Mothers of Invention at MoMA, Part 2

Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, April 15-August 13, 2017

Originally published May 20, 2017

Detail of Ruth Asawa's, Untitled, c. 1955; brass wire, iron wire, and galvanized iron wire

A friend mentioned that when she visited Making Space there were about one hundred 12-year-old schoolgirls in the galleries. Kids are, for me, a museum nightmare—the high-pitched squeals, the selfies, the darting about of so many little groups more interested in the social experience than the aesthetic one. Still, imagine the opportunity for these young women to see so much great work by so many great artists with whom they share a gender. It's another world from the one in which we grew up, immersed in the one-sided view offered by Janson and shown endless slides of naked women painted by men. 

Gallery 1

Gallery 2

Gallery 3

In this post, I'm going to take you through the last two galleries. But first a quick visual recap of the first three galleries.   In Gallery 1 we're looking at the women of the AbEx era, including Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner. In Gallery 2 we see the Geometric Abstractionists, many coming out of the great Latin American tradition of Arte Concreta, such as Lygia Clark, Carmen Herrera, and Lygia Pape. In Gallery 3 are the Reductive Abstractionists, including Eleanore Mikus, Anne Truitt, and Agnes Martin. Now let's round the corner for abstraction in a different medium: fiber.

Gallery 4

The curators, Starr Figura and Sarah Hermanson Meister, saw the connection between the grid, which is the underpinning of so much reductive abstraction, and the warp and weft of textile construction. Indeed, their inclusion in this gallery of prints and drawings that reference the grid make the connection clear.

The most beautiful installation view in the show:

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Ruth Asawa (center), and Lenore Tawney

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Yellow Abakan, 1967-68, sisal

This is one in a series of large woven pieces that the artist, who died recently, named after herself. With their organic shape and labial folds, they offered an unmistakable connection to the female body. A red Abakan was included in the now-legendary exhibition, WACK: Art and the Feminist Revolution, organized by Connie Butler, which originated at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles, traveled to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.; PS. 1 in Long Island City; and then the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia. Starr Figura, talking in a MoMA video, also notes the "scarlike" surface of the weaving, pointing out that Abakanowicz was a Polish survivor of World War II.

Detail of Yellow Abakan

Lenore Tawney, Little River, 1968, linen

Tawney lived in the same Coenties Slip neighborhood at the tip of Manhattan as did Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. She was friends with Martin, and in my mind they share an aesthetic, albeit with different mediums.

Detail of Little River, whose linen warp threads, woven in separare strips and then brought trogether in ever-larger groupings, are the visible element of the piece

I love this pairing: Mira Schendel, Untitled from the series Droguinhas (Little Nothings), 1964-66, Japanese paper; with Sheila Hicks on the far wall

Sheila Hicks, Prayer Rug, 1965, handspun wool

The Asawa sculpture in the center of the gallery will orient you to the wall of drawings, prints, and small weavings to the left of where you enter. The conversation here between and among the works on the wall and the sculptures throughout the rest of the gallery is lively and visually engaging.

Gego, above and below 

Balance, 1960, etching

Untitled, 1963, ink on paper

Anni Albers, Tapestry, 1948, linen and cotton

Detail below text

While her husband was making his color studies, Anni Albers was forging a path in fiber. Interestingly, Sheila Hicks, who studied with Josef at Yale, ended up pursuing a parallel path to Anni's. Long overshadowed by her husband (except in the fiber world where her achievements have long been appreciated), Anni Albers's work has recently come into greater prominence with exhibitions at the Guggenheim Bilbao and Tate Modern.


Update: A recent show at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City presented a range of work that spanned the artist's decades-long career.

Above: Detail of Tapestry

Below: Enmeshed I, 1963, lithograph

Gallery 5

In this last room of the exhibition we see familiar names along with some who are less known. The biggies include Eva Hesse, represented by a linear wall piece that's as much drawing as sculpture; Lee Bontecou, represented by an oft-shown sculpture with its famously gaping maw; and a Lynda Benglis losenge, built from tongues of wax, its fragility underscored by its placement behind a plexi box. There are artists here whose work I'd like to see more of, including Hedda Sterne, the only woman photographed among The Irascibles; and the Italian Surrealist, Carol Rama, both overdue for posthumous MoMA retrospectives. 

In this transition photo we're standing in Gallery 5 looking back into where we've just been. Now let's begin a counterclockwise tour of this last gallery in the show. There's a strong material sensibility here, too, although with different materials.

Viewing counterclockwise, we start with Sarah Grillo, Add, 1965, oil on canvas, then Eva Hesse, Untitled, 1966, enamel paint and string over papier mache

Hesse detail below text

Hesse could easily have been included in the previous room, and indeed, in the 2014 exhibition, Fiber Sculpture: 1950-Present, which originated at the ICA in Boston, she was one of the artists included—just as Sheila Hicks, also in that exhibition, is one of the artists in this show

Our counterclockwise tour continues with Hesse, Lynda Benglis, Atsuko Tanaka; Feliza Bursztyn on pedestal

Lynda Benglis, Embryo II, 1967, encaustic on masonite

Detail below

That waxy buildup is sublime. After Johns almost singlehandedly revived the use of encaustic in contemporary art in the 1950s, Benglis took it to new heights a decade later

Atsuko Tanaka, Untitled, 1956, watercolor and felt-tip pen on paper

Orienting you: As we continue counterclockwise around the room we come to . . .

Feliza Bursztyn, Untitled (from the series Histericas), 1967, stainless steel and electric motor

Occasionally the clatter of lightweight metal can be heard in the gallery. That would be this motorized sculpture

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1961; welded steel, canvas, black fabric, rawhide, copper wire, soot

The artist lived upstairs from a laundry. When conveyor belts wore out and were set out to be picked up as trash, they often found their way to Bonetcou's studio, where they were integrated into her organic/geometric/industrial (and altogether terrifying) aesthetic.

Bontecou and Alina Szapocznikow

Alina Szapocznikow, Belly Cushions, 1968, polyurethane

Carol Rama, Spurting Out (Schizzando Via), 1968; ink, gouache, shellac, and plastic doll eye on paper

Detail below text

Rama, who was the subject of an exhibition, Antibodies, at the New Museum, was the bad girl of her time. Her ideas and images, often sexual, drew the ire of fascist Italy. The work shown here is tame, but her explosive imagery suggests a woman who would not be contained. Spurting Out is the perfect metaphor.

Jay DeFeo, Blossom, 1958, collage of photomechanical reproductions

Detail below

Louise Bourgeois, The Quartered One, 1964-65, bronze

We conclude our counterclockwise tour of the gallery with this hanging bronze sculpture. To orient you, Sarah Grillo's painting is to the left of the doorway; the gallery beyond is Gallery 4, which contains the Abakanowicz.

In the vestibule on our way out of the exhibition: Hedda Sterne, New York VIII, 1954, synthetic polymer paint on canvas


For more on the work of women artists, Blurring Boundaries: The Women of American Abstract Artists is at the Baker Museum of Art, Naples, Florida, through July 25, and will travel, culminating at the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut, in 2023. Info here.

Catalog viewable online here

My walk-through of the exhibition here

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