New York

Birdie Lusch, Untitled, 1973, collage, marker, ballpoint pen on paper, 18 × 12".

Birdie Lusch, Untitled, 1973, collage, marker, ballpoint pen on paper, 18 × 12".

Birdie Lusch

Birdie Lusch, Untitled, 1973, collage, marker, ballpoint pen on paper, 18 × 12".

Imagine, for a minute, a history of modern art told only through still lifes of flowers, a subject precariously close to kitsch. (Many of modernism’s central movers and shakers—including Manet, who called the still life a painter’s touchstone—would play a major role. But this thought experiment entails imagining a modernism without inside or outside, or in which outside is literally brought in.) Imagine the basic, daily scenes that would accumulate, bloom, and change over time; imagine a slight easing of gender, socioeconomic, and geographic gaps in art history’s narration; imagine the artists who would then emerge. (Jane Freilicher would surely lead the postwar charge.) Imagine encountering the serial collaged bouquets of Birdie Lusch, a factory worker in Columbus, Ohio. She made art her whole life, but picture one specific album she worked on over three months in the late spring and early summer of 1973: nineteen pages of bright vases with even brighter blooms, the images composed with fragments scissored from ads and articles from the Columbus Dispatch’s Sunday magazine section.

Whether we view these minimal, opaque collages as a book (a lovely facsimile published by Karma allows us this experience) or as individual untitled works on paper (as they were shown at Kerry Schuss), we imagine them making up a story whose meaning, as in a fable, has its own economy of parts. Almost every collage contains a vase (sometimes two) of flowers on the same brown ground; in the left-hand corner is the full date when the collage was made, and in the right, Lusch’s “signature”—a little drawing of a bird, à la Whistler’s butterfly stamp. None of the collages has any background, other than a few glue-stain ghosts of adjacent pages from years of being pressed together, unseen. In many, the entire upper register of the page is blank.

The album begins and ends with a collaged poem about beginnings and endings: “Were there no entrance there / would be no DOOR,” the elusive epigraph reads, in part. We can find many entrances, many doors to open: the pared-down efficiency in the collage illustrations of children’s-book author Leo Lionni, the strange botanical frottage of Max Ernst, the evisceration of perspectival boundaries in Henri Matisse’s object studies, Irving Blum’s display of Andy Warhol’s same-but-different soup cans on thin shelves. But such references become the material, not the point: In one collage, a reproduction of Rodin’s Thinker is just another small object resting on a brown ledge, pondering, as we do, the flowers.

Simplicity masks signification. The ground is made from a few scribbled marker lines, yet reads as wood grain, perhaps even as the wooden paddles Lusch used to separate the notebook’s pages as she went along. Every vase is alike; every vase is unique in its own way. (Personal favorites include a vase composed of two variegated stacks of illustrated dress shirts, their indented collars creating the form’s fluting, and another made from Oriental-rug illustrations, a play on flatness and volume.) One starts looking for deviation: flowers made out of images of flowers; hand-drawn stems and blooms floating untethered, like clouds over a curved hill; the single plant, stone, or citrus sometimes present near a vase.

These details in particular conjure seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes—another door we pass through—paintings that were often made by women artists and involved a set formula: botanicals springing from elaborate vases set on textured ledges, with some kind of vanitas object in the foreground, whether decaying fruit or flower, messing up perfection. And yet the specter of death elides with a creative optimism. We know flowers will die quickly. We also know that to see them change is to witness part of their beauty. It’s a narrative without much triumph but plenty of grace. In art, one rarely sees a graciousness toward art itself; it’s a generosity not often ceded. But there it was in Lusch’s pages and forthright in her closing lines, “ . . . when the / STORY is done / And we say, Thanks to you, / our Kind Friend— / Goodbye, BOOK / we’ve had fun.”

Prudence Peiffer