Pandora was overwhelmed with curiosity by the sight of one. Fabergé made them in enamel and jewels for czarinas to fondle lovingly. But plain, heart-shaped, musical or gift-wrapped by Tiffany, no one is more enraptured by boxes than artist Leo Rabkin. He has been collecting and decorating them for 21 years. Rabkin, 59, and his wife, Dorothy, 57, scavenge at auctions, junkyards, antique stores and flea markets for the hundreds of cartons, crates and baskets that are stacked against a wall of their Federal townhouse in Manhattan.
Rabkin converts boxes into what he calls “nugatory receptacles” (“nugatory” means trifling or worthless) by filling them with fanciful bits of plastic, wood, dowels, mirrors, fake amethysts, paper, prisms, paint, collages, even roll-on deodorant balls. The purpose is to create a glittering fantasy inside even the tiniest box. But Rabkin insists that beholders do more than merely look at his peculiar art. “You should encounter each construction, open it, hold it in your hands and discover it in a relaxed, unhurried manner,” he says.
This has created an obvious problem in exhibiting Rabkin’s work. Last spring New York’s Truman Gallery solved it by converting a small loft above the main floor into an atelier especially for Rabkin. The artist sat on a small white stool behind a table and displayed the 42 boxes in his show one by one to two gallery guests at a time. The guests were encouraged to unlock, tilt and shake each box, although prices ranged from $300 to $2,000.
Rabkin’s magpie instinct was fostered by his parents. His father, a Cincinnati real estate agent, collected old tools, and his mother squirreled away hundreds of boxes and trinkets in the family attic. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, Rabkin served a three-year hitch in the Army in World War II and then earned an M.A. in vocational counseling at New York University. For the next 27 years he was a counselor and teacher of disturbed children in New York City schools, including several years in the tough Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen.
While teaching remedial reading and typing, Rabkin pursued his art and had many one-man exhibits of his water-colors. His abstracts, which can be found in the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim, have been described by Arts Magazine as “quietly powerful, the serious play of a man in whom the child is vividly alive.”
Since Leo and the German-born Dorothy Herz were married 20 years ago, their interest in collecting has gone far beyond mere boxes. Their home is filled with Shaker furniture, early American toys and life-size art brut wooden figures. Four school blackboards have been “Rabkinized” into a living room coffee table.
Dorothy confines her creativity to cooking and homemaking. “I have no artistic ambitions,” she says. “Couples who are artists have a lot of tension.” Since his retirement from teaching in 1973, art has been Leo’s full-time occupation. His fascination with boxes is so great—he acknowledges being influenced by the geometric concepts of Buckminster Fuller—that he now spends less time painting.
He is still searching for alternative ways to exhibit his constructions. “A fine setting for them would be in an attic or a cellar,” he says, “the lighting unfavorable, the temperatures extreme, the odors pungent, and all the senses of the viewer keyed high.”