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The year preceding Spring 2021, spent away from museums and most other social spaces, forced a collective recognition of our basic, fallible corporeality, of our relational occupation of space, and of our globally intertwined fates. Our spatial-social sensitivities had perhaps never before been so finely tuned, primed to appreciate the oeuvre of Senga Nengudi, who has engaged with such concerns since the beginning of her career in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), the recent exhibition of the artist’s work and its accompanying book, both titled Senga Nengudi: Topologies, offer an exceptionally timely and expansive retrospective of the artist’s work over the past five decades.
Nengudi is most widely recognized for the sculptures she created from nylon mesh beginning in the latter half of the 1970s, collectively titled R.S.V.P. Her many wall-hung, three-dimensional compositions created from pantyhose—sometimes stretched to their limits or stuffed taut with sand, elsewhere limp and shriveled—recall the effects of age, labor, penetration, and childbirth upon the human body, and more specifically upon the Black female body. Though not straightforwardly representational, the worn, flesh-toned materials of these works carry connotations of race, gender, and class, equipping them to confront the intersectional nature of identity. Increasingly over the past fifteen years, major institutions have acquired and exhibited Nengudi’s nylon-mesh works; the artist’s broader practice, however, has remained underrecognized within the space of the museum. In the absence of a scholarly monograph on her career, this exhibition and accompanying book offer the richest and most sustained resource yet on Nengudi’s wide-ranging practice.
Exhibiting Nengudi’s career-long oeuvre presents certain challenges. While some of her art (including the R.S.V.P. works) was created to appear in gallery spaces, other creations were site-specific, intended, for example, to inhabit the urban outdoors of the cities where she lived. Much of her work was meant to be touched or moved. And she often worked collectively, with friends and colleagues, rather than generating individually authored works. Can a museum display recognize the elements of Nengudi’s practice that deliberately eschew institutional norms without draining those works of their significance? To exclude such works would produce a warped and incomplete image of the artist’s career—but to absorb them could be equally problematic, undermining their fundamental attachments to site, interactivity, and community.
At the PMA, Senga Nengudi: Topologies addresses this bind by complementing recent and re-created works from the early 1970s to 2020 with a rich presentation of archival materials drawn from private and public collections. The exhibition, conceptualized by Stephanie Weber and substantially expanded by Amanda Sroka for its presentation in Philadelphia, also deploys subtle contextualizing devices. The first of these is a tone-setting opening gallery devoted entirely to Black and Red Ensemble (1971, reconstructed 2021). The room containing this installation is bathed in red light, and nine black polyethylene sheets hang from the ceiling to the floor, loosely resembling oversized, shimmering trash bags. Nengudi originally created this installation as a part of her MA degree requirements at California State University, so as an early work it lays the foundation for the semichronological organization of the show. But Black and Red Ensemble also provides an inaugural testament to the artist’s virtuosic ability to blend ideas from the multiple art worlds she traversed. Its floating monochromes demonstrate her interest in the Light and Space movement, while its materials recall the discarded stuff of everyday life, for which she fostered a particular appreciation while interning at the Watts Tower Arts Center (then under the direction of Noah Purifoy). Importantly, in this room only, viewers are permitted to touch the art. This limited allowance nods to the role of tactility, mobility, and viewer-object interaction in Nengudi’s broader oeuvre, and acknowledges that these qualities are, throughout the remainder of the exhibition and to varying degrees, subdued amid the regulated environment of the museum.
Strategic pairings also compel viewers to recognize the diversity and continuities of Nengudi’s practice, as in the exhibition’s second gallery devoted to two formally divergent bodies of work: her Water Compositions (1970) and Soul Flags (1972). The former—sculptures composed of clear vinyl packets filled with brightly colored water—are glistening, minimalistic abstractions. Created while Nengudi was living in Los Angeles, these were intended for gallery display. The latter, by contrast, are jagged-edged, figural fabric silhouettes. After moving from California to New York, Nengudi made the Soul Flags to be suspended from fire escapes, alleyways, and elsewhere in her Harlem neighborhood. Wisely, the PMA implicitly underscores these differences in audience and context by implementing distinct display techniques, introducing reconstructions of the Water Compositions but presenting the Soul Flags only through photographs of their 1972 installation taken by Doug Harris. Despite their formal contrasts, however, the juxtaposition of these works prompts viewers to search for conceptual throughlines, emphasizing their shared concern with movement: whether through the fluid forms of the Water Compositions, or the Soul Flags’s susceptibility to a passing breeze. Both kinds of work also call up the body, evoked by the corporeal bloat of the Water Composition’s soft masses or more obviously rendered in the Soul Flags’s cartoonish outlines.
This subtle revelation of Nengudi’s investment in movement and embodiment primes viewers for the exhibition’s third gallery, which introduces Nengudi’s well-known R.S.V.P. works beginning with reconstructions of those made in 1976/1977. The exhibition then departs from its loosely chronological organization in favor of conceptual continuity, showing R.S.V.P. objects that Nengudi created decades later, when, beginning in 2010, she revived her practice of creating sculpture from pantyhose. These later works often incorporate found industrial objects, placing the delicate material of hosiery at the mercy of metal grates and air-conditioner parts. In so doing, they redeploy the signifying power of pantyhose to mount a powerful, if unsettling, comparison between human and mechanical labor. In both galleries, the works are accompanied by documentation of the R.S.V.P. works as they appeared in dance performances and earlier exhibitions, materials that invite audiences to imagine touching or even tugging upon the exhibited works. These documents work to mitigate, or at least to call out, the deadening effects of the museum’s restrictive domain.
Through films, photographs, and other archival materials, the exhibition underscores Nengudi’s collaborations with other artists in the 1970s and 1980s. One gallery is devoted to foregrounding the sociable quality of her work, focusing especially upon her contributions to Studio Z, the Los Angeles collective of African American artists. The inclusion of artworks by David Hammons and Maren Hassinger testifies to the artists’ close relationships, while three television screens show filmed performances by Nengudi and Studio Z members. The curation of this section—with multiple film soundtracks playing at once and no seating—discourages sustained viewing of any one screen but succeeds in conveying the vibrant social character of Nengudi’s working milieu. Here, the influence of art historian Kellie Jones is palpable, as her scholarship in South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017) inspired a renewed appreciation for the community-driven works enlivening this room.
The exhibition concludes with Warp Trance (2007), the artist’s first video installation. The work brings together together hundreds of Jacquard looms: perforated cards, strung together in various sequences, used to generate machine-made textile patterns. Hung from the ceiling and pooling in loose piles on the ground, the punch cards form a lacy screen upon which films of the weaving process are projected, accompanied by a custom audio score by composer Lawrence “Butch” Morris. The film projects not only upon the cards but through the punched-hole patterns, casting intricate and dynamic forms upon the gallery’s walls and on visitors who move through the room. As the final room in the exhibition, with its curtain-like forms and engrossing lighting, it provides an effective bookend to Red Ensemble. Like the later R.S.V.P. works, Warp Trance testifies to the ways in which, in the twenty-first century, Nengudi’s early interest in movement and labor came into conversation with the industrial and the mechanical.
The accompanying book underscores the variety of forms, materials, and contexts characterizing Nengudi’s career, offering perhaps its greatest value through its wide-reaching synthesis of materials. Bringing together photographs of Nengudi’s works and performances, as well as reproductions of primary sources, it offers the kind of research portfolio on Nengudi that could previously have been amassed only by traveling to archives in New York, New Orleans, and Washington, DC. The volume also includes newly commissioned writings, including recollections of personal memories by Nengudi’s contemporaries, an introductory overview of Nengudi’s career by Weber, and five other scholarly essays. Whereas some of these retread familiar terrain in Nengudi scholarship, speaking broadly to themes in the artist’s works, the most successful offer focused windows into specific influences upon Nengudi’s practice. Highlights include Weber’s examination of the sources that fueled the artist’s fascination with the Japanese avant-garde group Gutai and Kellie Jones’s analysis of the radical use of materials by Studio Z members, centered on the significance of sand in Nengudi’s practice. Though the book assembles a robust breadth of unpublished materials, it offers underwhelming navigational assistance to move its readers through them. An index would have helped its audience to maneuver the bilingual English/German texts and the various other documents woven throughout the volume.
The book, like the exhibition itself, does not explicitly define topology or its relationship to Nengudi’s practice. A field of mathematics that eschews stable units of measurement, topology is devoted instead to analyzing the ever-changing internal dynamics of a space or shape that is continually deformed. Topology asks, for example, what the essential properties are that allow us to understand a ball of dough—whether pounded flat, stretched thin, or twisted—as somehow, fundamentally, one and the same thing, despite its myriad spatial articulations. This corner of mathematics is an appropriate throughline to unite Nengudi’s oeuvre: most obviously because the artist’s sculptures, installations, and performances often enact topological transformations of their own. Perhaps equally important, however, is the lens that topology’s core assumption of continuous change offers for understanding the wide-ranging media, geographical origins, and thematic engagements of Nengudi’s work—which continues to place pressure upon the oft-assumed boundaries of artistic categorization, exposing their infinite malleability.
Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art,