Artists have always made use of what’s available.

Ancient societies frequently used what nature discarded and developed cultural aesthetics based on the qualities of those materials, such as their form, color, and texture. By the time of the European Renaissance, collectors created kunstkammers, which gathered together diverse collections of objects often gleaned from non-western cultures, and grouped them with exotic natural detritus. During the last century expanded concepts of what constituted art led some artists to declare found objects art, while others re-purposed machine-made materials for their own creations.

a collection of various metal elements - a hammer, chain links, gears, etc. - welded together in haphazard fashion and mounted to a white wall
Melvin Edwards (American, b. 1937), Numunake Inike OK, 2019, welded steel, 10 1/2 x 10 1/2 x 7 1/2 inches. Collection of Middlebury College Museum of Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Art Acquisition Fund, 2022.004. © 2023 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

American prosperity after World War II led to a culture of waste, and factors such as built-in obsolescence, a preoccupation with changing fashion, the wish for convenience, and excessive packaging all contributed to a throw-away society in which the discarded object was commonplace. In this environment, art assembled from material originally intended for another purpose became more prevalent.

The eighteen works featured in Tossed—ranging from assemblages by Richard Stankiewicz and Lousie Nevelson in the 1950s and 60s, respectively, to recently created works by Khalil Chishtee, Vanessa German, El Anatsui, Romuald Hazoumè, Melvin Edwards, Betye Saar, and Duke Riley, among others—represent a variety of approaches by different artists over time and from around the world applied to objects or materials that have been discarded, found or, re-purposed. While their perspectives vary greatly, they share an enthusiasm for the expressive power of processed materials: plastic, metal, cloth, and painted wood. Some works are the result of artist thrift, while others are a matter of aesthetic choice. And, in some instances, environmental commentary or historical reference add to their poignancy. In every case, however, they offer profound evidence that the inventiveness and imagination of artists everywhere is alive and well.

an assemblage of items -- including a mirror, a bird, a blue glass moon, and other trinkets -- in a wire bird cage
Betye Saar (American, born 1926), Vanity, 2009, mixed media assemblage, 16 x 13 ¼ x 10 ¼ inches. Collection of Middlebury College Museum of Art, Vermont. Purchase with funds provided by the Fine Arts Acquisition Fund, the G. Crossan Seybolt ’77 Art Acquisition Fund, and the Calvert H. Seybolt ’80 Art Acquisition Fund, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Robert Wedemeyer)

Tossed is curated by the museum’s longtime exhibition designer Ken Pohlman with curatorial assistance from Richard Saunders, Jason Vrooman, and Jennifer K. Brown.

Special thanks goes to the student curators from Pohlman’s HARC 1010: Museum Studies—Exhibit Design course: Nick Anderson, Chris Branch, Harriet Dahlstrom, Christopher Fridlington, Lazaro Galvez, Alexa Halper, Patricia Hughes, Martine Ma, Amanda Martins, Mano-Meelis Onni, YuBin Park, Stephanie Quichimbo, George Shi, Samuel Sullivan, Kieran Suntha, Jacqueline Tran, Roy Urbina, and Lilly Wurtz.

Tossed Artists - Playlist

A curated playlist of interviews with artists whose work is represented in Tossed.

vanessa german’s Frequency of Yes

Interview with El Anatsui

Meet the artists | Cecilia Vicuña

Romuald Hazoumè introduces his recycled masks

“Death To The Living: Long Live Trash” by Duke Riley | New York Live TV

Melvin Edwards, Sculptor

Artist Talk, Margarita Cabrera @Talley Dunn Gallery HD

Nevelson in Process, 1977 | From the Vaults

Swoon: From Street Art to High Art | The New York Times

Mark Dion: The Classical Mind

Studio Tour with Betye Saar