Tools As Art: Work and Play

Exhibition NOTES

Tools As Art: Work and Play

Featuring a selection of more than fifty works from the Hechinger Collection, Work & Play celebrates the transformation of common industrial objects into extraordinary works of art. By tapping into their metaphoric potential, the exhibition explores tools as icons of labor, labor as a component of creativity, and creativity as a form of play. The showcased works illustrate how artists manipulate their subjects to forge entirely novel forms. Some artists manipulate scale, material, and function to wondrous effect. Others treat tools as a stand-in for the self, often assigning them human attributes and honoring their simple efficiency and sheer elegance. The exhibition also features artists who embrace tools as a hallmark of civilization or use tools for humor and social commentary.

Tools as Art: Work and Play is organized from the Hechinger Collection and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C.



John W. Hechinger (1920-2004) was a fifth-generation Washingtonian and a highly respected civic and business leader who was most often associated with the chain of do-it-yourself stores that carried his family name. Once ubiquitous in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the Hechinger Company was founded by John’s father in 1911 and exemplified a twentieth-century success story: the transformation of a neighborhood hardware store into an expansive chain of home-improvement centers.

Lesser known to the public is that John and his wife June were lifelong philanthropists and art enthusiasts, assembling an impressive collection of artwork that honors the beauty of common tools where form and function are inextricably linked. When Hechinger moved into new corporate headquarters in 1978, 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. For anyone whose passion is to work with his or her hands, a good hardware store is a spur to the imagination.”

As Hechinger discovered early on, the collection’s narrow focus struck a rich and diverse vein. Although artists have depicted tools in their art since ancient times, it was during the modern era that tools gained widespread popularity. The collection features more than 250 regional and international artists. Their paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and folk art span a wide range of styles and themes, and like a time-capsule, the collection traces a sweeping arc of technological progress and labor shifts all the way to the digital age.


This project is supported in part by federal award number 21.027 awarded to Knox County by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Arts & Culture Alliance, and by the federal award number SLFRP5534 awarded to the State of Tennessee by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

IMAGE HEADER: Claes Oldenburg, KnifeShip, 1986, oil paint on saw, 30.5″ X 36.25″ X 2,” © Claes Oldenburg.