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Andrew Krieger looks uncannily like a middle-aged Willie Gillis, the bat-eared boy GI from Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. The round eyes and cheeks have wilted some with time, but the trademark look of befuddled wonder is still there—especially when Krieger walks into the rotunda of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and sees 120 of his own pieces hanging on the walls of Washington’s oldest public museum.

“I’m in awe,” he says to the 30 or so museum members who show up for a preview of “Thinking Inside the Box: The Art of Andrew Krieger,” a retrospective of the 54-year-old’s quirky drawings, prints, and box constructions that opened July 24. “To see so much of my work collected in one place…I never expected this.”

Until recently, neither did the museum. In fact, the real Willie Gillis was supposed to be installed here under the Corcoran’s neoclassical dome, while a much smaller selection of Krieger’s pieces was slated to occupy a dead-end hallway off the museum’s entrance. But the Rockwell exhibition, timed to coincide with the unveiling of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall, was expected to draw crowds of wheelchair-bound veterans, so America’s favorite artist got bumped upstairs near the elevators—and Krieger got a big promotion.

Krieger has spent much of the last quarter century in personal solitude as well as artistic anonymity, and at the preview he appears somewhat ill at ease with his newfound exposure. Whenever his voice falters to a near-whisper, Corcoran Curator of Prints and Drawings Eric Denker jumps in, instructing the audience to notice the “meticulousness” of the artist’s draftsmanship or the “suppleness” of an engraved line. The curator and artist have known each other since the mid-’80s, when they were working at the National Gallery of Art bookstore. Though Denker has moved on to lecturing, and Krieger is now an art installer, both are still employed by the NGA.

“I feel like the father of a newborn child,” Denker says when introducing Krieger to the museum members, and he spends the rest of the tour hovering around his ward like an anxious parent.

Krieger does Denker proud, talking for more than an hour about the deliberately slow evolution of his work, from the early etchings of cartoonish humanoids to the paper sculptures of weirdly attenuated architectural forms and abandoned machines that he’s made more recently. The stocky figures with heads of cheese, letters, and melons in Saturday Afternoon Crowd, Krieger says, are caricatures of fellow students at the University of Georgia, where he received an MFA in printmaking in 1979. The machine-peopled bathrooms in the Twenty Minutes Flat series, he explains, are celebrations of those solitary morning moments when we are most in touch with ourselves as plumbing.

Most tellingly, however, there are Krieger’s depictions of imaginary clubs for social outcasts: Dancing at the 52 Club, for example, or Exile’s Club, named after fantasy writer Lord Dunsany’s imagined gathering spot for abandoned gods.

“I’m sort of a shut-in, so I had to make my own night life,” the artist says to sympathetic chuckles from the mostly elderly museum members, some of whom look as if they haven’t been out of the house in a while, either.

He can joke about it now, but Krieger’s reclusiveness nearly grounded his artistic career just as it was taking off. He created both 52 and Exile’s Club in the early ’80s, right around the time his art was starting to attract some serious notice in the local scene—and when Krieger himself was spending most nights alone in a tiny Dupont Circle apartment, working on the rounded contours of an imaginary world he would eventually call Deep Ellum.

A few years before, in 1979, the then-29-year-old Phillips Collection security guard had entered a Corcoran competition for works on paper by local artists. Out of 734 entries, 80 pieces were selected, among them Krieger’s box construction Machines May Go Anywhere.

Washington Post critic Paul Richards found the subsequent show generally lacking in spirit and novelty. “It is, therefore, a treat to come upon a work entirely surprising,” he wrote. “How nice it is to see the small mobile machines made by Andrew Krieger humming to themselves (‘Clupclupclupclup,’ ‘Sisssisssissss’) as busily, robotically, they go about their business.”

“That felt great,” Krieger recalls, sitting in the airy studio on the third floor of his Columbia Heights town house. “I felt like I’d been picked out of the crowd a little bit, and I got a call from a gallery.”

The call was from Gallery K, with whom Krieger began an association that ended only when the venerable R Street NW showplace closed its doors last year, following the deaths of co-owners H. Marc Moyens and Komei Wachi. Krieger’s first solo show at the gallery, in 1983, featured his mixed-media constructions, which were then becoming the focus of his work.

“At that time, when the Gallery K had an artist, they wanted to keep pushing and pushing,” Krieger says. “But I felt like my work wasn’t conducive to that kind of a schedule.” Moyens and Wachi wanted the up-and-coming artist to commit to a regular exhibition schedule of a solo show every two to three years, which is as long as Krieger sometimes spends on a single box piece.

He refused to be rushed, tempted neither by the prospects of commercial success nor the seductions of society. In fact, there would be only one more Andrew Krieger solo show in the 20 years between the artist’s first exhibition at the Gallery K and his current one at the Corcoran. Never a social creature, Krieger was becoming increasingly withdrawn. For 10 years, he didn’t date, didn’t drink, and rarely went out.

“My friends thought I was totally antisocial and there were times when I thought, Well, maybe I am,” he recalls. “I knew there was a world out there and a life out there. But I didn’t feel like I was missing that much. I didn’t have to go to out every Saturday and Friday night and make some scene to justify what I was doing. What I was doing was fine.”

What he was doing was spending his nights developing and depicting what amounts to a working man’s Zion. In etchings, drawings, and cutaway box constructions, Krieger imagined a rural landscape filled by imaginary apparatuses for make-believe workers: a wildlife-tagging station, a signaling platform, a watchman’s quarters.

“They’re work stations for some rather unusual pursuits,” Krieger says. “When I work on them, I’m thinking of a time that’s simpler, that has a different focus as to the outcome of work and more respect for someone being a worker. These are basic jobs that revolve around nature.”

It comes as no surprise that, growing up in ’50s New York in a blue-collar section of Queens, Krieger aspired to carpentry, not art. “I wanted to work in wood and with my hands,” he says. “But this was a time when that was being discouraged. Following a career that involved a more professional stature seemed to be the path for children then.”

Krieger’s father, a liquor and wine salesman, had put aside his own dreams of being a machinist when he signed up with the U.S. Navy during the war. The artist’s mother worked for a company that sold men’s ties and accessories, and Krieger remembers being fascinated by the fabric swatches his mother brought home with her from work—and even more by the boxes they came in.

“I remember playing in the cardboard boxes and imagining and fantasizing,” he says. “A box could become a car or a spaceship. You could be standing still or driving 500 miles an hour.”

It was the emptiness of those cardboard boxes, the artist would later realize, that filled them with creative possibility. When Krieger started to withdraw from the real world, he also began removing figurative forms from his artistic vocabulary. The stocky characters who once overwhelmed the busy interiors of his early work did not repair to the lonesome expanses of Deep Ellum. Here, there are only deserted bus stops, empty platforms, and abandoned tools stretched all out of proportion, yawning into the sky, palpably yearning to have their gears turned and levers pulled.

“I decided to make [Deep Ellum] vacant, and concentrate on its background, because I believe in the power of pretending, in make-believe,” Krieger says. “All I do is make these worlds as comfortable as possible for anyone who has the imagination to put himself inside them.”

For most struggling artists, working for someone else is what you do while you wait to be discovered. For Krieger, getting a job as an art technician at the National Gallery, in 1983, was itself the big break. He speaks with far easier enthusiasm about his occupation than he does his art, and he looks more relaxed on a coffee break, in green overalls and work boots, than he did during his gallery talk.

“I was continually pricking myself with a needle,” he says of his first days on the job. “I was tickled to death to go to work every day in this environment. I had studied a lot of these artists, but I’d never expected to be framing paintings by Giotto, holding a da Vinci in my hand, installing an Alexander Calder mobile. I felt like I had the best job in the world, and I still think I do.”

Following years of menial jobs that included bike messenger and house-mover, the National Gallery position did more than allow Krieger to finally fulfill his youthful ambitions. It also got him out of the house.

Krieger has traveled with special exhibitions up and down the East Coast, and to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It was through work friends that, in 1990, he met his future wife, Toni Roger, then an assistant to the director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. They were married in 1992. Their son, Nathaniel, was born in 1994.

Krieger’s marriage ended in divorce, and his ex-wife passed away in October 2001. He and Nathaniel now share the house with Krieger’s girlfriend, Kelly Frick; two cats; eight finches; and a guinea pig named Kirby. The demands of work and raising a family have further slowed Krieger’s artistic output, but he continues to refine the lonely forms of his imaginings. The fantasy machines of Krieger’s dreamscapes brought him solace during his isolation, and his abiding hope is that they will now bring comfort to others.

Krieger describes himself as a “working-class artist for a working class of people.” His ideal viewer, he says, is one who would thrive in his imaginary workers’ paradise.

“You’re working out in the complete open, directly in nature,” he says. “You’re in the elements in all different types of weather. It’s a free range—a very open world. And the jobs require you to work with your hands: a signaling station, a weather observation for the study of nature, tagging stations to track and keep records on wildlife and other forms of nature. You’re connected to the world in a way that’s honest.

“I know it’s sentimental,” he adds with a shy smile, “but I don’t mind.”CP