Magazine article Artforum International

Toys Are Us

Magazine article Artforum International

Toys Are Us

Article excerpt


Jarvis Rockwell's toy collection is housed in a suite of offices on the corner of Main and Railroad in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. This is Norman Rockwell country, and Jarvis is Norman's eldest son. I first saw the collection with the poet Geoffrey Young, who thought I might find some things to borrow for my work. But given the cloyingly nostalgic image of a kinder gentler America Rockwell's lineage evokes, I assumed I would only find a bunch of tin toys from the '30s and '40s.

He and I were both wrong.

First, you don't borrow from Rockwell's collection. I had to stick to looking (though he invited me back to take the photographs that appear below). Indeed, during the warmer months Rockwell sits on a bench in front of the building and invites people to come in and see his toys. For the last eighteen years he has been accumulating seemingly every figure and object churned out as kid culture wherever. he happens to be. - K-Marts, AMES stores, drugstores, airports, supermarkets. Sometimes he buys by the dozens. I estimated 10,000 objects in the collection. He guesses the humber's around a million.

Second, the collection bears no relation to antique-shop Americana. Instead, it represents a relentless drive to archive and organize a sorcerer's apprentice-like assembly line of plastic objects. To take the kind of time looking that Rockwell's painstaking arrangements merit is to discover detailed narratives and subtle transitions, moments of luminous beauty, and some flatout wackiness. There are cowboys and princesses, Ninjas and Barbies, Happy Meal freebies, tons of Disney and TV, and a shelf dedicated to ex-presidents.

In the last five years a handful of figures have migrated into ten-by-twelve-inch Plexiglas boxes where heads are swapped, tiny carpets and potted palms are added, and satellite worlds are created. Last January I included Rockwell's work in an exhibition of mostly younger artists I organized, "The Name of the Place," at the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York. Though Rockwell is comfortable calling his boxes artworks, defining the scope and nature of the collection is tougher to do.

Laurie Simmons: When did you buy your first toy?

Jarvis Rockwell: Oh, you mean as an adult? In 1979. I bought a little German pressed-metal duck that you pull back, and then it went forward like that.

LS: And when did you start buying In multiple? I mean, when were you aware that you were leaving the realm of a toy collector -

JR: Of reality.

LS: Of reality, right, and moving into some other territory?

JR: Oh, I don't know. About a few months into it. I started buying - there were Fisher-Price policemen, and I saw a bunch of those, and I wanted those. And, you know, policemen, if you have a line of them - I began to think in terms of crowds and crowd control.

LS: So are theirs times when two look right, and other times when twenty look right?

JR: I've got eighty Burt Reynolds in a box upstairs, because I just thought I'd get that many at that time, which was - oh, it must have been ten years ago now. And so I just bought, you know -

LS: Eighty Burt Reynolds?

JR: Yeah. Well, I mean, I don't like Burt Reynolds, you see. I mean, his character is not of the best sort. But, you know, he's got a red shirt on, blue jeans, and a cowboy hat, and he's metal. And he's just about two and a half, two inches tall. I probably have more of them than he does.

LS: You have everything from G. I. Joes to Ninjas, to Polly Pockets, My Little Ponies, and Sky Dancers. Do you think of toys In gender-specific terms, like boys and girls and pink and blue?

JR: When I began, what with the women's lib having come on I just thought: Well, I oughta get female toys. And I do have lots of toys of women. They have lots of women superheroes now. I've got two shelves of them there. The thing is that they do all of the women with these extraordinary bodies. …

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