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Object of the Week: Cardbirds

While many of us are quarantined and shopping for necessary (and unnecessary) items online, the sight of Amazon and USPS boxes at front doors has become ubiquitous. In 1971, Robert Rauschenberg created a series of works based off of cardboard boxes: Cardbirds. While Rauschenberg was not the first artist to work with cardboard or to incorporate boxes in his work (Pablo Picasso had created his famous guitars in 1912 out of cardboard), his Cardbirds are more involved than one might think. Often mistaken for actual crushed boxes, the works in fact combine corrugated cardboard with offset photolithography and screen printing. Each crease, fold, and label was meticulously reproduced to mimic cast off boxes, and achieve a trompe l’oeil effect.

Still life with Guitar, assembled before November 15, 1913, Pablo Picasso, Paperboard, paper, string, and painted wire installed with cut cardboard box, Overall: 30 × 20 1⁄2 × 7 3/4 in., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the artist © 2016 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By the early 1970s, many artists living and working in New York began to take a hiatus from the City: Jasper Johns set up a studio in Saint Martin; Donald Judd visited Marfa, Texas; Sol LeWitt spent more time in Italy; and Robert Rauschenberg found himself on Captiva Island, off the west coast of Florida.1 At the time, Rauschenberg said, “Captiva is the foundation of my life and my work; it is my source and reserve of my energies,” and “In New York, I never had time.”2  While the drivers are different today, it’s interesting to see many New Yorkers (with the means to do so) fleeing New York City, and how this will translate to the art that is being made.

Looking closer at Rauschenberg’s Cardbirds, one can’t help but notice the playfulness of these pieces—the boxes’ original forms flattened into shapes resembling a turkey or spaceship (both birds and space were a common theme in his work). There is something humorous about spending so much effort recreating something he found in an alley. While these works were produced at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, it was in Captiva where Rauschenberg became intrigued with the medium of cardboard, “a desire built up in me, “ he said, “to work in a material of waste and softness.”3 While he may have attempted to portray what we would today call globalization, the intent was very different than some of his contemporaries. Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes, for example, were paint and silkscreen ink on wood, and elevated the mundane and commercial to an art object. Donald Judd’s Minimalist Untitled works from 1969 were literal, specific objects. However, both Judd and Warhol’s works might seem overly polished and less “real” than Rauschenberg’s worn and discarded cardboard forms.

Andy Warhol with Brillo Boxes, Photo: Lasse Olsson / DN / Scanpix
Accessed May 27, 2020,
https://www.artandobject.com/articles/swedens-moderna-museet-comes-clean-warhol-brillo-box-scandal

As we look at contemporary artists working today—nearly 50 years after Rauschenberg’s Cardbirds—we see similar visual languages employed. Walead Beshty packages his works in FedEx boxes, intentionally allowing the contents to shatter and crack, serving as a marker of their journeys. Santiago Sierra uses cardboard boxes in a provocative manner, with actual people inside them, to shed light on the plight of political exiles.

Which brings us back to our current plethora of packages: ripe material for creation and available in excess. Will we be seeing more of these everyday materials on a gallery wall in the years to come? How would Robert Rauschenberg have responded to these times and these materials? I would guess playfully and insightfully.

Manish Engineer, SAM Chief Technology Officer


Images: Cardbird III, 1971, Robert Rauschenberg, collage of corrugated cardboard, tape, offset photolithograph, and screen print, 35 1/2 x 36 in., Gift of the Robert B. and Honey Dootson Collection, 81.62.2 © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Untitled, 1969, Donald Judd, Clear anodized aluminum and violet Plexiglas, 33 x 68 x 48 in. Gift of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2014.25. FedEx, 2005, Walead Beshty, www.thisiscolossal.com/2017/01/fedex-works-walead-beshty/. Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes, 2000, Santiago Sierra, Kunst Werke. Berlin, Germany.
1 Mark Godfrey, “Source and Reserve of My Energies,” in Robert Rauschenberg, ed. by Leah Dickerman and Achim Borchardt-Hume (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2016), pp. 284-293.
2 Robert Rauschenberg, “Statement on Captiva,” letter to Ron Bisho, n.d. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives, New York, https://www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/archives/collections/a14
3Cardbirds brochure, www.rauschenbergfoundation.org/art/archives/collections/a14

Community Questions: What Are You Making?

While SAM locations are closed, the SAM Equity Team is asking team members to reflect on how equity and community continue to be central to our work and our lives even as we work remotely. This week, we answer this important question: What kind of making are you doing at this time? Read below for to see how a couple staff SAM staff members responded.

During this unexpected quarantine and the swift closing of SAM, a coworker, Associate Conservator Geneva Griswold passed me a box of items from the Conservation Lab, suggesting a “hands-on” project while I was working at home. The box contents included 1/8″ copper bearing balls and cotton sockinette (a stretchy cotton skin protector used to protect skin under casts). With these items I am sewing weighted bags. These bags are used to hold artwork, photos, or textiles in position while working. They are also useful in providing weighted pressure to hold glued items together while drying. Also referred to as bean bags, print weights, drawing weight bags, etc.

They can vary in size from three inches long up to however long the sewer decides. The process goes like this: I fill a plastic baggy with the desired amount of copper ball trim off the zip lock, apply double sticky tape and then repeat so I have at least 2 bags to prevent spillage and contain them within the sockinette. Now comes the tricky process of carefully folding under the ends of the sockinette and hand sewing. To sew them shut I used embroidery floss along the edge using a running or straight stitch one direction then, pulling the floss tight, sewing the opposite direction. Lastly, carefully tie a knot and add a touch of fabric glue for additional security.

I am pretty happy with the results since I’ve never sewn these before. The museum usually purchases these and, after examining the sample, I’m guessing they are sewn with a machine. It’s been a fun and tactile way of staying in touch with my position at the museum while I am away from the amazing, wondrous collection.

– Monica Cavagnaro, SAM Associate Collections Care Manager


It took me several weeks to finally feel up to making stuff, but I’m starting to hit my groove. I’ve been making masks for family and friends. I’ve also gotten back to my artistic practice with photo collaging. I’m attaching an early version of something I’ve been working on. It’s actually changed quite a bit since this image, which is fun to look back and see.

Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

Photos: Monica Cavagnaro & Traci Timmons