Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, New York
Closing his 1964 survey of tomb sculpture with Bernini, art historian Erwin Panofsky dismisses most funerary art since the 17th century. But had Panofsky known Michael Aurbach’s work, he might well have ended his volume differently. Aurbach’s funerary sculpture translates conventional concepts and forms into contemporary terms, using parody and verbal wit to defuse the emotional intensity associated with death.
All from the series Final Portraits, the five pieces exhibited at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery in New York demonstrate Aurbach’s artistic evolution. His “caskets” for a mail carrier (1986) and a truck driver (1987) provide occupationally appropriate dwellings for the dead in their otherworldly existence. The mail carrier’s “casket” is a giant rural mailbox with letter slots for pallbearer handles along the lower edge. The front pulls down like a mailbox, opening to reveal the simulated nave of a longitudinal Christian church, with columns lining the walls and a tiny apse at the far end. Visual puns recall the postman’s life. Upside-down rubber stamps form capitals atop each column, and the clerestory windows look like those in an old-fashioned post office. Ten thousand authentic one-cent postage stamps serve as floor tiles and substitute for mosaics on the walls, each repeating the portrait of Dorothy Dix (pun intended; there are many needs in the next life). In a niche above the entrance, an actual postal scale suggests the weighing of souls, a motif borrowed from Egyptian art by Christianity.
Aurbach’s good-natured humor turns more caustic in his “final portrait” of the American Indian (1989), a more elaborate manifestation of verbal wit. Choosing for the Indian a colorful slab tomb patterned after those in European cathedrals, Aurbach gives visual expression to the term “to rub out.” Made to look like an oversized Pink Pearl eraser, the Indian’s casket is a parallelogram lined with rabbit skins, rawhide and horsehair, the bottom covered by sand and a bright native blanket. The pink “eraser” rests on a gargantuan Big Chief brand tablet whose edges are encircled by rows of American #2~ pencils grouped to create stripes of red, blue, yellow and green. The tablet, in turn, sits on a large map of the United States, flanked by a border of chalkboard and several schoolroom erasers. Two eight-foot pencils (erasers top and bottom) on either side of a red carpet create a ceremonial gateway inviting the visitor “to walk on” the tomb. A society “schooled” in eradication, the artist implies, has “erased” the Indian from American life.
Aurbach’s latest piece, Final Portrait: Vanitas (1990), is more a portrait of every man. The artist parodies the domestic interior of Robert Campin’s 15th-century Flemish Mérode Altarpiece, undercutting its transcendental references with a piercing look at life’s transience.
Aurbach turns the Flemish altarpiece’s tidy room with hearth and table into a freight company office, delineated by segments of black pipe and appropriate furnishings. A time clock signals temporality, and an empty time card holder suggests vanished people. Stacked in the corner, three caskets of different sizes and shapes are stamped “address unknown” (a homeless person), “damaged freight” (a one-legged man) and “return to sender” (an aborted baby). Once again a scale echoes the weighing-of-souls motif. Despite the concrete reality of the objects in the office, however, nothing works: the telephone and the buzzer are hushed, and the revivifying water of the fountain has ceased to flow. Even more disturbing, each object in the chilling space is purposefully isolated from the others.
A humor noir born of human cruelty, vanity, vulnerability and neglect, has replaced the good-humored levity of Aurbach’s earlier “caskets.” This devastating wit still engages, nevertheless, and still releases the observer, if only momentarily, from the consternation concomitant with the notion of death. It shifts, in Freud’s phrase, the “psychical emphasis” from discomfiting emotions into ironic and knowing laughter.
Final Portrait: Vanitas, 1990, Mixed Media, 8′ x 14′ x 10′