More Than Four Sides, A Top, and A Bottom

BOXES - we take them for granted, like door frames or socks. Who ever thinks: "What on earth would the world be like without boxes?" (Or socks or door frames.)There it is, flat-based, rectilinear (mostly), with a lid (usually),the ultimate functional, ignorable container. No wonder Andy Warhol added the Brillo box to his repertoire of endlessly repeatable, endlessly unremarkable artifacts. No wonder Pete Seeger sang about "little boxes" as the ultimate symbol of middle-class conformity: "There's a green one, and a pink one, and a blue one, and a yellow one, and they're all made out of ticky-tacky, and they all look just the same What could be less interesting than a mere box? The average box may be little more than the skin is to a body: that which stops what is inside it from falling out. Rice crispies, peppercorns, milk, cranberry juice - the box (it may be dignified by being called a "carton," but it's still a box) has usefully taken over the job of preventing such commodities from wandering loosely or juicily about the planet, not knowing their place. That job may have once upon a time been performed by burlap sacks or cheap glass bottles, but if something can be boxed to day, boxed it will be. We may feel that cow's milk is more felicitously stored in and poured from something round and transparent, but rectangular is the shape milk has mainly become, and rectangular, presumably, it is going to remain. All the same there is something about the basic box that is not necessarily so basic after all - that amounts to more than four sides, a bottom, and a top. By their nature and form, boxes often completely hide their contents, so that even the most ordinary looking box can have an air of imminent surprise about it. The mythical genie may pop out of a bottle, but Jack springs out of a box. This child's toy, exploiting the pent-up potential of the spring and a momentary simulation of life, does touch some primitive chord. Its name has other, slightly sinister, connections - of old a jack-in-the-box was a cheat or a sharper, someone who deceived tradesmen by substituting empty boxes for full ones. There is a firework called a jack-in-the-box. The boxes in which fireworks secrete their explosive powders inspire the fantasy of designers to wonderful, if minor, excesses - flashy colors, optical patternings, and fair-ground graphics suggest promise of the brief pyrotechnics to come. That's what the box has become - advertisement, camouflage, fancy dress - but essentially disposable after use. Even the cardboard box of today sometimes turns into an object of value - up to a point. That point may be Packaging with a capital P; it may approach kitsch, but thought has nevertheless gone into it. You only have to wander around a store during the Christmas shopping season to notice how appreciated, commercially at least, boxes can be. Perfume bottles in boxes as sleek and glossy as dreams can dream them. Special boxes for dolls and video cameras and soap and - yes - even socks. And chocolates - poet George Herbert, in rather a different context, has just the phrase: a box where sweets compacted lie... ." The luxury box vies with the objects inside it and can make the contents seem enticing, when they may actually be quite uninteresting. A fancy box also suggests "gift." If visually rich, it suggests "expensive gift." Why not just buy and give the box? Some of the lush, highly decorated boxes of the past upstaged their contents: Boxes for snuff now grace art collections while nobody uses snuff. Medieval boxes, lavish with stories either Biblical or fantastical in supremely crafted enamel, have outlived their once-revered contents to become museum treasures. And the box became exactly the right container for mechanized music - music boxes became His Master's Voice, gramophones became Sony Walkmans - all magic boxes with lids that lift and music that pou rs into the willing ears. Somewhere in that chronology, too, it is no mistake that the word "box" was applied to those giant 1930s confections called jukeboxes, the wildest imaginable ones being the Wurlitzer models. Not to mention radios and television sets: little boxes. In Britain the pet name for the TV is "the box." Let's see what's on the box, we say. Sometimes lengthened aptly enough to Goggly Box. Suddenly - on consideration - the world seems jammed full of the most exciting varieties of boxes, though not all conventionally box-shaped as might be expected. Hat boxes, money boxes, and even ballot boxes look the way one might expect, but pillar boxes, theatrical boxes, horse boxes, and bird boxes don't. They take the "box" into a realm of expansive definition. A beautiful box does not have to be elaborately decorated. The Shakers' boxes, so refined, balanced, clean, and satisfyingly uncomplicated, might arguably be the most utterly right and true boxes ever made. The Japanese of the Edo period knew how to make the decorative most of all six faces of a box. So did the Englishman Wyndham Lewis when he made his painted softwood box in 1914: an abstraction of angles and colors that paradoxically both define and disguise its straightforward cubic form. British artist Ben Nicholson made the most of a lid when he used it (and also the box's interior) as a surface on which to draw most incisively. I wouldn't object to any of these boxes as Christmas presents, perfectly empty. But three other sorts of boxes exert a special fascination not so much for their outside as for their contents: * Paint boxes - those small pans of hard watercolor or neatly ordered tubes of oil paint, even boxes filled tightly with rows of pastels, crayons, glorious felt-tipped pens ranging regimentally through the spectrum. Their potential is marvelous, their use an adventure, but, just boxed, they are a delight in and of themselves. * Books in boxes. If a publisher really wants to make a special book doubly precious, what does he do? He puts it in a box. The box gives the book, tightly gloved inside, protection and distinction. Sometimes it's a good way of keeping a two-volume set intact, when the same number of pages in one volume would be hopelessly overweight and unmanageable. I have a book about American art like that, and another about the wildflowers of the Eastern United States. But my facsimile of Samuel Palmer's visionary sketchbook is boxed because it is a remarkable example of a faithful replication of a uniquely special original and itself a very small edition. My father gave it to me - after a little badgering - in 1962, when it was published. It cost 9 guineas! I don't think anyone in our family had ever thought of spending such a shocking amount of money on a book before. Today it's worth well over 100 times that figure - though I'm glad to say that no financial exigency has yet tempted me to sell it. * And cameras ... well, one particular camera. It was my mother's. A "Box Brownie." Quite literally a small, undistinguished looking box, this contraption was my first encounter as a child with the mystique of taking photographs. It was far more spine-tingling than any of the advanced cameras so convenient and commonplace today. It produced poor little black and white photographs - enlargements in post-war Britain were infinitely too expensive. But its moment of glory was to come when, after endless saving, a color negative film was bought, shot, processed, and printed. I still tremble slightly at the intense meaning to that small boy of the wonder of color images emerging from that primitive snapshot machine. Oddly I remember the color, but not the subjects, of those little photos. Color is the cliche of today; then it was primeval. And it appeared (though it took weeks for it to be processed) out of the dark unknown interior of a little black box.

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