Sari Dienes, Star Circle

A plaster cast of a manhole cover from the streets of Manhattan is a testament to this artist’s experimental use of materials.

Sari Dienes, Star Circle, 1953–59 (assembled as late as 1959), plaster and paint on foam board, 121.92 x 81.28 x 3.49 cm (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond) © Sari Dienes Foundation

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:08] We’re in the modern and contemporary galleries of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and we’re looking at a work of art by an artist whose name is Sari Dienes, called “Star Circle.” We think at least elements of it date to 1953, maybe 1955. I hesitate to call this a painting because it’s way too complicated. I’m not sure what it is.

Dr. Sarah Eckhardt: [0:27] It’s somewhere between an assemblage, a relief sculpture, and a painting. I think just that description right there tells you how experimental Sari Dienes was as an artist.

[0:40] She loved to try out new materials, sometimes even as they were being made. She loved new kinds of paper. She was working with material that was very similar to Tyvek already in the 1950s to make rubbings of subway grates and manhole covers. And then she was also interested in making plaster casts of things. And so what you’re seeing here as the focal point of this work is a plaster cast of a manhole cover.

Dr. Zucker: [1:06] She would have gone onto the streets of Manhattan and created art from the sidewalk that she was walking across. The subway grates that you step on, the manhole covers that you overlook, this industrial world became the material for her artwork.

Dr. Eckhardt: [1:20] She was out in the middle of the night. We know that Jasper Johns was helping hold these down in the middle of the street sometimes, in the middle of the night, when she could trust that there wouldn’t be too much traffic. The plaster casts are like that. She is making a cast of the manhole cover and then she’s making a positive from that.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] But we should say that this is long before Jasper Johns became one of the most significant artists of the second half of the 20th century.

Dr. Eckhardt: [1:47] Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were really just beginning. I believe, in fact, that they met in her studio. It was an exciting place to be because she was so experimental, and she was so open to different ideas and different uses of materials. Both artists were inspired by some of the things she was doing with materials.

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] Well, it’s impossible for me to look at this work without being reminded of Johns’ later work, his interest in creating broad, rough fields of battleship gray.

Dr. Eckhardt: [2:19] It’s almost as if she’s recreated the street. I’m not sure that it’s supposed to be that literal, but she has taken the cast of the manhole cover and then she has roughly affixed it to this surface of plaster that is rough and that she’s then painted gray. It feels almost like asphalt, and then she stenciled on top of it.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] I think it’s hard to remember just how radical it must have been in the mid-20th century to create art, that is, to create beauty, out of everyday materials, out of the things that we step on, that we overlook.

[2:52] While she was open to the world around her, I’m not sure how open the world was to her. I think especially because of the critical neglect that surrounds her work, it’s wonderful to see her up on the walls here.

Dr. Eckhardt: [3:04] I think that one of the areas, at least I would like to explore as far as future scholarship, is the show that Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg did of her work in 1955 in the Bonwit Teller windows.

[3:19] This was this lesser-known story in art history where artists like Andy Warhol, before him Dalí, and then Johns and Rauschenberg were using the Bonwit Teller windows as a experimental gallery space, where they were making display windows that were the background for fashion for the products that Bonwit Teller was featuring.

[3:41] My understanding is they had pretty free rein on the kinds of work that they were showing behind those mannequins and those displays.

[3:47] I think it gives us a sense of the high regard they held for Sari Dienes that in that year they gave her an entire show of her subway grate rubbings and manhole covers and some of her plaster casts.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] Bonwit Teller was a very upscale fashion retailer on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. And so although it was a store, it was a very prestigious space.

Dr. Eckhardt: [4:09] We know that Sari was making these plaster casts of manhole covers by 1953, so that’s our start date. We also know that the entire work is mounted onto a piece of foam core, and we believe it’s a very early version of foam core.

[4:27] That would be so fitting for Sari Dienes, because she loved new materials. We think that this piece was made between 1953 and ’59. We don’t know exactly when it all got assembled and that was just very much part of her process.

[4:39] She would have things in her studio and she might assemble them later, but the rough dates are 1953 to 1959.

[4:45] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Sarah Eckhardt and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Sari Dienes, Star Circle," in Smarthistory, August 12, 2022, accessed May 24, 2024,