Anne-Marie Levine

Unpacking: The Boxed Sets of Anne-Marie Levine

by J. F. Rodenbeck for the Lucy Daniels Foundation, 2003

“Nothing highlights the fascination of unpacking more clearly,” mused the critic Walter Benjamin, “than the difficulty of stopping this activity. I had started at noon, and it was midnight before I had worked my way to the last cases. Now I put my hands on two volumes bound in faded boards which, strictly speaking, do not belong in a book case at all…”

Unpacking his library, Benjamin was moved to consider not simply the boxes containing his precious books but to look more deeply at the accumulation of attachments implicated there. For Benjamin, an inveterate scavenger of rare volumes, cultural trivia, and aphorisms, collecting had a strange dual valence: for if, on the one hand, the collector sought out categorical samples to serve as instances of their particular categories, at the very same time that the specificity of the items sought removed them from their categorical sameness into a uniqueness; the actual collection organized itself around a set of unique exemplars in such a way that it in fact worked to deny the original contextual proliferation of each individual token.

The fetishism of the collector, then, was one in which the significance of each book derived as much from the facts of its acquisition, its condition, and the hands it has passed through—the particularity of its life as a commodity and its material history—as from its contents. Where the content of any given book had purchase on its form was in its detailing of a moment in the history of language-in-use. (Benjamin’s collecting habit was bound up in his semi-nomadic occupation of a now largely bygone position—that of the public intellectual or man of letters—and his resistance to the type of orthodox categorization implied by a steady job. According to Hannah Arendt, owning an interest in a second-hand bookstore was the only serious employment Benjamin ever considered.)

This notion of the collection is, I think, apposite to a consideration of Anne-Marie Levine’s “boxed sets” in at least two ways. The unspoken narrative in Benjamin’s text is one of exile and the partial return allowed in the recovery of his special collection and the memories embedded in it. (The library itself stands as a figure for memory.) Similarly, Levine’s boxes have the feel of spaces deeply inhabited by the memories specific to another and only partially available to us. And the particularity of Levine’s work is that each box presents itself as an instance of language-in-use: from the slightly dimpled chairs to the food left on the stove-top to the piano that plays Romantic art music. The boxes present an instance of the collection unpacking, and without addressing their relation to Levine’s extended poetic practice, one can nevertheless identify these objects as provisional books—not narratives or poems, but books in Benjamin’s special sense, spaces for reverie.

The miniature fascinates; it rejects vision and solicits touch, pushing sight away even as it makes the fingers itch. And yet it relies for its effect precisely on its resemblance to the real world. But what are we looking at? These miniature interiors—a country house, a hobo’s kitchen, an anodyne but fashionable parlor layed out like an analyst’s office, a concert hall—have a peculiar familiarity; it’s not that we’ve been in those places exactly, but rather that they are so very like places we imagine someone else has been. The Corbu chair, the Noguchi table, the bent-wood rocker; the coal stove and the grand piano; the paintings and carpets; the half-read books. These objects have a cultural iconicity, but this is not the simple arrangement of display one might find in a furniture store, nor is it the still configuration of a scene. Rather, presents itself to us is a depopulated mise-en-scene, a configuration implying action. The backstage door is ajar, and it is not by accident that the piano-playing hobo—nomad and scavenger par excellence, living on memories—is the one human figure to appear (repeated) in Levine’s series.

The boxes share a tonal consistency, the cool arrangements of furniture and objects taking advantage of that urban rarity, extensive floor space and loft. They are decorated in deep and rich hues drawn from the decorative vocabulary of high modernist painters, from Monet to Matisse to Rothko, whose aim with paint was a kind of shimmering intimacy of encounter with each viewer, worked via strong color and large scale. The curious flatness of the images on the walls, their subtle outsize evasion of the otherwise utterly consistent scale of the scenes, recasts this intimacy. In this context the reduction of narrative to pattern in the warm tones of the scattered Persian rugs—here on the floor, there on the wall across from a large abstract canvas—has the effect of heightening the tension between iconicity and design. The rugs first seem incidental, then highly significant.

It is important here to acknowledge that the interiors are assembled by Levine from component parts. The boxes are produced to the artist’s specifications in a small atelier, and Levine herself researches the miniatures, tracking down remote and highly specialized sources for each object. The individual furnishings—artisanally made replicas of industrial-age chairs, tables, ovens, books, clothes, rugs—resonate with the stories of their makers. Although each element exists in potential multiple (and elements repeat from box to box), their evident artisanal fabrication and their fascinating tininess implies the film of a unique fingerprint, their passage through the hand of a particular craftsperson. Yet the actual assemblage into the boxes of these individual objects, often in multiple, yields multiple situations for same piece. Thus to the degree that the boxes serve as assembled totems of their author’s dispersed and highly personal interests (Rothko, classic furniture, art music) they also seem to mourn the sure and declarative simplicity of the modernist moment, too.

One final consideration brings us back to the exiled writer and his precious library. I want, for a moment, to revisit the notion of understanding Levine’s boxes as, in some sense, actual books. Though each box contains its own illumination, each is necessarily equipped with an umbilicus of electricity: neither beholden to nor adequately addressed by gallery lighting, the boxes light themselves: they operate as discrete furnishings. But they are very particular in their demands. First, you must flick the little switch for light. Then you adjust your body to raise or lower your head to the right height for a straight-on view, for a glancing angle will not do: you place yourself in direct address. You note the mobility of the parts (nothing is glued down), the casual evocation of temporality, the stillness. Stepping back, you are jarred a second time by the recursive mise-en-abyme of miniature if not always model interiors quietly inhabiting book space on a shelf or occupying the place where one might have laid down something one was just reading.

* Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library” (1931), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. and with an intro. by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 66.