70 Buttons!

70 Buttons, by Bernard Rudofsky.

This piece appeared in Rudolfsky's 1944 show "Are Clothes Modern?" which appeared at the Modern Museum of Art. This image sucked through the straw of my scanner from the December 2004 issue of Harpers. According to the caption, "the press release described the project as a 'simulated X-ray examination of the layers upon layers of useless buttons and pockets man considers necessary to preserve dignity'".

What I find intriguing and a bit creepy about the piece is the way in which the buttons express a slightly skewed bilateral symmetry, looking like a pointillist's version of the endochrine system, or maybe a diagram of chakras major and minor. See the vital verebrae? The thyroid neatly marked at the throat? That little mandala radiating from the abdomen? The trouser button at the groin? Best of all are the military formations at each sleeve bracketing the whole affair.

After the eye gets tired of tracing the outlines and mentally matching the clothing to the points of colour, you start looking at the body. No doubt that style of sketching the body has some pedigree, but I don't recognize it. From those thalydomide-manatee feet to the smooth barrel of a body and the tilted profile of a head, what you get is a kind of embryonic merman with a pensive attitude. Maybe he's standing on the ocean bed, decorated with the buttons of drowned gentlemen, watching the surface for someone with an suitable set of boots.

Bernard Rudofsky is best known for his book Architecture Without Architects, recently reprinted by the always-outnumbered-never-outgunned University of New Mexico Press. Rudofsky died in 1998.