John Hechinger took the local hardware stores in Washington started by his father and built his company into a formidable chain of hundreds of stores throughout the entire mid-Atlantic region. Some credit him with starting the “home improvement stores” concept. In 1978, Hechinger moved his company into new corporate headquarters in Landover, Maryland, on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. As a very creative spirit, he found the building efficient yet sterile: “It struck me that the endless repetition of corridors and cubicles was boring and seemed to rebuke the fantasies that a hardware store inspires,” he said. “For anyone whose passion is to work with his or her hands, a good hardware store is a spur to the imagination.”
Hechinger already owned Jim Dine’s Tool Box, a suite of ten screenprints that combine tools with images from pop culture and the artist’s personal life. He hung the suite in his office and noted his associates’ enjoyment. Realizing the value of art with a thematic resonance with his business, Hechinger set out collecting art related to the company’s very livelihood: “(We) hoped that by surrounding employees with artistic expressions of the same objects they handled in the tens of thousands would bring a sense of dignity to their jobs.”
As Hechinger discovered early on, the collection’s narrow focus strikes a rich and diverse vein in modern art, with tool-inspired paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and folk art, primarily from the post-World War II era. Spanning a wide range of styles and themes, the collection honors common tools, where form and function are inextricably linked. The artists range from world-renowned to emerging and are mostly American, but with notable exceptions including Arman, Fernand Léger, Anthony Caro, Oleg Kudryashov, Ben Nicholson, and Jean Tinguely, among others.
In 1989, a survey of Hechinger’s collection at the National Building Museum led to a 15-year series of exhibitions. Concurrently, International Arts & Artists collaborated with Sarah Tanguy, the curator of the collection, to develop a traveling exhibition. Featuring 65 highlights from the collection, Tools as Art: The Hechinger Collection was one of IA&A’s most popular traveling exhibitions. The selection featured works by Berenice Abbott, Donald Lipski and Red Grooms. After its 2001 premier at the City Museum in St. Louis, MO, the exhibition crisscrossed the country with more than 20 venues, always delighting visitors and drawing new audiences with family-friendly programming.
IA&A’s second exhibition from the collection, Tools in Motion, takes a witty and light-hearted view. Touring through 2009, the 49 motion-related and visually intriguing works were chosen with children, families and school groups in mind to foster many educational programming opportunities. At the same time, the broad array of emerging and prominent contemporary artists, including Arman, Claes Oldenburg, Jacob Lawrence and Mr. Imagination, and the unexpected use of such common materials as wood, paper, metal and stone, attracts art lovers of all ages.
The current traveling exhibition ReTooled: Highlights from the Hechinger Collection brings life to the unexpected subject of tools by profiling 28 visionary artists from the Hechinger Collection including Anthony Caro, William Eggleston, Richard Estes, Walker Evans, James Rosenquist, and Roger Shimomura. It featuring more than 40 imaginative paintings, sculptures, works on paper and photographs.
John Hechinger’s generous bequest to IA&A has ensured the collection’s preservation and its enjoyment by audiences worldwide. A selection of small exhibitions culled from Tools as Art has been displayed at IA&A’s Hillyer Art Space in Washington, DC. Additional works, including Jim Dine’s Ten Winter Tools, are on permanent view throughout the IA&A offices. In the future, new and exciting traveling exhibitions of the collection will be made available to museums around the country. IA&A also welcomes the possibility of institutional requests for exhibitions or long-term loans.