures: working with silver paper, xeroxed figures and cutouts; building wood frames and managing intricate instruments. She cut, arranged and glued together the spectacle. 


There were bound to be authority figures who would haunt Sarah Austin, as her father had. There is no way for an American artist to make shadow boxes without being compared to the great Joseph Cornell. She renders her own homage to Cornell in a box of utter beauty from 1978, simply called Cornell (plate #2). A mirrored wall, divided into two rectangular sections, reflects the viewer’s gaze. To the upper right, suspended just above the horizontal break, floats a circle with the disembodied head of Joseph Cornell; haggard, looking upward and rolling as if in one of the circles, rings, or cylinders of his boxes. Beneath it, a narrow strip of text cut from an article reads: The spectator, trapped in the mirror’s reflection, became part of the object, establishing, at an early date, Cornell’s awareness of the physical presence of the… The sentence does not finish, making a conceptual opening in the heavy framing of the container. Sarah Austin’s choice of this in-completion and of the circular form refers to the Joycean circle in the construction of Finnegans Wake, and to the basic premise of Surrealist artwork, its deliberate acknowledgment of the spectator’s place at the very center of the art object. There is to be no division between the person seeing and the object seen. Here, Sarah Austin pays her inheritor’s tribute, and moves on.


Never of course was Sarah Austin referring to the singers and ballerinas of the nineteenth century as Cornell had, rather, she was composing elaborate portraits of the figures who created visual art. The construction of this theater of artists was precise and craftsman-like. She chose precisely the right color, wood, paper, film, and plastic to produce the desired result. Sarah Austin did not limit herself to representing the figures of Modernism. She was equally fond of earlier periods, but her innate and theatrical sense of how things converge to create their own drama is deeply modernist. If she spent so much time with the creative heroes and heroines of Modernism, with its writers, painters, and sculptors, it was quite simply that they were her intimates, from long ago. And so Piet Mondrian sits calmly amid his brightly colored rectangles (Plate #4), at ease in his geometric universe. Death stares at us unmediated as Pablo Picasso’s fiery gaze looks out, unsmiling, through the advancing vertical stripes that splice apart his drawn and photographed image (Plate #13). Henri Matisse greets us through the bars of his birdcage, looking somewhat like a Father Christmas (Plate #7), and invites us to appreciate the superb rococo chair that he has painted. For each, the setting is just right. 


Meditations on Duchamp


If Sarah Austin’s instinct was unfailingly directed toward the recognition of genius, her innate sense of humor permitted an equal sense of delight or as she said, of good-natured alteration. In her 1970 light box portrait Marcel Duchamp (Plate #5), the subject is seated characteristically at his chess board, his craggy face held in intense concentration and multiplied as the entire scene is illuminated in a pale green light. In the foreground sits an actual pawn piece, reminiscent of Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, a play on the words ‘French window.’ As the ur-Surrealist André Breton often reminds us, “Words are not playing, they are making love”. Duchamp, given the intentional play with his own icons, was in a sense voluntarily his own pawn. 


Austin’s Duchamp of 1977 captures her sophisticated wit (Plate #3). We see Duchamp’s drag alter-ego Rrose Selavy peering through the panes of his widowed French window, her hat, fingers, and fur collar more alluring than ever. On the rotorelief in the center of the work are written the words: Inceste ou passion mille a coups trop tirés. The phrase makes possible reference to Mallarmé’s typographically revolutionary poem: “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”, (A throw of the dice never will abolish chance). The imposing figure of Duchamp stares into the distance, a cigar between his fingers. We contemplate the forms of the Large Glass to his left; its broken glass visible above six cut-out chess pieces, or the Mona Lisa reconceived with a Dali moustache and goatee surveying from on high. On Sarah Austin’s stage and in our minds, are the icons of Duchamp’s art. Her visual meditations form an art-en-valise construction that reflects and contains Duchamp’s, Boite en Valise. It is an ironic and iconic suitcase of a suitcase. In her black and white Duchamp of 1987 Austin uses her characteristic cube forms to create a surface of exceptional depth, echoing the very form of the chess set. Duchamp’s long sensitive fingers, making a ‘V’ form around his keen eyes, are seen to vibrate, setting the whole image in stroboscopic motion. No one is more modernist, more enigmatic, more elegantly ungraspable than Marcel Duchamp. His ubiquitous form is everywhere, and his sophisticated sense of play sets the backdrop for our understanding of Sarah Austin’s work and of the Modernist game as art.


Faces and Figures


What is most engaging about Sarah Austin’s boxes is the extraordinary way in which each of the artists she features is given exactly the form of recall most befitting. The Russian Constructivist Kasmir Malevich is seen in all phases of his work. Frank Lloyd Wright’s tiny figure stands proudly against the dizzying ramps of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Paul Klee is pictured in front of a female figure madly waving her arms and legs. Frames, easels, and artists at work abound. Each subject confronts us directly, like a clever A-B-C of the brilliant characters in this art historical play: Max Beckmann’s surly massive faces, Constantin Brancusi’s egg-shaped heads, Franz Kupka’s bright circles, Alberto Giacometti’s striding figures, James Ensor’s leering masks, Edvard Munch’s melancholy wail.


In Portrait of a Woman of 1987 (Plate #14), Austin presents Picasso’s Olga with the gentle beauty of her full features contained in six wooden concentric circles supported on a slim black rod. The figure appears as if glimpsed through a fan, or a microscope. Her eyes are lucid and direct and, in their circular fragmentation, seem to have an increased vision. Her mouth too is made more sensuous through the rounded echo of the curving forms. Circling about itself, the entire construction has a feeling of ultimate self-referentiality.


One of Sarah Austin’s most forceful boxes, Jackson Pollock of 1975 (Plate #6), shows the legendary painter in a moment of creative action, a light from below illuminating precisely his celebrated gesture of pouring paint. To see Pollock’s right leg extended behind him and his powerful arms at work is to see the heroic play of art in motion. Such a construction is itself a celebration of Pollock’s super-dynamic confrontation with the receiving matter, a male gesture par excellence. If Austin’s adaptation of the box form is Cornellian, her use of the cutout is possibly informed by the sliced paintings of Lucio Fontana. The beauty of the whole is strangely intensified by her use of different levels of shadow as protruding planes are seen in progression or recession.


Dialogues and Groupings


 In the majority of Sarah Austin’s group portraits, the heroes (and occasional heroines) of Modernism are arranged against a backdrop of their own creations. The familiar icons of twentieth-century visual culture are gathered together, as if she had been able to invite them all into her box-shaped world, wordless but for their works. Austin’s large-scale mosaic constructions bring who and what mattered inside the Modernist movement together with our own ideas about Modernism, all these years later. Her serious play with repetition gives her work its lyricism of replay and recall. 


Upon occasion, Austin celebrates an entire artistic movement as in Surrealism of 1979 (Plate #6), which brings together Max Ernst, René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dali, Gala Eluard, and the rest. The hybrid imagery of Surrealism is displayed in it’s full glory and horror; Magritte’s Invention Collective, with its fish head and human legs, the opposite of some lovely mermaid; Max Ernst’s Elephant Célèbes signaling to us as de Chirico’s anthropomorphic figures dance beneath deserted colonnades. 16 Boxes of 1977-1978 (Cover image) assembles sixteen separate portraits of some of the great modern painters. Identifying the various artists poses both challenge and amusement. And yet, were we not to know them, the way in which they formally and thematically play against each other is deeply satisfying. Similarly, 16 Modern Sculptors of 1980-1981 (Plate #10) engages in a lively exchange between some of the great modern sculptors, including Auguste Rodin, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and others. In each case the onlooker is able to feel mildly flattered by knowing something about artists and artworks that Austin has selected. It is as if she had taken what might be seen as the cliches of Modernism and elevated them to something entirely different. They are now characters in a play in which they are the ironic stars. The more familiar we are with the subjects, the more irony attaches to her ‘good natured’ boxes and their wit.


Her Own Theater


We are drawn into Sarah Austin’s private theater by the clever ways in which her constructions are staged. In each instance the anecdotal reinforces the satisfaction of the visual. Her use of repetition makes, in its own complicated way, an implicit reference to Gertrude Stein’s repetitions. Whatever Austin intended, since she neither wrote nor spoke of her work at any length, we are left to imagine her motivations. And this is precisely what we do. The particular genius of Sarah Austin is that she sets our minds to work with what she has seen and remembered, and has then made to converge. Like Modernism itself, her work celebrates the art of convergence. What her collage constructions lead us to meditate upon is a highly personal view of Modernism, one that is carefully constructed. Austin employs strategies that relate both to Duchamp’s famous ready-mades and to the Surrealist sense of the trouvaille, or found object. She transforms what she finds into what we see, a reformulation with an intense energy at its source. This is an art form that the twentieth century excelled in, both formalist and representational, as reverential of the past as it is onward looking toward the future.


The relative secrecy with which Sarah Austin worked for so many years adds to the current exhibition of her boxes. Privacy, after all, has its own quiet elegance, its own thoughtful way of being itself. Sarah Austin combined knowing reference and formalist construction to engage in an inventive dialogue with the history of art and with her own history. Her decision to utilize what was at hand was Modernism’s own favorite technique of bricolage. Her theatrical constructions gave a new and deeper meaning to the artistic giants she had loved in the world of her father. But it was through her own distinguished cultural heritage and hard work that she finally discovered herself. She built her own museum and placed in it what she cared most about. The sophistication and beauty of Sarah Austin’s self-portraits (Plates #11, #12), with their tilting layers, receding and advancing forms, vibrate in haunting repetition. They speak finally, not of absence, but rather of a full presence, revealing with dramatic clarity Sarah Austin’s own meditations upon history and art. Whatever she might have thought missing in her life has now turned into magic. 


Mary Ann Caws

New York, May, 2000