At the end of May I had the pleasure of going to visit my Mom and Dad. My dad had two days off, so we all went together to the Getty museum where I saw all of my old and favorite painting-friends (dear Van Gogh, dear Cezanne, dear Munch), as well as some new ones (Sisley and Monet’s beautiful little pastels---I didn’t even know they made pastels), and one painting that I felt very suspicious of (Orazio Genteleschi’s benign-looking rape of Danae by Zeus in the guise of a shower of golden coins and ribbons---was this painted before or after his daughter was raped by her painting teacher?) We walked through the model cave temples of Dunhuang and marveled at the delicately reproduced wall paintings: their bright malachite greens and calligraphic lines, the angelic presences darting around the ceilings, the pattern that envelops you as you turn around and around, looking.
After my dad was back at work, my mom still had time off, so we took a train adventure into Los Angeles and went to visit Hauser, Wirth, and Schimmel in their new white palace just east of Little Tokyo. The gallery is enormous, and very elegant. It is also strange: the blend of pristine whiteness with the neatly preserved rusted doors and broken tilework from its previous life as a factory; the extension of the commercial art space into the commercial marketplace of food and books with the addition of a restaurant, a food truck and a full-size bookstore to the four plus rooms devoted to showing art. The inaugural show was also curious for several reasons, one of which the LA Times already pointed out in that most of the work is borrowed from museums and is not in fact for sale. The show, ‘Revolution in the Making’ has a narrow focus on abstract sculpture made by women during the years 1947 to 2016, which had me questioning: was this a good thing, to put together a show that should be in a museum but considering the way museums neglect female artists in general (you can look up the Guerilla Girls for some interesting statistics) was unlikely to happen? Is it progressive for such a large gallery to focus its first show entirely on women when the general statistics for women in galleries is little better than the statistics for women in museums (see Michol Hebron’s gallery tally)? But why all women? As I went through gallery after gallery, noticing that while many of the artworks referenced the body or feminine experience they by no means all had those themes in common-----and I wondered, is it good for all these women to be shown together outside of the context of their male peers? While women certainly do have a lot to say to each other, they don’t work in a world outside of the world---it makes little sense to separate them from the full conversations of the time and place that they were working. Were these women all grouped together because their artwork had a great deal in common beyond working in the vague and broad field of ‘abstract sculpture’, or was the only other commonality the gender of the maker? If, as the gallery press release said, all these artists “reject[ed] the precedent of a monolithic masterwork on a pedestal” then why not show them with the artwork they were responding to? Why separate them? And were only women making that change? I seem to recall that most sculpture after the 1960s jumped off the pedestal onto the floor and walls and anywhere else, and that strangely enough, in this show there were some heavy pieces of concrete on pedestals, who only barely miss being termed “monolithic” because there were quite a few of them shown together.
I found myself dwelling on Louise Nevelson’s sculpture. It wasn’t displayed very prominently; it was in fact off to one side in the first gallery, tucked almost into a corner, although well lit. But it was also covered in a deep layer of dust, which gently covered the flat, matte black surfaces of the wood, growing deeper as they recessed into crevasses of shadow. I looked at it with my mother for a long time, and asked her whether she thought sculptures should be dusted? Every one of Nevelson’s sculptures that I have ever seen has been covered deeply in dust, and this made me wonder---was it intentional? Did Nevelson leave any instructions that her pieces should not be dusted, or is this an instance of neglect that would make her very sad were she alive and did she know that no one had cleaned her sculptures in many years? Perhaps the issue of dust seems small, but to me it is a vital one, because it changes the perception and meaning of the piece. When I see such deep dust, I think of many things: the passage of time, of disuse, neglect, of the living rooms of strangers, of the hidden depths of cupboards, I think of the poetic makeup of dust---the particles it is made of, the bits of skin and flakes of things sloughing off their outer layers as the fatigue of time grows heavy on them, and how they gather on other things to make a new outer layer, a skin of other skins. How can the materiality of dust help but affect the sculpture that it sits on, and the thoughts of the person looking at it? Perhaps someday I will write a more full meditation upon the transfiguring power of dust.
When my mother and I stood in front of Louise Nevelson’s sculpture, pondering, was what I was looking at an intended layer of meaning, a poetic meditation on time, or was it a visible sign of the neglect that so many women artists suffer at the hands of an art history made primarily by male collectors, male curators, male historians? Would a man think of dust in the same way as a woman used to dusting the many wooden surfaces of her home?
This question led me to other questions about the relationship between women-artists and domesticity when we entered the last gallery room of what the gallery termed “a Post-Modernist generation of increasingly global figures who are far more expansive in their use of space, and whose works signal a foundational shift from discreet sculptural objects toward more installation-based practices.” What struck Mom and I the most about this room was the shift in content, construction methods, and most of all atmosphere from the previous rooms. While previous pieces had referenced the female body, fairy tales, the earth---they all had in common great beauty and delicacy of creation and presentation. They were elegant, thoughtful, and for the most part, austere. The last room was crowded, claustrophobic, purposely sloppy, adolescent (one sculpture incorporated kitty-emblazoned t-shirts), aggressive, and had a pervasive undercurrent of what I noted to my mom felt like a deep loathing towards domesticity and craft. Certainly the detritus that the sculptures were made of was the detritus of home, fabric stores, craft stores, thrift stores. Certainly also the way the sculptures were made did not seem to intend to transcend those materials, or to treat them kindly or respectfully – the fabrics, furniture, cleaning and craft supplies were torn, wound, stuffed, dangled, smashed, deformed, and made to push into the viewers’ space to make them/me feel faintly threatened. In some cases even worry that it might fall on me and I would be caught and smothered under a pile of dirty laundry or distorted filthy couches that looked like they came from the back of a high school drama room. It felt like an adolescent nightmare: the cellophane, the nail polish, the nylons, the t-shirts and dirty bedding and bits of old Christmas trees and the strangely shrouded piano turned over on its side. Without knowing the artists, I couldn’t know why. Did they dislike the domestic for personal reasons? Did they all share a common childhood that left a similar psychological impression of distrust? Was this satire of the homely a way to define themselves as artists: yes, I am female, but I am not domestic? Was it based in the fear that to be a ‘real’ artist, a woman must discard the traditionally feminine, or make it strange, other, disown it the way a troubled teenage girl might disown her mother? Saying, I won’t be like you. But why? Why a whole room of artwork with that same feeling and the same family of materials made grotesque? Was it the curator’s choice, a selection which does not show the full range of interests in current abstract sculpture made by women, or does it reflect the general impulse of women’s sculptures, in which case, I am left with the same question of why all these women/artists are so negatively ambivalent about femininity, domesticity, and craft? There is some part of me that wonders---were they rewarded (by men, by other similarly ambivalent women) for this attitude? To laugh at what troubles, at the things that cling to their minds and hearts despite themselves. The clutches of duty and childhood and the question of how to be a woman, to be an artist, when the invisible, fragile, vulnerable, and omnipresent world of the home, overlooked and underappreciated, is all one has ever seen or known.
The women of previous generations found ways to be artists and women both, incorporating their special knowledge of femininity into their art rather than disowning or satirizing it. Ruth Asawa’s elegantly knitted wire forms, for instance—taking the ephemeral action of knitting and giving it the permanence and flexibility of wire, and the lightness of seedpods floating through the air. Or Lee Bontecou’s relief sculptures that under their frightening facades have the orderly purpose of mending, repurposing. Or Claire Falkenstein’s jeweled nests-nets, with their rich ambiguity of form and reference. Or Bourgeois, or Nevelson, who take discards and paint and assemble and change them, and allow them to transcend the meaning placed upon them by other people, even their own makers. They give them form, and identity, and freedom to be different than what they were intended to be. And yet they are what they are, still, the same wood under the paint. But they can be both discarded wood, no longer needed, and artwork, very much needed, at the same time. What I admired most about the earliest artists in the show was the way they held ambiguity in the air, and let it stay there.