Co-curated by Paul Schimmel, former chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and partner and vice president at Hauser and Wirth; and Jenni Sorkin, art historian, critic, and assistant professor of contemporary art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women, 1947–2016 felt like an ambitious museum exhibition, especially with its impressive roster of thirty-four artists working across so much of the twentieth century and into the present. And yet it was the inaugural project at Hauser Wirth and Schimmel, a commercial gallery-cum-arts complex. Located in the heart of the downtown Los Angeles Arts District, the space—a restored Globe Mills campus comprising late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings—was adapted by Creative Space, Los Angeles, with a restaurant, public garden, and bookstore among other amenities. Further distracting from its function as a commercial gallery, many of the works were on loan from public museums, estates, other commercial galleries, and private collections, and the show boasted smart public programs and educational activities aimed at different audiences. (Indeed, only a small portion of the works, reportedly under twenty percent, were for sale.) To add to the scholarly heft, Revolution in the Making was accompanied by a well-researched catalogue authored by the curators, with additional contributions by Emily Rothrum, Elizabeth A. T. Smith, and Anne M. Wagner. With all this in mind, it is as if Revolution in the Making is also an echo of the revolution taking place within the institutional world of museums and galleries themselves, with Hauser Wirth and Schimmel at the forefront of this evolution of museological transformation and change.
All of this serves as background for what I will foreground here: the achievements of the exhibition, which can be credited to the curatorial prowess of the co-curators. The show was stunningly installed, divided by generation and/or decade, so that viewers moved through a more-or-less chronological narrative. The commissioned works—like Kaari Upson and Lara Schnitger—were balanced beautifully with older, iconic pieces, including ones by Louise Bourgeois and Lee Bontecou, offering a robust survey of “revolution” and “making” in women-centered arts practices. The exhibition aimed to demonstrate the growth of these practices, and also how younger generations of artists today have been influenced and informed by those before them. One of the exhibition’s objectives was to consider what women did or did not have access to, including studios, tools, and education, and the curators capably wove multiple mediums together to tell this story of feminism and the critical contributions by female artists. While one may argue that there is very little “politics” in the work itself, for much of the work focuses on process, it is the curatorial framing that reveals the political intent. Clearly, Schimmel and Sorkin felt the need to gather these artists in a space in which to celebrate their contributions to modern and contemporary art history, and to address the very real inequities women in the art world face now and in the past. The curators therefore aimed to focus more closely on abstraction and formalism and work emerging from the artists’ studios given that feminist-based work from the 1950s to today has tended to focus on more overt conceptual and critical statements. Female artistic interventions in sculpture were especially considered, given that sculpture, as compared to other mediums, tended to be the most male-dominated domain. The expansive space lent itself well to the curators’ objectives in emphasizing both studio and sculpture.
Schimmel and Sorkin subdivided the exhibition across three loosely gathered date ranges, 1950s–1960s, 1970s–1990s, 2000s–present, to fit with the gallery’s South, North (A & B), and East rooms. This was punctuated by smaller spaces such as a lab for books and other printed matter. Standouts in each of the sections were works that exuded visceral, kinesthetic, and sensorial qualities, activating desire for touch, taste, and smell. Interlaced with all this is how frequently the abstraction pointed to literal and metaphorical references to earthy, corporeal form, heightening their persuasive and magical anthropomorphic powers. Especially memorable examples where this, along with activating the sensorium, occurred include the delicately woven, continuous pod-like metal hanging spheres and lobes by Ruth Asawa in the South Gallery, which spin and twirl like wind chimes when hit by a gust of air—they are arguably evocative of the reproductive organs. Their organic, circular, fragile, and transparent qualities made for a striking contrast with Bontecou’s adjacent series of rectangular wall pieces with protruding geometric shapes. These chunky, rough conglomerations of wood and metal offer zig-zag mouths and orifice-like holes or windows into another secret space beyond their intimidating surfaces. Adjacent to Bontecou and Asawa was Bourgeois’s cathartic work: sometimes in pairs and sometimes solo, her painted wood, steel, and bronze tall and thin figures sat placidly on a raised platform in the middle of the gallery space to greet the visitor, but especially to engage in heady dialogue with its fellow objects through their intermingling of sex, shape, and sensor. The juxtaposition of this triad of classics from the 1950s and 1960s was a thrilling entry point for more to come.
Another scene similar in effect and affect belonged to the installation of Lynda Benglis, Heidi Bucher, Yayoi Kusama, and Hannah Wilke in North Gallery A. For one component of Benglis’s contribution, sizeable silver globs of what resembled solidified lava or viscous ejaculative fluid poured through a membrane on one wall, while another pooled in a sizable mound on the floor nearby. Kusama’s seminal phallic fabric tendrils, entitled A Snake (1974), literally slithered across the floor nearby, while other gatherings of material positioned both high and low around the room offered more examples to a vocabulary of contrasts: smooth/rough (Bucher’s pillow-like body-shells with innards and guts squeezed out), or heavy/light (Bucher’s layered and folded drapes of material in the silhouette of a dragonfly), or soft/hard (Wilke’s bouquets of petals or herbs made from latex and metal snaps). When considered all together as one installation, the collective palette of pale gray, pink, and yellow sewed the work into a unified whole. Many other works in this section of the exhibition added to the poetry of sculpture, ranging from the recognizable latex-and-polyethylene sheeting of Eva Hesse to Isa Genzken’s concrete slabs stacked neatly on thin, steel-legged tables spaced evenly and randomly around the room. Larger-than-life objects, such as Magdalena Abakanowicz’s humongous, partially undone spool of thick rope and Sheila Hicks’s haystack of wool and linen, added to the drama of this sequence of rooms, keeping the viewer guessing as one was greeted with surprise after glorious surprise.
En route to the final room of the display were several more serpent-like forms moving from one side of the atrium to the other, connecting the interior of Hauser Wirth and Schimmel with the outside world. This time, though, the snakes defied gravity by sliding across a ceiling lined with wooden beams and several skylights. Also resembling intestines, these large bundles of colorful scraps of found and recycled materials, held fastidiously together by yarn and other pieces of string, are emblematic of the practice of contemporary New York-based artist Shinique Smith. Smith’s contribution made a lovely aesthetic and literal segue into the concluding chapter of the exhibition’s enterprise.
The last room, the East Gallery, which contained the most recent work, was more evocative of materials undone, stretched, taut, and tormented, particularly in the case of Abigail DeVille, with her beaten, holed-up, and scratched-out interior wall structures consisting of reclaimed plywood theater flats, lumber, and accumulated debris, or Upson’s works of burnt, bruised, and contorted L-shaped leather lounge chairs. The constellation of colorful felt pom-poms and wooden beams by Phyllida Barlow gelled with its surrounding environment, as it created a dizzying yet seamless thread between the architecture of the space and the art object encased within it. Karla Black’s pastel plaster candy concoctions wrapped in cellophane continued to arouse the taste buds, while Schnitger displayed an eclectic but familiar mix of materials strewn about. Her sexy, black, patterned pantyhose, spread-eagled in numerous directions as if a sprawling octopus or an umbrella put to good use, echoed the work of Senga Nengudi in the adjacent room. While Nengudi’s fleshy ball-sacks of nylon mesh filled with sand marked a corner space, using skinny outstretched and pinned nylon arms to stake out territory, Schnitger’s hose was wrapped seductively around a free-standing wooden beam, ready for a pole dance.
The same challenging questions that plague other identity-based exhibitions swirled around this one, such as the usefulness of all-women shows. Exhibitions of this nature will always be of value, and, indeed, a necessity, given that we continue to live in a sexist, racist, homophobic, and ableist world, and to deny this reality within the art world is to continue to abide by deeply entrenched unbalanced power relations, reflected on the streets as well as within the museum and gallery infrastructure. The art world needs to be reminded of these inequities without fear that this ostensibly isolating curatorial selection will somehow obfuscate women and minority artists from being incorporated into other exhibition typologies. This simply is not, and has never been, the case.
PhD candidate, Department of Visual Arts, University of California San Diego
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